While digging into why Anthony Davis is poised to have his best season — a potential MVP campaign should things fall in line (a belief that was also recently echoed by The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks), I decided to power rank every player he’s shared the court with in New Orleans. A daunting task that lead to some memory gymnastics and deep searches, but one that was also a fun, sometimes depressing, yet clearly hopeful look into the past, present and future of this franchise and its face.
In an attempt to not have you choking on force-feed nostalgia of names like Lou Amundson, Roger Mason Jr., or short-lived fan favorite, Ish Smith (or “Q93 Curse Word” as we called him), this will be broken up into several parts. You can find part 1 here. In this edition: how Julius Randle can help the Pelicans be the face of the next era’s play-style. Debate away.
3. Julius Randle
In this era of the NBA, scoring earns you paychecks, but defensive versatility earns you playing time. It is Randle’s versatility on the defensive end — being able to switch onto any position — that catapults one of the newest Pelicans this high on the rankings despite not having shared any court time as of yet. This should free up Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday even more on the defensive end, improving upon that 6th rated defense post-Boogie.
How about Julius Randle's defense when switched onto a couple of scoring champions in crunch time? pic.twitter.com/HiV0nW5bEu— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) November 30, 2017
However, his versatility isn’t limited to one side of the court. While Randle isn’t a space creating jumpshooter at this point in his career, he is an incredible athlete that has a great handle for a player his size.
He’s also a gifted passer. Oleh recently explained just how special Randle is due to his playmaking ability and ability to affect all areas of the game.
Julius Randle has trended quite positively since entering the league and his 2017-18 campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers was a lot better than most give him credit. To highlight his immense versatile contributions, below is a list of all the players over the last 20 years who have exceeded 21 points, 10 rebounds and three assists per 36 minutes in a season where the player appeared in a minimum of 1,000 minutes.
There’s just 11 different names here, from the last two decades! Nearly all of these guys have been multiple-time All-Stars — most will probably wind up in the Hall of Fame.
This is the new era big man prototype. While the Golden State Warriors are currently the kings of the hill or the inverse of the Kings of Sacramento — the Pelicans are possibly on the verge of becoming the next type of team that the league tries to copy.
New Orleans chose the road less traveled when they traded for DeMarcus Cousins to pair with Anthony Davis in a league that was focusing on pace, shooting and smaller front courts. This pairing was a minor zig — as size was added, but Cousins and Davis are no ordinary bigs — they have guard-like skills. However, Cousins isn’t built to run and he has limited versatility on the defensive end. Randle is an upgrade in running and versatility on D while also having those same guard-like skills — but without Boogie’s jumper. This isn’t to say that he isn’t a scoring threat — because watch as he abuses Kristaps Porzingis.
Julius was perplexingly abandoned in the LeBron James Lakers era despite looking like a perfect partner at the 5 for The King. It now seems he was playing this game against Cleveland with a premature chip on his shoulder — one he surely has carried with him to New Orleans.
Having big men that can wreak havoc on smaller defenders while also being able to cover those smaller players without any disadvantage is the next wave of NBA trends. The Pelicans, the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers should soon change how teams draft and roster build — which is actually already happening, just look at how big man dominant recent drafts have been.
Randle could be compared to the Sixers’ Ben Simmons though they have been used differently thus far in their careers — with more playmaking responsibilities being put on Simmons. Still, Julius appears equipped for a similar role. He’s certainly not as flashy as Simmons, but watch his ability to create and also finish through contact in this triple double performance against Dallas.
Compare all of the above games to this one:
There are certainly shades of Ben, but Kobe Bryant had another interesting comparison.
Kobe Bryant on Julius Randle: "He's Lamar Odom in a Zach Randolph body."— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) October 7, 2015
In a recent article on HoopsHabit celebrating Lamar Odom’s rookie season, these excerpts could largely be applied to Julius Randle:
As a 6’10”, 229-pound forward with a solid handle, a jump shot, vision and the ability to grab a rebound and push the floor, he was the definition of the perfect modern NBA forward. In a way, Odom was before his time. He was the perfect Swiss Army knife for multiple teams and proved he could be successful one way or the other, regardless of the circumstances...Odom was given a chance to run the offense and prove what he could do, and he delivered. He averaged an all-around 17.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.0 steals per game on 46.0 percent shooting from the field and 31.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc...To put this in perspective, only six other players were able to average over 17 points, five rebounds, and five assists during the 2000-01 season. Those players included the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Steve Francis, Jamal Mashburn, Jalen Rose and Antoine Walker.
