Beyond the functional uses, utilizing Twitter hashtags can be a fun and engaging way for professional teams to connect with fans. #WeTheNorth (Toronto Raptors) and #FearTheDeer (Milwaukee Bucks) come immediately to mind as two of the best, but the New Orleans Pelicans have coined a phrase that still probably works.
#DoItBig was a subversive and ideal slogan born before the start of the 2017-18 season because the Pelicans were primed to showcase the fully realized pairing of arguably the two best frontcourt players in the whole league. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins — as great as they had always been individually — needed to combine a summer of workouts and a full training camp together before it translated into team success. Admittedly, the wins were sporadic early, however, a late January push showed the much anticipated promise and the Western Conference was forced to take notice...until tragedy struck.
Cousins’ devastating Achilles rupture seemed destined to put an end to the brief #DoItBig era just as it was taking hold, but not all was lost. General Manager Dell Demps coaxed Chicago into sending Nikola Mirotic to the SKC and added veteran free agent center Emeka Okafor to bolster the big man unit. Suddenly, #DoItBig also included #DoItFaster and the Pelicans win total quickly elevated. The new additions had fit seamlessly and aided in propelling Alvin Gentry’s desired style of play.
Fast forward to now and more change is on the horizon, even with the great success sustained just a few months ago — but that may not be a bad thing. Upon losing Boogie for good, Demps was compelled to sidestep towards two former heralded young big men with somewhat contrasting styles compared to how the roster had functioned and excelled over the final third of the regular season and playoffs.
Julius Randle is predominantly seen as a bruiser, a relentless attacker on offense who is gifted at finishing around the rim despite a lack of overwhelming athleticism and stature. He’s an excellent rebounder and previous defensive limitations should continue trending less and less after another summer of improving his body, time spent with Darren Erman and having an opportunity to play alongside the Pelicans motivating First Team All-Defense duo.
Jahlil Okafor, on the other hand, is most known for being a throwback big man that would’ve been right at home in the ‘90s, battling goliaths like Shaq, Robinson, Ewing and Olajuwon for post position day in and day out. Injuries and a disappearing role in Philly derailed a promising start to his career, but if these last few months have been any indication, Okafor is ready to make positive contributions again.
As prehistoric as both of their games may seem, the work each has put in and displayed proof extensively on Instagram this offseason cannot be argued, leading to possibly an unhealthy amount of hope and hype about their integration into the Pelicans’ system.
All of this leaves Gentry, the rest of the coaching staff and countless fans with a fair amount of questions about the teams projected big man rotation and how #DoItBig should be a moniker worth keeping around. The Head Coach has the luxury of a lot of interesting options to tinker with in preseason, and the team’s biggest summer acquisitions will have a huge say in how he shapes the frontcourt rotation. At the end of the day though, a lot will boil down to how best everyone fits around Anthony Davis, but you can count on the fact he’s going to playing alongside good size the overwhelmingly vast majority of the time.
Let’s have a look!
A revelation for the Pelicans upon his arrival, Mirotic became the full time starter in the playoffs and showed out against the Trail Blazers. A well-known flamethrower from deep, Mirotic connected on 46% of his three-point attempts against Portland, along with being a key pace setter by notching nine defensive rebounds per game. Not only that, he handled a significant amount of time in the post against Jusuf Nurkic, allowing Davis to play free safety and wreak havoc on the weakside without needing to double. Those 2.5 blocks and 1.8 steals per game highlight his versatility as a defender going forward.
Niko replicated some of these numbers against the Warriors; however, his primary issue in the series were the same as any opponent who faces the Warriors: matching up against a free flowing system featuring three of the best shooters ever is damn hard. Against the Rockets, for example, it’s safe to presume Houston would have worked to switch him onto Harden or Paul in isolation, but having two like-sized guards in Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore to chase them through screens would’ve surely been a welcome reprieve to the Kevin Durant mismatch that hammered the Pelicans throughout the series.
Most every other team in the league does not present the same substantial challenge defensively for Mirotic as Golden State, and thus he shouldn’t be overly stigmatized for his challenges there. However, an eventual meeting with the Death Star is a near certainty for a team looking to advance in the West and must be taken into account.
Last season was effectively a silent breakout year for Julius Randle. Somehow a 23-year-old forward averaging 16 PPG, 8 RPG, with a PER of 19.9 and shooting 56% from the field was almost completely disregarded come free agency. His status as a restricted free agent, the Lakers signing of LeBron James, and pursuit of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard clearly impacted his lack of buzz, but it was still a stunner when the Pelicans announced the signing immediately after losing Rajon Rondo.
