Which Pelican has pleasantly surprised you the most through the first part of the schedule?
Kevin: Jaxson Hayes
It’s easy to go with Brandon Ingram, but if you read the preseason round tables or listen to the pods — I thought he’d be a diverse and effective weapon should his health issues be behind him. So, let’s go with Jaxson Hayes, who has also been way ahead of the curve.
Hayes was supposed to be restricted to a redshirt season of sorts; however, a silly amount of injuries swept that initial plan under the rug. Surprisingly, Jaxson didn’t fall flat when pressed into action. In fact, he’s been a net positive, providing better defense than Jahlil Okafor and a hobbled Derrick Favors at center, while serving as a nice outlet and threat near the rim for a lob at any time. Truly remarkable stuff for a 19-year-old with so little competitive basketball experience.
Mike: Jrue Holiday
I’m sure my colleagues will give the deserving Kenrich Williams plenty of love, so I will go with Jrue Holiday. After a rocky first 10 games of the season, including two missed to injury, Holiday has once again channeled his lead guard energy from the last two seasons and asserted himself as the team’s best player.
Starting with a stellar performance in the November 14th victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, Holiday has racked up per game averages of 23.2 points, 6.9 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game, all the while putting the clamps on the likes of Paul George and Devin Booker and essentially playing centerfield for the rest of the defense. It is a sort of dominance that should shine brighter once reinforcements arrive for the rotation, but one that should be recognized nonetheless. Hopefully, he will be able to sustain it for the months to come.
Preston: Kenrich Williams
Kenrich Williams fit the bill as a 10th-man nicely to finish the 2018-19 season, but summer league is where he truly began to emerge as more than just a hustle guy. Kenrich managed the offense fully before being reinforced by Didi, NAW and Jaxson Hayes, and did so admirably. When the unit fell apart, there he was, Captain Steady to usher the team into the proper formats.
But hustling is still his hallmark as he’s become a beast on the boards, one of the Pelicans very best defenders and most active screen setters (and we shouldn’t forget charge takers!). As his game continues to evolve, Kenrich will gain more confidence beyond the three-point line and may eventually operate in the pick-and-roll as the roll man. He’s already shooting 41.7 percent from each corner.
For now, he’s the team’s defensive anchor and spark plug and has paired very well with Brandon Ingram as the team’s small-ball 4.
Oleh: Kenrich Williams
Many would probably be inclined to go with Brandon Ingram — and they wouldn’t be wrong, but I felt confident in a breakout prior to the start of this season.
For his tender age, Ingram is damn good already, but he’s only scratched the surface. With how his game is trending, don’t sleep on a nice breakout season and don’t dismiss the idea that someday Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson could form one of the best 1-2 punches in the league.
So, enter Kenrich Williams, who I admit I wasn’t sure if he deserved to keep his roster spot before the start of the regular season. However, his contract fully guaranteed before opening night in Toronto. Hey, sometimes it feels good to be proven wrong.
Kenrich has taken that next step after glimpses witnessed during his rookie campaign, providing more consistent performances despite a lack of gaudy statistics. He has more than adequately filled in for Zion Williamson as the team’s starting power forward. According to on/off data, there hasn’t been anyone more valuable as the Pelicans are 15.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off.
Every team needs a solid glue guy or two, but moreover, Kenny Hustle’s story has been a rare bright spot in an otherwise forgettable first 20 games of the schedule.
Ben: Jaxson Hayes
The most pleasant surprise is Jaxson Hayes. As a fan of his coming out of college — he ended up eighth on my final board, I did not expect him to be playing like he has this early in the season. Due to perceived rawness, I expected him not to play much at all and for him to be a disaster when he did. Out of pure necessity, Hayes has been a competent rotation big, which is unreal considering how green he seemed to be.
This lack of polish is still present: he struggles defensively due to his lack of strength and awareness/decision-making issues, he’s fouling six times per 36 minutes and he isn’t anything on offense outside of a play finisher. However, his rim protection has been vital for a New Orleans team which lacks a presence entirely. Among rookies, he ranks fifth in defensive PIPM (+.3) and is a positive player overall (+.31). Hayes’ appeal is his upside; he’s a pandora’s box with his rare athletic tools and development curve. But Jaxson Hayes is a borderline positive NBA player at 19 years old. That bodes well!