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Wesley Johnson gives Alvin Gentry wealth of options with dynamic New Orleans Pelicans rotation

The Bird Calls Podcast: Episode 160

NBA: Phoenix Suns at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

“This is a big statement game for us. To get back in the win column, and get back over .500, and to beat a team like this gives us a lot of confidence.” — Anthony Davis after the Pelicans knocked off the Raptors, 126-110.

New Orleans notched their most impressive victory of the young season on Monday night in the Scotiabank Arena, against arguably the hottest team in the NBA: a 12-1 record, with an unblemished record at home. And remember, the Pelicans were without two starters in Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic!

The odds of pulling off the upset seemed infinitesimally small, yet the Pelicans took every quarter, limiting the NBA’s fourth-best rated offense to just just 40% shooting from the field, all the while dropping a preposterous 72 points in the paint and knocking down 54.5% of their shots overall against the Raptors’ eighth-rated defense.

The Pelicans are back to flying in their migratory V formation, with outstanding performances from Julius Randle (17/12/4 on 7/11), Anthony Davis (25/20/6 on 11/20), Jrue Holiday (29/14), and E’Twaun Moore (30 points). The team played exceptionally on defense all night long, outrebounded the Raptors’ towering front court (61-50), distributed at a frenzied rate (30 assists), and limited the Raptors to just 42 points in the paint and the deep perimeter shooters to a 28% 3PT%.

Doubts were bound to creep into the conversation after losing six straight games despite all of the nagging injuries. But with a three-game winning streak intact, the Pelicans should be considered a force in what could be a tight race for Southwest honors against the 7-5 San Antonio Spurs and flummoxing 5-7 Houston Rockets.

Now to the current issue at hand.

Following Monday night’s contest, the Pelicans’ starting point guard, Elfrid Payton, and starting power forward, Nikola Mirotic, have missed eight games and two games, respectively. One would think New Orleans needs their full allotment of weapons if they wish to stymie Karl-Anthony Towns, Derrick Rose and the rest of the Minnesota Timberwolves — including freshly acquired trade chips, Robert Covington and Dario Saric — on the road. And if they return, how should the pieces of the puzzle fit?

Julius Randle crashing mentality has paid big dividends thus far in the 2018-19 season, and the big man only looks to be growing in productivity with the plantar fasciitis seemingly improving as he’s no longer listed on injury reports. Randle played 37 minutes against the Suns and 35 minutes last night — up from his early season average of 24 minutes per game; however, these minutes came in a starting role and with Mirotic sidelined. Also, Randle’s on/off numbers have begun to swing back to expectations and should continue to trend positively as he sees more floor time with all of the regulars.

On the other side of the coin, Nikola Mirotic has been exceptional thus far, and should earn his starting spot back with little to no resistance from Randle. On top of Niko’s +2 per 100 possessions, he and AD combine for a +22 per 100 possessions. Niko’s 55% EFG and 21/12 season averages further erase all doubt, but it’s a conversation that could unfold as the months come and go.

The bigger debate though, what to do with Wes Johnson? The 31-year-old, who is in his ninth year, gives the Pelicans the size and experience they need to body up on the longer perimeter scorers in the NBA, something the Pelicans were hoping they had acquired in Solomon Hill. Now, as Solo’s DNPs continue to rack up, Johnson’s foothold in the rotation seems to have cemented itself as it’s imperative Jrue Holiday be given a chance to reduce his workload in areas.

Of course you may remember Wes Johnson for not one but two disrespectful crossovers from James Harden that left him contemplating the meaning of life, or the even more laughable exchange between he, Patrick McCaw and Draymond Green.

But in an early sample size, Wes Johnson has proven to be a useful cog in a playoff contender’s arsenal, with examples of harassing defense on Kawhi Leonard and an over confident perimeter scoring craving. Johnson has the quick trigger from the corners the Pelicans’ have been desperately searching for, and when defenders crash to close, he employs a shuffle step to create space for a second look. Knocking down 8/18 thus far in the season from three, the Pels will let him take that shot all day, every day. And with 21 combined points against the Bulls and Suns, he’s slowly earning the trust of the coaching staff and teammates to be integrated into the offensive plans.

Most important, however, isn’t what Johnson gives on his own, but what he allows his teammates to do. With Kawhi Leonard bottled up for the most part (20 points on 7/20), Jrue Holiday is free to do what he does better than anybody.

We’ve seen Jrue take on opposing teams’ most dynamic perimeter threats night after night — no matter the size (Durant/Antetokounmpo), but now Jrue can do what he does best. Additionally, E’Twaun Moore can move to his more natural position at shooting guard, where he quite simply has exploded. Over the past two games, Moore has thrown in 47 points on an otherworldly 20/28 from the field!

Now, the cast of The Bird Calls will argue that E’Twaun Moore should be relegated to the bench once Payton returns, but Moore’s offense has become downright spectacular with the perimeter spacing Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis afford to him. Will he be as successful alongside Ian Clark, Darius Miller, Julius Randle and Cheick Diallo?

Comment below, and let’s Geaux Pels!