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Five thoughts from New Orleans Pelicans training camp

Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle looked as advertised this past week, and there’s going to be a battle for minutes among many of the reserves.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Media Day Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

With the New Orleans Pelicans scheduled to play their first preseason game tomorrow in Chicago, training camp came to a close today. Here’s a few thoughts on my observations from attending all of the practice sessions this week.

Elfrid Payton is going to be a big part of the Pelicans plans this season. Believe it or not, Payton looked good on both sides of the ball. Despite lacking complete familiarity with new teammates yet, he initiated the offense well that led to a number of easy scores — including a number of solidly placed lobs in Anthony Davis’s direction, showed fantastic aggression off the dribble — seemingly scoring at will on the first day, and proved an irritant defensively, getting his hands on a number of balls in the passing lanes.

As its been the case for his whole career, Payton is aware of his bread and butter so he maintains the majority of the time he’s going to “live in the paint.” However, after witnessing him shoot the outside shot well after the scrimmages on multiple occasions, Elfrid may be able to keep defenses honest at times. Rajon Rondo’s inability to do so was one of the reasons he was limited to an average of 26.2 minutes per game — as was a propensity for inadequate effort on the defensive side of the ball. While Payton’s shot will come and go, expect for his effort level to show noticeable improvement over that of his predecessor’s, and hence, don’t be surprised to see Elfrid average around 30 minutes of playing time during the upcoming regular season.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Media Day Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Julius Randle is my favorite to emerge as the starter alongside Anthony Davis in the frontcourt. We’re all aware of Randle’s ability to score from inside the painted area, but being able to trigger fast break opportunities, run and finish in transition, and serve as a playmaker offensively in any capacity, should give him a leg up on Nikola Mirotic. While both power forwards can help Davis guard opposing centers, Randle’s athleticism looks to be a better fit for the overall defense. In today’s game, you’ve got to be able to defend opponent pick and rolls and switch when necessary.

One early surprise that may mitigate a lack of Mirotic’s shooting prowess at the start of games: Randle actively sought and made a number of perimeter jumpers during the scrimmage portions of practice. When asked about Randle shooting three-pointers after Tuesday’s practice, Alvin Gentry stated, “I tell guys, as long as you work on a shot, you can shoot it in a game.”

Sure sounds like a green light has been given.

Jahlil Okafor is going to see regular minutes. When Davis sits down for his rests, I expect Okafor to soak up a lot of those available minutes at the start of the season. While Okafor made waves with his summer workouts and new physique, his offseason program has translated onto the court. He looked nimble and effective all week — and most of his minutes came against Davis or Randle. While Okafor’s strength and finishing ability under the basket were impressive, displays of timely passing from the perimeter and exhibiting quick decision-making will most certainly help him in his quest for regular minutes.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Media Day Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When everyone is healthy, Darius Miller and Ian Clark are going to face stiff challenges from Solomon Hill and Frank Jackson respectively for rotation minutes. While Clark should have the upper hand for the first month or so as Jackson adjusts to the speed of the NBA game, I like Hill and Jackson’s chances of emerging with more stable roles than their mentioned counterparts. Each has the ability to bring more to the table. For instance, Solo’s odds of becoming a serviceable 3-and-D player — there were glimpses in training camp — are higher than Miller being an indispensable part of the team’s outside shooting.

The potential of players further down the bench are mixed.

  • Jarrett Jack never looked bad, but a lot of times I forgot he was on the team. Perhaps this is a greater testament to how well the core players performed, yet I now have an unmistakable feeling that Jack is solely an insurance policy. By no means do I think he is a lock to make the team out of preseason — especially if the front office wants to keep one of the unguaranteed SFs and the 15th roster spot open.
  • Troy Williams was consistently more “involved” in the action than either Garlon Green or Kenrich Williams. Troy seemed to have the best nose for the ball as well as the more noticeable and versatile skill set. For example, he knew when to make cuts, to go hard on each and every cut, to try and finish strong, and when left open, shoot the jumpshots with utmost confidence. Somewhat surprisingly, he made several big outside shots this week, too.
  • Cheick Diallo, bless his heart, is at best the team’s fifth big. With Davis, Mirotic and Randle being such a formidable trio on paper, it’s hard to envision a consistent role when Okafor looks deserving of most of the remaining minutes. While I don’t believe the Pelicans should give up on Diallo’s development — he just turned 22 earlier this month, I pray he continues to find the impetus to work hard on his game and not get depressed about his situation.