In Alvin Gentry and Darren Erman’s systems, Julius Randle will be in the All-Star and All-Defensive team discussions this season, ensuring the Pelicans improve upon their late season surge with their newest and most dynamic weapon. A weapon that could be transformative league wide should it be as successful as I and many others project it to be. Now all we have to do is hope it isn’t short-lived with Randle on a 1+1 deal that he’s likely to opt out of this coming offseason.
4. Tyreke Evans
If you’ve read my work at The Bird Writes since the beginnings, you are well aware of my undying devotion to Tyreke Evans. As a recovering Sacramento Kings fan, he had me at Rookie of the Year.
After putting up a historic 20-5-5 rookie season — something only Oscar Robinson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James had done before him, the Kings did the post-Webber-Kingsiest thing and moved Evans off of the ball, forcing him to play the 2 or the 3 and thus eliminating much of his advantages while magnifying his flaws. In his rookie year, he was a bigger, stronger point guard that could muscle his way through smaller guards, getting to the rim with ease. He could also use his size advantage to see the floor better and create for his teammates when the defense collapsed on his penetration. Moving off the ball made him an average sized two or under-sized three that hadn’t yet developed a jump shot. It made him less effective and likely stunted his career — though he was still impressive enough for Dell Demps to offer a lifeline — signing him to an offer sheet in restricted free agency that would eventually lead to acquiring Evans in a sign-and-trade.
It seems Dell’s vision was to play Tyreke and Jrue together in a dual combo guard role. However, from a purely outsider’s perspective, it felt like Monty Williams never really took to Tyreke’s game or vibe — evidenced by decisions that included Austin Rivers and even Brian Roberts starting over Evans. Then there was Eric Gordon whose contract dictated that he get a starting spot, so Evans was going to be utilized like a Manu Ginobili super-sub. I understood the plan of bringing him in as the 6th man, but there was no denying that he was better than many of the players that received minutes over him. I wrote this about Evans in November of 2014:
The 6th man role didn’t work. Still Monty kept him on the bench even after Holiday went down with an injury, which was infuriating. I sit in section 109 right behind the Pelicans bench and would go hoarse yelling for Tyreke to replace Brian Roberts. Finally, Roberts got hurt and Monty had no choice.
It’s great that he’s made his way into the starting lineup, and while he is a good enough defender to guard SFs and has the athleticism to create a mismatch on offense against most SFs in the league, I’ll always say he is best fit to play the point. A backcourt of Evans and Holiday would so frustrate the rest of the league with their size and length.
This was before we all realized how dynamic Jrue Holiday was when playing off of the ball. I wasn’t looking at it from an improved Holiday standpoint, but I knew putting the ball in Evans’ hands was the key to maximizing his impact. Despite never really earning the trust or love he deserved from Monty Williams, Tyreke would demonstrate he could win games by himself on a roster so injured Williams would have no choice but to put the ball in his hands and watch him do his thing.
This ability was best on display in 2013-14 — Tyreke’s first season in New Orleans — when he dismantled the Oklahoma City Thunder with 41pts, 9rbs and 8asts playing without Davis, Holiday or Gordon. The starting lineup that night was Tyreke Evans, Austin Rivers, Darius Miller, Alexis Ajinca and Jeff Withey — getting 8 assists with this lineup was a feat in itself — I’m talking like holding a toddler up to dunk on an 8’ rim while also helping them clasp their tiny hands around the ball kind of extra work.
This late season run from Evans earned him a spot in the starting lineup the following season. He started 76 games and averaged 16.6pts, 5.3rbs and 6.6asts, though he was never truly trusted as the main point guard because he spent a lot of his time at the three or off of the ball next to Jrue Holiday or Norris Cole.
After a playoff run that ended in being swept by the Golden State Warriors, Alvin Gentry replaced Monty Williams. Gentry immediately sang the praises of Evans and declared him a point guard, which made me excited over a hire I was not in favor of initially.
It turned out the Gentry era was a tough one for Evans.
Tyreke began to have serious knee issues that cost him 57 games that first year under Alvin. The following year that knee injury would limit him to 26 of the 57 games he was a Pelican prior to being included in the trade package that netted DeMarcus Cousins. In those games played under Gentry, he was often chastised for over-dribbling or playing outside of the offense by the staff, the fans and media. His knee issues limited his ability to get to the rim like we saw in Sacramento and in his first two seasons in New Orleans, but Evans did make significant progress in his shooting under Gentry — shooting 38.8% from deep in 2015-16.