Some have positioned Randle as a sort of “Boogie Lite” that will be good on the team but ultimately a downgrade from Cousins. While his counting numbers from last season are a far cry from the 25 PPG and 12 RPG Boogie was putting up nightly, the per 36 minutes metric shows a fascinating comparison.
In fact, as Oleh wrote last month, only 11 different players have exceeded the 21-point, 10-rebound and three assist per 36 minutes threshold over the last 20 years where the player appeared in a minimum of 1,000 minutes.
Should Randle get the minutes, and these numbers hold even static, we’d be looking at arguably the 2nd, 3rd or 4th best player to suit up for the Pelicans next to Anthony Davis — pending your feelings about Jrue and Boogie, right Kevin? Both Randle’s 21.7 PPG and 10.8 RPG would be the 2nd highest averages for a teammate of AD behind only Cousins past season and a half. However Randle’s significantly higher shooting percentage and fewer amount of turnovers could substantially improve the pieces around him, possibly proving to be a better fit on this roster than Cousins.
To be honest, a slight uptick in defensive activity would place Randle right next to All-Star seasons from Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Paul Millsap. His per game averages look like a mirror of Lamar Odom’s 6th Man of the Year 2010-11 season. The much maligned shooting stroke is slightly below percentage and attempts to these mostly well regarded shooting bigs, but not drastically so. It’s not insane to see how another summer of improvement — and the space created by Davis — could inject some more range and consistency into his jump shot.
The combination of Randle’s known skill set, showcased work ethic and hunger for success have many rightly excited for Randle’s arrival in the Big Easy.
The Mystery Box
Opinions on the signing of Jahlil Okafor fluctuate from “he won’t survive training camp” to “this is a brilliant low risk/high reward move by Dell”, and rightfully so. Okafor has been consistently inconsistent throughout his early career, with the lone exception being generally terrible on the defensive side as well as the glass. But the hope for Okafor to blossom is not unfounded.
Another top prospect from high school, Jah was a load to handle through his one season at Duke averaging 17.3 PPG and 8.5 RPG for the eventual NCAA Champion Blue Devils. The Timberwolves were being widely criticized for even considering him as an option for the #1 pick alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, but simultaneously he was still perceived a can’t miss talent. Personally, I believe Okafor was both overrated at the time and placed in a drastically poor situation for his development, but unfortunately, his draft did not have a team at the top of the lottery where he would have been better suited even had he fallen past the 76ers.
Regardless, Jahlil has been humbled.
Another Instagram All-Star, Jah has transformed his body and is sporting a six-pack as well as a much quicker first step just based on his posted videos last month. And once Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan brought mental health to the NBA discussion this summer, Okafor was able to take inventory of his own struggle with anxiety and has seemed to make major strides personally. He has a lot of other NBA players and Duke Alums who are rooting for him, too.
Yet, it is still unknown if A) Jahlil makes the regular season roster and B) What kind of impact could he have?
It’s a challenge to project the kind of impact and fit Okafor will have with the Pelicans because given his injury history, as well as the dramatic body and attitude transformation many are expecting and hoping for, could provide a completely different player than the one we’ve seen prior. His rookie season numbers were solid enough to make the All-Rookie 1st Team with 17.5 PPG and 7 RPG in 53 games played.
A newly developed perimeter jumpshot evidenced in his debut summer workout video could be the key to how much time on the court Okafor actually sees should he make the roster. Primarily, he’s an offensive weapon, and adding the deep ball to his face up and post game would make for a truly challenging cover among many rosters as the league’s big men trend smaller.
Excellent hands and ball skills for a big man could allow him to function as the real “Boogie Lite” signing of the summer. Setting him up at the elbow to create offense from the high post in a horns set with any of the Davis, Mirotic, Randle trio alongside him would give him both space and freedom to capitalize on his talents. It will be critical to get Okafor a lot of minutes against 2nd and 3rd units early in the season to let him feast on the Mozgov’s and Mahinmi’s of the NBA and boost his confidence.
If Okafor is locked in, consistent and the improvements seen over the summer bear fruit, a best case scenario of somewhere in the vicinity of a poor man’s LaMarcus Aldridge could be possible down the line. He has undoubtedly regressed, but rookie numbers of every kind show a very favorable comparison.
Eventually finding the sweet spot somewhere close to Aldridge would make Jahlil Okafor’s story of the truly special comeback variety and a great gamble by Dell Demps.
