April 24, 2020, 12:36 pm
For the New Orleans Pelicans, the 2019-20 season was about validation. They traded away the single-most coveted player from as early as the 2018-19 trade deadline, Anthony Davis. The short version of that chapter is that Davis strongly wanted to be traded to the Lakers and it became a drama-filled circus, leading to Pelicans owner Gayle Benson to hold onto Davis through the deadline, putting him “on ice” for the majority of the post-All-Star Break. In the summer, the two teams finally came to an agreement, with the Pelicans receiving a king’s ransom worth of young players and picks.
Just to quickly recap, the 26-year-old superstar was traded for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks – the highest of which being the 4th overall pick.
On draft night, the Pelicans would trade that fourth pick for Jaxson Hayes (No. 8 pick), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (No. 17 pick) and Marcos Louzada Silva (No. 35 pick) from the Atlanta Hawks, who wound up taking De’Andre Hunter with the fourth-overall pick. At the end of draft night, however, the crowning jewel of the Pelicans’ haul would be Zion Williamson, whom they took with the first-overall pick.
With a wave of a magic wand, a.k.a the “Davis Trade,” the Pelicans suddenly became younger, deeper. Aside from that, the coaching staff handed the keys of the team to Jrue Holiday. He and Williamson were to the core around which the team would build its future. They also brought in Derrick Favors from the Jazz in exchange for two future second-round picks. He, along with JJ Redick, who was signed in free agency, would serve as experienced voices in the locker room – one filled with still-raw youth and exuberance.
As far as game plans went, the Pelicans managed to stay on-book – well, mostly. In 2018-19 the team was second in the league in pace at 103.89. In 2019-20, the team so far has managed to stick to their guns, retaining that second spot with 103.96. The Pelicans are tied for second in assists per game at 27.0. They’re currently third in total 3-pointers made at 896, collectively shooting .372 from beyond the 3-point arc. The Pelicans are tied for fourth in the league in points scored per game at 116.2.
On paper, the aforementioned advanced stats look very good. So, why are the Pelicans sitting at a rather underwhelming 28-36 record? That’s good for 10th place in the Western Conference, just one game behind the Portland Trail Blazers before the season was suspended due to the Coronavirus.
The short answer is that they got off to a sluggish start. A combination of injuries and chemistry issues managed to stifle what could have been a truly meteoric rise by any franchise during a rebuilding season. The good news is that they finally found a groove later into the season.
Front and Center
It didn’t take long for one of the Pelicans’ biggest weaknesses to come to the forefront. The team took a big blow right away after losing Zion Williamson to a knee injury in their preseason finale at Madison Square Garden, but we’ll get to him a bit later. As a result, the team had to lean on more on Derrick Favors in the post and even bumped up Brandon Ingram to play as a stretch four. The adjustment yielded mixed results. Ingram thrived, while Favors, well, headed in the opposite direction.
Favors has averaged 9.2 points and 9.9 rebounds per game season-to-date. This is his lowest scoring average since the 2011-12 season. He’s had to deal with a hefty serving of adversity, from the unexpected loss of his mother to missing games due to a sore back and hamstring. Favors was able to play in only 43 games so far. For what it’s worth, Favors was able to make his presence felt later as a defensive anchor in the paint for the Pelicans. So, to judge him fairly, his debut for his new team can be characterized as a rocky but not a complete bust.
Favors’ missed games and 24.2 minutes per game opened the doors for a couple of Pelicans’ younger big men to take the court and get their beaks wet. Rookie Jaxson Hayes has captivated fans with his high-energy play and awesome poster-moments. In 56 games this season, Hayes has averaged 7.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game on crazy .660 shooting from the field in roughly 17 minutes of action per night. Flashy follow-slams and gravity-defying hops aside, Hayes has shown that he’s still quite raw and a true work in progress. Down the road, it would not be surprising to see him become the team’s starting center. However, he will have to diversify his game. He cannot stagnate as a rim protector who can run the floor that easily gets into early foul trouble. That’s just not going to work. He will need to grow into that role in time, but for now, we can call Favors his gatekeeper, but at the same time also a potential mentor.
