Zion Williamson is back and the world is watching

The NBA is not in the business of downplaying hype and expectation — quite the opposite — so be braced for the full whirlwind treatment when Zion Williamson makes his long-awaited regular season debut on Wednesday.

Williamson is a treat to watch and entered the league as the most hotly-anticipated new arrival in years, but as basketball dives headlong into circus mode this week it is hard to know what to realistically expect.

One thing we can bank on is there being a lot of fuss and a permanent array of cameras. It starts at home against the San Antonio Spurs at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans and continues with four nationally televised games out of the next seven.

The New Orleans Pelicans have waited a long time for this kind of vibe around their team and you can be sure they’ll mark the occasion with some kind of special pageantry. Far beyond Louisiana, eyes will be glued to Williamson’s opening bouts of NBA action.

What about the actual product on the floor, though? What is Williamson going to actually be capable of?

A torn meniscus, which he suffered on October 13 during a preseason game (also against the Spurs) is no joke. That injury is why he has spent the last three months carefully rehabbing and why the Pelicans took no chances with the timing of his return.

Jimmy Butler sustained the same injury while with the Minnesota Timberwolves and took some time to get back to full strength. On the flip side, Williamson is younger — he’s still just 19 — and ultra hungry to prove his worth.

“I am curious,” former Spur Matt Bonner told Fox Sports Southwest. “I don’t really know what to expect. He is coming off a serious injury. Is he rusty? Is he in shape? Does he have confidence in his leg and have that same explosiveness and athleticism that we saw in preseason? Remember: he is a rookie, this is his first game. I don’t think our expectations should be too high, but it will be awesome to finally see him on the court.”

No one is quite certain how Williamson will be used by the Pelicans, except that you can count on there being a lot of dunks. That much is a given; Williamson has been slamming balls through hoops with ferocity since his early teens, impressively enough that he had a booming social media following well before his senior year of high school.

He was watched incessantly at college too — with former president Barack Obama turning up for the infamous game where he damaged his knee after his shoe split open — all through Duke’s campaign that ended with a loss to Michigan State.

He has never faced a spotlight quite like the one he is about to enter, but let’s just say he’s unlikely to be bothered by the attention.

Physically, Williamson is listed at 284 pounds, the heaviest non-center in the league, and you can be sure he will work to make his size and strength count. During those preseason glimpses, he stayed largely inside, not straying too far from the paint on shooting attempts, thereby helping himself to a 71.4 field goal percentage.

That flurry of preseason activity is part of why the hype is so high now. Over four games, he averaged 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists, while dunking merrily on everyone who crossed his path.

Strength on the inside could be the blueprint again, although this is a different (and considerably better) Pelicans team than the one he left.

New Orleans was dire at the start of the season and slumped to 6-22, including a miserable streak of 13 straight defeats. But then Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram started to fire, the team in general began to click, Derrick Favors returned from injury and suddenly, here the Pelicans come, sat at having won 11 of their past 16 and with their stud No. 1 draft pick ready to enter the fold.

Given the unpredictable nature of the Western Conference, the team is just three games out of the No. 8 seed and with a real chance of getting into playoff position. When Anthony Davis announced his intention to get out of the Big Easy last year, the future for the franchise looked somewhat gloomy. Now they’re preparing for packed houses the rest of the season, with the Zion dunk show backed up by what’s looking like a pretty darn good team.

On Monday, the Pelicans drained a whopping 21 3-pointers to end the Memphis Grizzlies’ seven-game win streak, which bodes exceptionally well. A firing outside game, combined with Williamson getting physical and dominating down low … well, that could offer a kind of look that few other teams possess.

All remains to be seen, but the NBA is ready for this. Indeed, in many ways the season has built up to it. We are far enough away from the beginning of the campaign and with enough distance between now and the playoffs that a flamboyant show to top the news cycle is just what we need.

Williamson guarantees that.

“The league does need him,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry told Yahoo Sports. “He’s a great personality, a great feel for the game. And he’s a different kind of player. Kind of like Luka (Doncic), basically. They bring an element to the game you don’t see in other guys.”

There are already predictions and prognostications about how effective Williamson will be in the long run and even speculation about how many years his NBA career will last. In truth, that’s not really the right way to look at it.

A new career is about to start, and it has the potential to be as exciting as any we have seen for a while. Williamson plays the game with a smile on his face and (especially when dunking) joy in his heart. As we watch it unfold, let’s take the same approach.