Zion Williamson and the 3 minutes that saved the NBA regular season

Zion Williamson put on a show in his highly anticipated NBA debut. (AP photo/Gerald Herbert)

There is something ineffable about athletes like Zion Williamson: Wherever they go, people can’t help but watch them. Williamson sold out games in Spartanburg, South Carolina, before he became Duke basketball’s most enticing ticket.

Maybe it’s the gulf between the body and the production and athleticism. He is the NBA’s heaviest player, diametrically opposed to what the ideal modern player looks like. He’s stocky — not wiry — and has a negative wingspan, but he’s a walking springboard with natural feel.

Maybe it’s his charm. In the third quarter of his debut against the San Antonio Spurs, Williamson smiled all the way down the court as he ambled over to a referee, put his arm around him and half-protested a call — veteran mannerisms in a rookie player. He looks like he’s happy, and that makes the people watching him happy.

Maybe it’s just the electrifying dunks that he can seemingly release on command, which brings us to the most impressive part of the Pelicans’ loss on Wednesday: Williamson enchanted fans despite the fact that he wasn’t putting anybody on a poster.

He scored 17 consecutive points in the fourth quarter, nailing four treys, each one with a substitute at the scorer’s table being sent away. With one 3-pointer after another, he delayed his own exit from the game. He was a force that was potent enough to momentarily impede his own minutes restriction, breathing life into a packed arena at the Smoothie King Center. When he eventually sat, a “We want Zion!” chant broke out. Despite the science and logic behind the decision to bring him back into the fold slowly, I found myself wishing he’d come back in too.

When the buzzer sounded, fans booed head coach Alvin Gentry, the man tasked with enforcing an organizational mandate.

How quickly we went from begging for a taste to being upset that it was only just a taste. On ESPN, viewership peaked at 2,777,000. The 1.6 U.S. rating matched ESPN’s highest-rated non-Christmas game this season. Time will tell if Williamson has a game worthy of being mentioned with the greats, but his debut made this much clear: He is as magnetizing as advertised, a midseason elixir for a league reeling from a popularity problem. If he is indeed the next coming, he’ll have a ton of witnesses.