The Prospect (Still)
Cheick Diallo has seemingly been a glimmer of a hope throughout his time in the NBA. Flashes of skill and development come and go, but his motor is rightly compelling. Good, not great, athleticism combined with his energy has kept the dream alive that he could one day break through as a role player on a good team.
Ideally, the Pelicans would like to slot him as a utility style defender that can guard multiple positions, rim run and rebound as a smaller more flexible Clint Capela type. Alas, getting into more games last season didn’t show much of an impact to his line, nor did he provide a presence on the floor that was memorable. While still young, it’s disappointing to see so many consistent mistakes that are correctable. Missed defensive rotations and a general lack of awareness strongly inhibit his ability to stay on the floor for extended stretches.
It would also be unfair to not mention his Per 36 averages are strong and would feature him as an elite role player were he able to perform at that rate over full games. But these numbers have also come almost completely against 2nd and 3rd units or in garbage time, where his motor and energy takes advantage of defensive lapses. They’re simply not as projectible as Mirotic, Randle or Okafor based on his body of work.
Emeka Okafor was a life preserver last season. Not a full raft, but a Baywatch-style red flotation device that existed to help keep the team’s head above water post-Boogie injury. Yet he was essential to the team’s 10 game win streak and end of year success that positioned the Pelicans for the playoffs.
However, come postseason play Emeka was glued to the bench.
Three minutes in the game 3 blowout of the Portland Trail Blazers was the only court time Okafor found, even as the team was desperate for depth. This exemplified how limited his impact would be going forward, so I don’t believe the team will retain him past training camp.
Emeka Okafor remains a good locker room presence though, and can provide spot minutes with a team in need. But the 5-man frontcourt unit comprised of much younger and more versatile players should soak up all the minutes and reps he could conceivably get come regular season.
Paramount will be deciding on which big gets the nod to open and close next to AD.
Nikola Mirotic is the returning starter, but I believe he has drawn somewhat the short stick this summer as many have drooled over Randle’s workout mixtapes. Yet, he should have the initial upper hand despite the difficultly fathoming that Randle came down South, and for the price he did, without some assurances. However, maybe they prove that both can be on the court at the same time with Anthony Davis?
Either way, this decision will be made by the surrounding roster, and the reality is Gentry will have to disperse his big men according to the play style of the guards and wings.
If Elfrid Payton gets the nod at point, Mirotic has to be out there as well in order to balance the floor and give Payton and Holiday the space to create and attack while AD operates around the rim. This should be the case regardless who starts as the nominal small forward. Gentry’s system has proven most successful with a primary facilitator pushing the pace and the half court spread out around Davis; a Payton/Mirotic starting combo would provide that.
If Holiday moves to lead guard with Moore at off guard, this could allow Julius Randle to open games and lead to fast breaks off defensive rebounds similar to Cousins last year. Yes, Cousins did the same with Rondo at point prior, but the team bloomed when it handed the reigns solely to Rondo and he pushed the pace. Playing Payton, Holiday and Randle together with AD might also stifle some of his anticipated new play-making skills.
Mirotic provides spacing, familiarity with the system, and the defense and rebounding to bang with bigs should AD need to be moved off. He isn’t the offensive initiator that Randle is, which makes him more of an ideal fit next to Jrue, AD and Payton to maximize his own talents. I believe the team will give Payton the opportunity to win the starting job at point and help recapture the magic the Pelicans experienced late last season. Given that, I think we’ll see Mirotic for the opening tip against Houston.
Randle has shown an ability to be the primary attacker and a creator on the offensive end. Positioning him as the 6th man anchoring the second unit should allow him to settle in with the roster and grow organically into a starting role should he blossom. But if his defensive versatility has improved with his physical conditioning, he will be who I expect closes games thanks to the perceived ability to switch among multiple positions.
Jahlil Okafor will hopefully be the fourth big. A dream scenario has him as a spot starter against certain teams should injuries arise. When the Pels face off against true bigs like Gasol, Embiid, Towns and Gobert, we have to hope that Jahlil will be ready and able to take the pounding down low and spare too many reps for any of Davis, Mirotic or Randle. This is a higher hope and expectation than most, but I am bullish on Jahlil based on the mix of factors and timing of his arrival in New Orleans.
Thanks to Dell’s quirky team building, the Pelicans should feature the most versatile and dynamic frontcourt rotation in the entire NBA. It helps that they have the best big man since Tim Duncan. Yet the players surrounding Davis feature tantalizing mixes of talent, pedigree, and situational fit that should allow New Orleans to dominate every matchup in the post and on the glass throughout the entire season.