When Is Zion Williamson Returning? Pelicans Star Could Play NBA Opening Night

New Orleans Pelicans star Zion Williamson returned to the so-called NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, on Friday and could feature on opening night when the season resumes next week after a four-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Williamson left the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, where 22 NBA teams have been secluded for the best part of three weeks, on July 16 to attend to an urgent family matter. The first overall pick of the 2019 draft returned to the resort on Friday, but he will have to undergo quarantine before being allowed to rejoin his teammates.

"My family and I appreciate the love and respect that everyone showed us while we dealt with a private family matter," the rookie said in a statement released by the team.

"I'm excited to rejoin my team in Orlando and look forward to getting back on the court with my teammates after quarantine."

The NBA protocol on leaving the bubble and re-entering the bio-secure environment states that: "If a player leaves for an extended absence but undergoes a daily PCR test and returns a negative test result for at least the seven days preceding his return to campus, then the player's quarantine on the campus will be four days (subject to extension by a consulting infectious disease physician designated by the NBA for the case)."

According to ESPN and The Athletic, Williamson was tested for COVID-19 while he was outside the bubble and has tested negative. As per NBA protocols, in theory at least that means the former Duke star will only have to quarantine for four days before returning to practice. The league, however, is yet to release an official statement on the matter.

The timing of Williamson's quarantine is a delicate issue for the Pelicans, who play their first official game of the post-lockdown restart on Thursday against the Utah Jazz.

Should he quarantine for four days, Williamson's absence from practice would stretch to two weeks, a potentially significant stretch of time considering NBA players have only just returned to full training after three months off.

While the Pelicans are expected to be extremely careful with their handling of Williamson, they can hardly do without the rookie.

After missing the 43 games of the season as he recovered from knee surgery, Williamson has taken the league by storm, averaging 23.6 points while shooting 58.9 percent from the field, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game.

New Orleans, who will face the Denver Nuggets and the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday and Monday in its two remaining scrimmages before the regular season resumes, is in the thick of a four-team chase for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.

The Memphis Grizzlies currently hold the spot, with the Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and Portland Trail Blazers all 3.5 games behind. However, because of the rules the NBA has introduced for the remainder of the regular season, if the ninth-placed team in a conference finishes within four games of the eighth-best team, the two teams will face off in a play-in tournament. For example, should the Pelicans finish 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies, they will play Memphis before the playoffs start.

To earn a spot in the postseason, the Pelicans would have to defeat the Grizzlies in two consecutive games, while Memphis would have to beat New Orleans once to secure a playoff berth.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans during a game against the Miami Heat at the Smoothie King Center on March 6, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Jonathan Bachman/Getty