January 11, 2020, 12:25 pm
It isn’t a bad time to be a Pelicans fan. After eking out an excruciating stretch of basketball, the Pelicans are finally sustaining good play. Since Derrick Favors returned on December 13th of last year, the Pelicans are 10th in net rating and 12th in defensive rating. This is substantial improvement, and it has occurred over the course of 14 games, which is a non-negligible portion of the season. Lonzo Ball is a big part of this revival, but it’s not just him. Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are both looking far more comfortable over the most recent stretch of games. Some of this, without any doubt, is related to the recent schedule, which has been considerably easier after the Pelicans got bulldozed by great teams over the first part of the season. But they do look, as the cliche goes, “like basketball players” now, and this is a huge win for the Pelicans long-term. The wins now are nice, but seeing individual players develop is far more important for the future. Once Zion comes back, this is doubly true, as how Ingram and Zion fit (or do not fit) with players will be of extreme importance over the next few years in terms of roster building. There will be gaps, and this is the time to start seeing where those gaps are.
Jaxson Hayes, in particular, is coming along. His ability to finish through contact with such a slight frame is impressive, and everyone is already aware of his jaw-dropping lob dunks. JJ Redick noted that the defensive scheme change (let the big drop in pick and roll coverages) has helped shore up the Pelicans defense (Favors being back is likely the biggest difference), and this shift likely simplified things for Hayes a great deal. Hayes was a foul machine early on, and as his recognition has improved, he is cutting down on them. One thing that is very clear is that Hayes is getting frustrated with himself (and refs) when he contests shots and brings his arms down, only to be called for a foul. This is a violation of Big Defense 101, which stipulates that you should keep your arms straight up to avoid getting called for fouls. The frustration, to be clear, is good: Hayes is learning from his mistakes and it’s showing in his blocks per foul over the course of the season.
In particular, Hayes is becoming better at contesting shots without fouling. Still work to do, but it’s getting better. Chart starts at his 7th game played. pic.twitter.com/rj5YSTsd1y
— Mike (@Mike_Pelicans) January 11, 2020
Lonzo also continues to grow during this period, as he is attacking more than he was previously. He still isn’t consistent in his ability to cut into the paint and create chaos, but again, he’s getting better at it and his outside shooting looks to be for real. Lonzo is a confidence shooter, so it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if he has some pretty bad droughts along the road to becoming a consistent outside threat. He’s also finding some easy forays to the rim when the defense makes mistakes. This is showing up in his field goal percentage, which has been substantially better over the period.
Brandon Ingram is perhaps the easiest young Pelican to write about, as he has been the most consistent player for the team this season. His shooting is for real, and making 36 straight free throws is a testament to that. In very non-eloquent language, dude is just good. His defense still requires some work, as he has the length and quickness to be a real impact defender, but he’s still ironing out things. The other area in which he can improve is ball-stopping. Sometimes Ingram gets the ball and spends too much time sizing up his defender with an array of jab steps, and it can kill offensive movement. But again, he has been so dang good this season: he’s not that far from a 50/40/90 season while scoring 25 points per game at 22 freaking years old. The man can hoop, and the sky is the limit for him.
Jrue Holiday has missed the last few games with an elbow injury, and it hasn’t hurt the Pelicans.. yet. On a tougher schedule, it likely would, and now that Derrick Favors has gone down, things could get dicier for the Pelicans if Zion hasn’t returned. The next 8 games are largely against playoff teams, or, at the least, teams that aren’t cupcake opponents. It’s time to prepare for a more disappointing stretch of basketball. 3-5 would be a solid stretch, 2-6 would be slightly disappointing, and 4-4 would be excellent. The schedule for the Pelicans is so easy in March and April that they only need to remaining within striking distance to have a plausible chance at rattling off some 7-3 and 8-2 streaks towards the end of the season.