However, in the end, we were robbed of seeing what a healthy Holiday and Evans backcourt would have looked like due to questionable coaching decisions by Williams and injuries to Holiday and Evans during both regimes. When we did get glimpses of it, you were aware how special these two could have been when paired together. In January of 2016 Oleh made a strong case for Tyreke being part of the core going forward. It included this lineup data that showed Davis, Evans and Holiday were one of the most potent trios — 2nd to only Golden State players (remember, Durant was still in OKC at this point) — in the NBA.
It’s a big what if, but had Evans and Holiday been healthy and had Williams trusted Tyreke to run the point, could we have seen the 2017-18 Jrue Holiday much earlier in his career?
After being traded back to the Kings, it seemed Tyreke was possibly on his way out of the league. Thankfully, Evans had a resurgence in Memphis last season — getting another chance to run the point with Mike Conley being injured. His explosion was back. He was getting to the rim. His three point proficiency in 2015-16 was proven to not be just a flash in the pan as he converted just under 40% of his attempts from beyond the arc. Evans also showed an increased effectiveness playing off of the ball — cutting, running off screens and developing a catch-and-shoot game. He was still affecting all other areas of the box score swiss army knifing his way to scoring just a hair (19.4 points) under his 20-5-5 rookie stat line. By the trade deadline it was rumored that contenders like Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland were trying to acquire him — loading up for the playoffs.
Evans’ rebirth in Memphis also had Dell Demps reportedly sniffing around him this offseason. Tim Kawakami also said that the Warriors first offered Evans the contract they eventually gave DeMarcus Cousins on the Lowe Post podcast. Tyreke signed a 1-year $12m deal to join a very fun roster in Indiana. With his knee issues seemingly behind him and a rebuilt jumper in tow, Evans should show what could have been in New Orleans had luck been on our side.
5. Nikola Mirotic
On February 3, 1959 Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in an airplane crash — it is now known as, “The Day the Music Died.” Don McLean wrote an ode to this day that will forever live on in period pieces about the 1970s or in the classic rock radio history books, turning that tragedy into a whole other thing that is celebrated often without a connection to the event that inspired the song.
If the Pelicans had been renamed the Jazz or the Brass or the Soul or even the Bounce, the headlines on January 26, 2018 may have read, “The Day the Music Died.”
That was the day DeMarcus Cousins’ leg had failed him and as he crumbled to the floor ostensibly so did New Orleans’ basketball. As the air was sucked out of the Smoothie King Center, many people in attendance and watching at home had their minds immediately vault to a future where either the Pelicans re-signed Boogie to a huge contract that his injury never allowed him to live up to, or they didn’t and were never able to lure or draft another star to the city — both avenues resulting in Anthony Davis asking for a trade.
The next few days were dark.
Not long thereafter though, February 1st to be exact, Dell turned tragedy into American Pie, sending the vilified Omer Asik, Jameer Nelson — meaning the Pels had to repaint that part of the arc that Jameer’s toe had rubbed off — the ghost of Tony Allen and a first-round pick to acquire Nikola Mirotic and the 2nd round pick Dell had previously used to dump Quincy Pondexter, who prophetically was once a season-saving late season addition that ensured the Pels were a playoff team.
The move to get Mirotic was widely praised. He was seen as a more natural fit next to Anthony Davis than Cousins; a stretch four to open the floor up for AD to work around the rim. Also, there was the fact that the compensation paid — a 1st round pick — was proper value for the player acquired, but was also the price tag thought to be needed to unload Omer Asik’s contract which also went out in the deal making it a heist.
While it took weeks for Mirotic to reconnect with his jumper that missed his flight from Chicago, his presence was a positive from day one. However, as the staff figured out just what Niko was capable of, and he became comfortable in the system and in the city, it was clear that he was a better fit than Cousins was for the offense that Alvin Gentry and Chris Finch wanted to run. He also allowed Anthony Davis to play closer to the rim offensively. While it wasn’t much in doubt that Mirotic would provide a solid scoring option, Niko overcompensated by proving to also be more versatile and effective on the defensive end that I had imagined.
But let’s talk about his offense first. Mirotic has a light trigger pull and zero hesitation on using it.
Mirotic's quick trigger + Pels fast paced system = fun pic.twitter.com/coOiK2drbN— Eric Spyropoulos (@EricSpyrosNBA) August 15, 2018
As you can see in the above tweet, he requires very little time to set his feet or look at the basket. He’s a confident shooter even when his shot isn’t falling — for his career he averages 10.8 3pt attempts per 100 possessions, which is exactly how many he took as a Pelican.
