With so many different faces on New Orleans roster, give me a list of your favorite top five Pelicans you will follow more closely than others this season and why.
- Zion Williamson: He’s going to be a phenom and potentially the best rookie the league has seen since Shaquille O’Neal. It is easy to understand why everyone is hyped to see what Zion can do in the NBA.
- Jrue Holiday: He is a top ten guard in the NBA as well as one of the best defenders, yet still doesn’t get the respect that he deserves. I am excited to watch Holiday put up great numbers once again, help Zion flourish in his rookie season and lead the Pelicans to about 45+ wins and a trip to the playoffs. And to this day I regret not buying a $5 clearance sale Holiday shirt before he re-signed a few years back!
- Josh Hart: Truth be told, I did not view Hart as a valuable piece in the Anthony Davis trade. However, the fervor Hart has shown towards New Orleans before even playing in his first game has me captivated. Of course, he’s a useful player, possessing a nice jumper and offering solid defensive skills, but he’s likely to become a fan favorite of many due to being a great Twitter follow.
- JJ Redick: Even before Redick signed with the Pelicans, he was always a player that I admired from afar but always wanted on my team. With that great shooting, he is automatically an asset, but don’t overlook he will be a great influence and locker room presence for the young guys on the roster. Plus he has never missed the playoffs so hopefully that continues!
- Brandon Ingram: Though he has a ways to go, Ingram could be the first star New Orleans has had at the small forward position since Peja Stojaković. I really hope that he can find his groove here and become an All Star level talent.
- Zion Williamson: I’m trying my best to temper expectations. When I think about Zion’s arrival and all of the organizational change the Pelicans have seen in recent months, it reminds me a whole lot of the 2006 Saints season. (Well maybe with the benefit of hindsight, as I’m not sure the expectations were this high in that offseason.) Zion’s college career is very similar to that of Reggie Bush’s: both were otherworldly athletes with skills and highlights that expanded the imagination of how they could be used as professionals. While I expect Zion’s rookie year to be more impressive statistically than Reggie’s, I think it won’t be as dominating as we hope. However, it will still be filled with incredible highlights, much like Bush provided. There will be a learning curve and growing pains, but it will be clear that this team is on the rise and will soon be a contender. I fully expect Zion to be a better pro than Reggie Bush was (though he wasn’t a slouch), but I don’t expect him to reach that level immediately — still, many jaw-dropping drool-inducing moments will exist as he grows into a complete player that the Pelicans can one day lean fully on.
- Brandon Ingram: Had Ingram not had to deal with the blood clot issues that have kept him sidelined until recently, he would have been the clear jewel of the Anthony Davis trade. Standing 6’-9” with a 7’-3” wingspan, Ingram has the ability to get his off the dribble and create for others, but he is a consistent jump shot and maybe 20 lbs away from being the ideal young wing to build a team around. Due to the health concerns, a turbulent year in the LeBron reality show and all of the hype he had as “The Next Kevin Durant” coming out of Duke, Ingram has a lot to prove in this upcoming contract year. While I fully expect Ingram to start at the 3 spot for the Pelicans, I envision him subbing out early so that he can come back in and be the primary ball handler on the 2nd unit — a role he flourished in last season while Lonzo Ball, Rajon Rondo and LeBron James were all injured. During that stretch, Ingram posted 19.6 points, 5.6 assists, 3.7 rebounds with a 62.2 TS% in 34 minutes. Those numbers should sustain at minimum in Gentry’s system. I’d also expect Ingram to play some small ball 4 flanked by Jrue, Redick and Hart surrounding either Zion or Derrick Favors — it’s this potential versatility, the need to prove his value and hope that he gets closer to shooting the 39% he shot from deep in the ‘17-’18 season that has me most excited.
- Lonzo Ball: I’m a little different than most of the other people that cover basketball because I didn’t really care about sports growing up. Coming from the counter-culture pre-commercialized-competition based skateboarding culture, I was drawn to the NBA during the rise of the Kings. I’m less concerned with wins and losses than most (but I’m getting there), and more into style and aesthetics. Jason Williams and Allen Iverson are two of my favorite players — and I’m well aware that analytics don’t paint a pretty picture of their scoring efficiency. However, their style and ability to pass and create off the dribble with drama and beauty are the things that drew me in. I love guys that are creative passers and have sick handles. Lonzo is a little stiffer and clunkier with his dribble than those two, but he has enough in his bag to create space with crossovers, hesitations and step-backs. However, when it comes to passing, he’s a dynamo. I’m really excited to see him play in this ultra-fast offense built around quick strikes and transition scoring. He will also be surrounded by more athletes and better shooters than he was this past season, upping my excitement level. Also, his defensive prowess will ease the front line’s work while also allowing Jrue to take time off from defending the opponent’s best backcourt player and be more involved offensively.
