In what will be the only preseason game in front of Pelican faithful at the Smoothie King Center, New Orleans (3-0) was able to remain undefeated on the exhibition schedule while taking the Utah Jazz (1-2) down to the wire in a 128-127 victory.
Without Jrue Holiday, who sat due to a left quad contusion, the Pelicans started a lineup featuring Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Derrick Favors. Jahlil Okafor and E’Twaun Moore also sat out the contest due to coaching decisions, giving numerous fresh faces and rookies a golden opportunity to shine.
Shine they did. Williamson was impressive, leading the offense with 26 points on 9-of-12 shooting to go along with five boards and his first NBA three pointer. Oftentimes, he even found success against Rudy Gobert, going right into the body of the two-time and reigning Defensive Player of the Year to curtail his shot-blocking prowess.
Utah didn’t make it easy though. The Jazz shot 67.5 percent from the field in the first half while going 6-of-8 from deep. Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert were all in double figures and took an eight-point lead into the break. In fact, Utah was up by as many as 14 points on the Pelicans and held an 11-point advantage at the start of the fourth quarter.
Although New Orleans was able to mount its second comeback in as many games, the team has struggled throughout the preseason defensively. However, all of the schemes have yet to be installed according to head coach Alvin Gentry. Or perhaps it’s just a tactic to set up these thrilling second half comebacks and drum up even more interest in this group?!
“We have to get better in our defense,” Gentry said to postgame media. “We’re trying to put in a new system, and this team is not a good team to play when you don’t have all of your defense in. They shot the ball extremely well, but the thing I think I like most about our guys right now is that we just keep playing and keep plugging away at it. It doesn’t matter who we have in, we seem to find a way to keep ourselves in touch so when we do make a run we can put ourselves back in the game.”
One of the main sparks during those runs has been rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker. NAW picked up where he left off against the Chicago Bulls on his push to break into the regular rotation, finishing the night with 22 points (4/5 3PT), four assists and two rebounds. But it was fellow rookie guard Javon Bess who gave New Orleans the go-ahead bucket after drawing a goaltend down one with 1.4 seconds left in the game. There honestly couldn’t have been a more appropriate way to close out the preseason upset.
Ingram added 18 points, six rebounds, three assists and four turnovers. Meanwhile, Ball did something he hasn’t accomplished since his senior year of high school. To pair with 15 points and five boards, the former No. 2 pick converted all five of his free throw attempts. Ball has worked tirelessly on reforming his shot this offseason with assistant coach Fred Vinson and newfound confidence has been on open display throughout the small sample size seen to this point.
“Well, he’s really worked on it,” Gentry said. “Every day he's in there with Fred Vinson and he’s working on his shot. He’s working on his free throws, and he’s getting good results from it.”
It’s a new era of New Orleans basketball. It doesn’t mean that the journey won’t have obstacles, but a wealth of ability dominates the roster and a solid support structure is in place. The Pelicans have talent up and down the bench, and they’re going to be a great follow regardless of the W/L record to come.
The announced attendance was a sellout and its presence surpassed many home atmospheres during the second half of last season. It’s something that the staff and players have noticed. They don’t take it for granted and plan to give fans their money’s worth in return. One six-foot-six phenom makes that a much simpler task, too.
“We would’ve loved to have crowds like this at any game last year,” Gentry said. “The fact that the fans are coming out and being supportive is really good. We’re looking forward to it. It’s up to us to give them a reason to come back. I talk to the guys about that all the time.”
The next chance fans have to watch the Pelicans in live action is on Oct. 25 - New Orleans’ regular season home opener - against Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and the Dallas Mavericks. However, two more games remain on the preseason docket first with a trip to San Antonio to face the Spurs this Sunday.