Call it the Pelican brief.
No, not that 1990s movie starring Julia Roberts. Rather, it’s a phrase that sums up Zion Williamson’s first experience as a professional basketball player.
The first overall draft pick from Duke played just nine minutes in his NBA Las Vegas Summer League debut with the New Orleans Pelicans last Saturday before banging knees with a member of the New York Knicks.
Williamson didn’t play again and was shut down for the rest of the two-week tournament. But in that short time, he still managed to provide a glimpse of the explosive potential that helped make him the most hyped player to enter the league since LeBron James.
He scored 11 points and had a pair of highlight-reel dunks in his team’s 90-84 win against the Knicks. It was a performance that left both the star rookie and the sellout crowd that came to see him play anxious for more.
“It was a crazy experience, because the gym was sold out,” Williamson said in a media availability following the Pelicans’ second summer game, adding that the decision to hold him out was precautionary. “The energy was high. It was my first taste of playing against NBA players, so it was great.”
While Williamson has been relegated to signing autographs and watching his new teammates from the sideline, another former Duke one-and-doner was stealing the spotlight for himself. Point guard Frank Jackson, who played 61 games for the Pelicans last season, scored 30 points on 11-of-17 shooting (5 of 9 from 3-point range) to highlight the victory against New York.
“I’ve worked really hard this offseason,” Jackson said. “My teammates do a great job of putting me in the right positions, making plays for me. I look to stay aggressive and stay true to who I am.”
The NBA’s summer league tournaments in Vegas, Salt Lake City and Sacramento hold different meaning to the different categories of players part in them.
For recent draft picks like Williamson, they’re an opportunity to become acquainted with the pro game. For young veterans such as Jackson, they’re a chance to make up for the minutes they might not have gotten coming off the bench as rookies. Then there’s the group of undrafted free agents, G League players and veterans returning from overseas, all hoping to play well enough to earn an NBA training camp invitation.
Here’s a rundown of players with North Carolina ties from each category.
UNC’s Coby White is off to a fast start scoring as a member of the Chicago Bulls. He scored 25 points in a loss to the Pelicans on Monday and is averaging 17 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists while shooting 40 percent from the floor. But he’s also had trouble with turnovers, committing 15 (compared to only 11 assists) in his first three games.
White’s former Tar Heel teammate Nassir Little is averaging 4.3 points and 4.3 assists in three games for the Portland Trailblazers, while fellow first-rounder RJ Barrett of Duke is averaging 14.0 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Barrett is off to a shaky shooting start, making just 19 of 64 field-goal attempts in his first four outings with the New York Knicks.
Duke’s Cam Reddish (Atlanta) and UNC’s Cam Johnson (Phoenix) have yet to play.
Other than Jackson, Utah Jazz big man Tony Bradley has made the biggest splash. Now two full seasons out of UNC, he averaged 20 points and 15.5 rebounds in two games in the Salt Lake City tournament. In his first two games to date in Las Vegas, he’s put up averages of 18.0 points with 10.5 boards.
Other performances of note have been turned in by Duke’s Gary Trent Jr. (17.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists in three games for Portland) and Amile Jefferson (15,8 points, 9.0 rebounds in four games for Orlando), UNC’s Theo Pinson (12.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists in three games for Brooklyn) and Wake Forest’s Codi Miller-McIntyre (11.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists in three games for the Lakers). Former UNC teammates Isaiah Hicks (9.8 points, 5.3 rebounds) and Kennedy Meeks (3.8 points, 6.0 rebounds) have both played in four games with the Charlotte Hornets.
Campbell’s Chris Clemons evoked comparisons to fellow undersized star Nate Robinson when he made seven 3-pointers and threw down an alley-oop dunk in a 25-point performance for the Houston Rockets against the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday. He then added 22 points and five treys Sunday against Portland and is averaging 22.3 ppg for the tournament.
Another productive player introducing himself to a wider audience is UNC Wilmington big man Devontae Cacok. The undrafted free agent is averaging 13.3 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 63 percent in three games for the Los Angeles Lakers. That earned him a contract with the Lakers, which he signed Tuesday night.
Also making positive impressions are Wake Forest’s Jaylen Hoard (8.3 points, 4.0 rebounds in three games for Portland) and Doral Moore (6.0 points and 3.5 rebounds in two games for Memphis in Salt Lake City and four points, five rebounds in one Vegas appearance) and Duke’s Marques Bolden (8.5 points, 4.0 rebounds in four games for Cleveland). At the other end of the spectrum are UNC’s Luke Maye (2.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, .180 FG% for Milwaukee) and Kenny Williams (2.5 points, 2.3 rebounds for San Antonio), Havelock’s Ky Bowman (2.3 points, 2.0 assists, .220 FG% for Golden State), NC State’s Torin Dorn (0 points, 1 steal in one game for the Hornets).