Jahlil Okafor was able to shine towards the end of 2018-19, especially during the games when the Pelicans put Anthony Davis in cold storage. As if from nowhere, Okafor found his groove and shined like a star. Sadly, a lot of that twinkle was lost in 2019-20. The additions of both Hayes and Favors bumped Okafor down in the depth chart – barely seeing the light of day. He was able to play in 28 games this season and in 15.1 minutes per game, chipping in 7.6 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. As you can see, his per-game numbers aren’t too far off from Hayes’ but Okafor’s number of appearances shows how the Pelicans appear to be moving on from him and focusing more on a smoother transition into a playoff-competitive team.
All three big men have a common denominator — none is a stretch-five type. They’re more of a traditional big man, focused on low-post scoring and defense, rebounding, and shot-blocking. The key for the Pelicans moving forward will be figuring out how to integrate their strengths into the flow of what their guards (the team’s strength) bring to the table. Again, the team can see some improvements in this area, and it’s not a lost cause as much as it is still a work in progress.
Blasting Full-Auto with Brandon Ingram
The move to New Orleans has proven to be a career-altering move for Brandon Ingram. The new team and culture fit him like a glove. The trust and green light that was given to him by coach Alvin Gentry unlocked and unleashed a player that the NBA did not see in his first three years in the league. Simply put, Ingram turned 2019-20 into his coming out party and boy, he sure did it with a bang.
Season Age Tm Pos G GS MP PTS FG% 3PTM FT% REB AST STL BLK TOV 2018-19 21 LAL SF 52 52 33.8 18.3 0.497 0.6 0.675 5.1 3.0 0.5 0.6 2.5 2019-20 22 NOP PF 56 56 34.3 24.3 0.466 2.4 0.858 6.3 4.3 1.0 0.7 3.1
Ingram’s significant improvements in both 3-pointers made and accuracy from the free throw line took his game to another level. He became the team’s top scorer with his 24.3 points per game. More often than not, Ingram was the team’s go-to scorer, with the guards looking to pass to him so she could abuse his matchup advantages. His length and speed have allowed him to secure some favorable matchups as a modern game’s stretch four. He’s on the verge of superstardom and just needs to cross the threshold. This 2019-20 season so far has been a fantastic launching pad for him to go straight up into the stratosphere and beyond.
Ingram’s rise was put to the test when Zion Williamson finally recovered from his knee surgery and made his debut for the Pelicans. Thankfully, Ingram passed with flying colors and did not see a drastic drop in production. Though Williamson took over the power forward position, Ingram sliding into the small forward spot was not too big of an adjustment. Frankly, at this time, there’s really not enough of a sample size to properly project how things will look moving forward. Williamson could be groomed as a stretch five, allowing Ingram to return to the four position. Either way, expect Alvin Gentry and his staff to do a lot of experimentation and tinkering until they come up with the perfect mix and design.
He’s only 22 years old and still has room to grow. Expect the new and vastly improved Ingram to feature prominently in the Pelicans’ future plans.
Jrue Holiday, heir apparent and new face of the Pelicans franchise, was not as amazing as he was in 2018-19. Which was, while disappointing, something that can be chalked up to an adjustment period to his new teammates. His scoring efficiency and totals dropped while his impact on the defensive end was seen as erratic at times. This season, he moved back to the shooting guard position with newcomer Lonzo Ball taking the reins at point guard. The move was not clear cut and there was admittedly some experimentation along the way. Ball only started 47 of the 56 games he managed to play.
Needless to say, the season so far has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride for Holiday. Thankfully, he’s a seasoned pro and found his groove later. As the season stands, Holiday has posted averages of 19.6 points, 2.1 treys, 6.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game, while shooting .452 from the field and .700 from the line. The last time Holiday shot worse than this from the field was in 2015-16 and his percentage from the charity stripe is a dismal career-low.
For Ball, this season has been one of the best in his still-young career. The biggest and most notable in his game so far has been in his 3-point shooting. He’s at 2.5 makes from deep compared to 1.7 from 2018-19. Overall, he’s posting 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game. While his counting stats are amazing, unfortunately, Ball still struggles in the area of efficiency. He’s shooting .412 from the field (still improved from .406 in 2018-19) and .567 from the line. Lonzo has put in work in those areas and he has shown some improvement. Finally, leaving the glitz and glam of Tinseltown as well as seeing a more toned down vibe (for now) of his larger-than-life dad, Ball has been able to refocus on what’s important – the game.