Mirotic’s tenure in Chicago was a strange one. He was brought into a team that was trying to compete, but would eventually be broken up and made up of players that didn’t exactly fit new head coach Fred Hoiberg’s playing style. It was too good to benefit from tanking, and too bad of a fit to compete. He saw playoffs, he saw mediocrity and he saw his teammate Bobby Portis’ fist breaking his eyesocket on a young, rebuilding and possibly upcoming team that had no use for the breakout season he was having after his face healed. Niko was winning too many games in Chicago with performances like this.
Mirotic is often compared to Ryan Anderson — mostly because he’s tall, he’s white and he shoots a lot of threes. That’s a very narrow view. Niko has a much more complete game as he brings an array of post-moves, he’s able to create space with a dribble and some nifty masquerading as awkward footwork (but he doesn’t really need space to get a shot off as you can see above), he can drive, he can step-back, he can run in transition, he can shoot off of a dribble, he can shoot off of a catch, he can cut and he finishes well around the rim through contact. The other thing Mirotic can do is move the ball. Both of these gifted shooters are prone to take some bad shots — both hit some very seemingly bad shots, but Mirotic is much more prone to move the ball as evidenced by their career assist numbers: Mirotic sets up teammates 2.7 times per 100 possessions over his career while Anderson sits at 1.8 assists for his career.
As I alluded to earlier, Niko struggled to find his shot upon arrival in New Orleans, shooting just 30.9% from deep in February and March, but he continued to do other things that proved his value was more than just a shooter. Gentry and the rest of the coaching staff often used him as a center to save Anthony Davis from pounding inside defensively, but Mirotic’s versatility and ability to run allowed the Pelicans to increase their pace while also improving dramatically on defense. However, once April rolled around a clean shaven and finally comfortable Mirotic released hell upon opponents from deep shooting 41% and scoring 22.2ppg on a 65.9% true shooting percentage while also nabbing 10.7 rebounds per game.
Then came the playoffs, and Mirotic proved that April was no flash in the pan. He carried that April late season run into the playoffs — exceeding expectations in both series — shooting 43.1% with the gravity of the playoffs making the air denser. In the playoffs, he’d also prove how versatile he could be on defense, guarding the much bigger Jusuf Nurkic, switching onto Damian Lillard and protecting the rim against the Warriors’ cutters.
This change in play style was echoed by Mirotic in this Game 3 post-game interview.
He also mentioned the crowd’s impact in that interview — this is what it sounded like when they closed out the series in game 4.
Mirotic played a major role in converting New Orleans into a basketball city again, which I spoke about in my piece declaring April, 19 2018 — Round 1, Game 3 — The day the Pelicans finally became New Orleans’ basketball team.
On my walk to the arena, I witnessed what would have been a terrible excuse for a tailgate on a Saints’ Sunday, but was probably the first tailgate I had ever seen at a Pelicans game in Lot 3. An hour and a half before tip, the block party outside of the Smoothie King Center was live. The Swoop Troop was leading the crowd in line dances, the Senior Dance Squad was dropping it like it was IcyHot and then the Pelicans drum line did what it always does in the shadow of stilt walkers...In 2015, we scraped our way into the playoffs with a team that was totally dependent on Anthony Davis doing everything. We were facing what was clearly a team of destiny. No one was expecting us to make noise — even though we did have a few moments to hang our hats on. This is no knock on the New Orleans crowds then, but it was clear that we were all just happy to be there...even if that happiness would lead to huge expectations going forward — expectations that would not be cashed in until years later when Nikola Mirotic shaved his beard and became a versatile defender who hits shots that are tougher than being a contestant on The Old Game.
While the Golden State series wouldn’t go as well as we hoped — but maybe as well as we expected — this updated roster playing with this tempo and defensive flexibility has created an identity from which to build upon. With the additions of Randle and Elfrid Payton, it seems the Pelicans are all in on score fast and run the opponent till their lungs burn, with an impressive hockey sub-system for bigs that can’t be played off of the court, and the fittest team a city built of fried things has ever called its own.
Tell you one thing about the Pelicans, this might be the most fit team they’ve ever had.— David M. Grubb (@DMGrubb) August 9, 2018
In the next installment we will look at numbers 6-10 on the list, which includes possible the most hated player to ever suit up and a working class hero or two.