The injury to starting point guard Jrue Holiday forced the New Orleans Pelicans to be active in giving backup guards playing time. This resulted in a plethora of guys receiving important minutes: Austin Rivers, Russ Smith, Nate Wolters, Toney Douglas, Elliot Williams and the immortal Jimmer Fredette. First, in an effort to take some of pressure off of Jrue Holiday; and ultimately to replace him as he went down with a injury that kept him on the sidelines for much of the second half of the season.
In the fleet of the night, Pelicans general manager Dell Demps made a move that helped the Pelicans fix their reserve guard woes. As Goran Dragic demanded his trade from Phoenix, the Miami Heat pounced. Norris Cole became available, the Pelicans jumped in, threw John Salmons’ fancy contract into the mix, and came out with the backup point guard.
Norris Cole was in the midst what most people would call a terrible season. He was averaging 6.3 points and 3.5 assists, but everything else was awful. His true shooting percentage was a paltry 45.2 percent, his turnover rate jumped over 15 percent, and he shot 26.5 percent from beyond the arc. Cole was on his way towards free agency and the Pelicans, with no other options, decided to give the former Cleveland State standout a chance.
In New Orleans, Cole seemed to turn it around, converting into a respectable guard for the Pelicans. In 28 games with the New Orleans Pelicans this past year, Cole averaged 9.9 points, 3.2 assists, 44.4 percent from the floor and 37.8 percent from beyond the arc. His 45.2 true shooting percentage jumped to 52.0 percent and his turnover rate was sliced from 15.1 percent to 13.3 percent. One area that helped Cole’s game? The catch and shoot. Cole became a respectable shooter again, shooting 42.6 percent on catch and shoot from beyond the arc.
(Norris Cole's shot charts. Top - first half and bottom - second half of NBA season)
With Cole’s catch and shoot success, he also showed that he was effective without the ball. Working with hand-offs, Cole finished with a 1.35 PPP for the season in just 26 possessions, per NBA.com’s Play Type data. He also, and a bit surprisingly, finished well in transition. In just 32 transition plays, Cole had a 1.13 PPP, finishing with 61.9 percent shooting on transition plays as a Pelican.
Defensively, Cole wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t great. He struggled as one on one defender, but also provided an energetic athlete, who was willing to try to get in the face of opposing point guards. It had some positive results, it had some negative results, and as a result, he was a middling defender in New Orleans. Overall, he finished with a -2.8 defensive field goal percentage with the Pelicans.
Breaking it down into individual areas, Cole was a solid defender in the pick and roll. Ball handlers had a 0.89 PPP against him this past season, shooting just 42.7 percent from the floor. In other small sample sizes, Cole did a good job defending against spot up and on hand-off plays. Even in the series against Golden State, he had a couple moments where he was scrappy on the defensive end.
There’s a ton of noise in the numbers, but I believe Cole should be back in New Orleans this past season. He’s a high variance player - someone who can have a nice moment or two, but can also make a handful of mistakes. Once Cole arrived in New Orleans, I was huge on playing him next to Tyreke Evans in the backcourt. Evans, one of the best in the league at getting to the rim, and with Cole floating on the outside was what I found interesting. As a duo, Evans-Cole played 238 minutes and went 17-9 (!!!), sporting a 105.8 offensive rating and 103.8 defensive rating.
Heading into next season, Cole will be interesting as a backup option, who can hit threes. He isn’t an orchestrator of an offense, but that’s where Evans should thrive. With New Orleans juggling multiple moves, one move that should be a lock is bringing Cole back. Either on his qualifying offer, or signing him to a small multi-year deal.