That all said, the biggest revelation coming from Ball is not something that you can see on the stat sheet. What makes him such an intriguing part of the team’s future as shown by the season so far is his undeniable on-court rapport with Zion Williamson. That’s something you cannot teach or train; it’s either there or it’s not. And the two youngsters have shown how in-sync they can be in the open floor, something that should be a focal point of the team’s offense down the road.
At the end of the day, the biggest takeaway of the season so far is that both Ball and Holiday were able to play alongside each other, forming one of the most dynamic two-way backcourts in the league. As early as late January, the two guards began to show how improved chemistry, heralding a shift for the better, which in turn led to the Pelicans winning some games.
What hasn’t been written about Zion Williamson? Very little. Let’s get straight to brass tax here. There’s a lot resting on Williamson’s shoulders. Like Atlas, he’s carrying the burden of being the future Pelicans franchise, that’s if Atlas played basketball. Unfortunately, knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus gave the world just 19 games of the “Zion Experience.”
Through 19 games, 19-year-old phenom was able to record averages of 23.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 58.9 percent shooting from the field and 0.8 SPG. The defensive numbers could use some work, like his 0.5 BPG, for example. His free throw shooting (.645) also leaves a lot to be desired. In the end, a 19-game sample size is too small to judge Williamson’s career trajectory.
For what it’s worth, Williamson has passed the eye test. He’s still a unique athletic man-beast and is oozing with potential. Watching him on the break or swish a 3-pointer from the top of the key makes it almost impossible to take your eyes off him. Zion on the court is simply enthralling, no ifs or buts about it.
On the other side of the coin, the knee that came him trouble before the season began remains a potential storm cloud that could follow him for the rest of his career. For now, that’s still within the realm of speculation. On a positive note, he’s still very young and can undergo a physical transformation to improve his chances to avoid future injury.
Conclusion, Zion remains an X-factor at this point for the Pelicans. We should see more ups and downs as he navigates his rookie and eventual sophomore seasons in the NBA.
The Supporting Cast
The Pelicans’ depth is underrated. They’ve managed to surround their core with an interesting cast of role-players.
The elder statesman among them is 35-year-old J.J. Redick, who saw his role fluctuate throughout the season. He started in 35 of the 54 games he managed to play, but a sore hamstring proved to be a nagging injury that would often keep him off the floor. As expected, he’s leading the team in 3-point shooting with a 156 makes in 2019-20. Despite his mileage, Redick has accounted for a sizeable chunk of the team’s 3-pointers this season. Looking forward, expect him to be faded, eventually, as the team looks to focus its attention more on its younger players.
As far as the younger guys are concerned, Josh Hart, Nicolo Melli and Nickeil Alexander-Walker form an intriguing mix of talent for the Pelicans’ supporting cast. Hart is a solid rebounder from the guard position but has struggled with his shooting efficiency from the field. He has a scorer hidden somewhere deep inside and has had more than a couple of games where he’s shined on the offensive end of the floor when given the right opportunity. Again, he still hasn’t shown he can be a steady contributor, whether healthy or banged up.
Melli was a late bloomer this season but eventually was able to eke out a role as a floor-spacing 3-point threat off the bench from the power forward position. Melli, however, is not a robust defender, making him a bit of a liability when it comes to matching up against stronger or more athletic competition.
Alexander-Walker displayed flashes of brilliance but has been buried in the team’s depth chart and at times even fallen from the team’s rotation completely. He was, however, able to turn some heads after back to back games where he scored 27 and 19 points, respectively. Those were contests where he heated up from deep and was able to stay in the zone for the majority of the duration of those games. He’s still considered a work in progress but he’s a clear talent and one of the better point guards in his draft class.
The growth and development of this trio players will be important if the Pelicans want to seriously contend for a playoff berth in a challenging Western Conference. None of them can be considered complete packages, at least not yet, but be sure to keep an eye on them as they should serve as valuable pieces for the team moving forward.
In summary, the Pelicans’ season so far, while not great, could have been worse. If you’re grading them on how well they’re doing in the post-Anthony Davis era, they’ve come up with a passable mark, especially when you take into account the adjustments that needed to be made and how they needed to overcome the adversity of injuries to key players.