- Nickeil Alexander-Walker: For many of the same reasons I’m excited for Ball, I’m as excited for NAW. Alexander-Walker’s Summer League was filled with Roger Rabbit bugged out eye inducing one handed passes — from either hand — that would have shattered Omer Asik’s mitts of stone by the 2nd preseason game. He has added things like the Harden side-step and step-back to his game, unlocking some real scoring potential. His size and that playmaking ability also give him the same kind of versatility you get from Brandon Ingram. It will be hard for Gentry to keep him off of the floor and I can’t wait to watch him grow.
- Josh Hart: I don’t watch college basketball so I often rely on people I trust to steer me towards prospects I should be paying attention to as the draft approaches. David Fisher pointed me in Hart’s direction early in his pre-draft process. I was smitten then and he has done nothing to turn me away. I know his shooting from deep last season dipped in efficiency, but I also know he was playing injured and sometimes playing the four in a year that was possibly more mentally exhausting for the young Lakers than it was for the Pelicans. I’m excited to see a healthy Hart show off his defensive versatility, cutting and jumpshot in a system he should thrive in. I’m also excited to watch him make Darius Miller a non-factor in the rotation. Then there’s everything Hart has said and done since the trade was agreed upon — he’s basically run for mayor. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him filling the huge craters that have been dug up on every street surrounding my house with last season’s bricks while handing out beignets and kissing babies.
In reality this is such a hard list to compile given the new faces on this roster. You truly can’t go wrong with any selection. Hell, there’s rookies on this team that may not play meaningful minutes this year after really good summer league showings!
- Zion Williamson is self explanatory: he’s a phenom and his rare skills, IQ, and physique make him must-see TV every night. He’s one of the most engaging rookies we’ve ever seen for somebody with his spotlight, and the kid simply seems to be enjoying every day. He’s also arguably walking into the best situation for a top overall draft pick since Tim Duncan, and we know what that did for his career — he stayed with the Spurs for 19 glorious years.
- Lost in the buzz surrounding all of the new faces in New Orleans remains a top 5 two-way player in all of basketball: Jrue Holiday. Maybe the circus of last season overshadowed the force Holiday has become, but he remains one of the most valuable players in the NBA. While guarding anything that moves on defense no matter the challenge, Holiday’s offensive improvements are no joke. The past two seasons have seen the former all-star increase his scoring volume while putting up career high’s in overall field goal percentage. If his three point shooting mirrors back to his earlier days, we could arguably be looking at a top ten player and that’s where following Holiday becomes fun. There’s another step left in the Pelicans’ current face of franchise, and its bonafide superstardom. And the fact that this isn’t simple speculation but something David Griffin has openly talked about should grab everybody’s attention. While it’s okay to be solely focused on the fit of the newer additions, we must remember who’s going to be the holder of all accountability on the floor when the results come in. The NBA is a superstar driven league, and the player closest within reach as of today has an additional number one on his jersey. Holiday holds the most cards to the Pelicans season in my opinion when we’re discussing whether or not they’re a playoff team. Many ingredients will be placed into the deepest pot of gumbo the Pelicans have ever assembled, but when it comes to the players, Jrue Holiday is the most important one of them all.
- Brandon Ingram is the underdog of this equation in so many ways, which makes him easy to follow. Health, the absence of a wing with his skills in New Orleans, and the overall mystery about what this kid can still be has him high on my list. I think he can be a match made in heaven in the Big Easy.
- Lonzo Ball is playing in an offense made for his skills, and past distractions now shit behind him. And that defensive backcourt? Sheesh. There’s no pressure for Lonzo to live up to any Hall of Famers and he should be healthy thanks to a renewed training and medical staff. This could truly be the year where everything comes together for Zo.
- When Trajan Langdon finds you and brings you to the NBA, it’s never an accident. Nicolo Melli is the Pelicans only true power forward projected to come off of the bench and depending on how you see Zion and with Derrick Favors at center, he may be the only one on the roster come opening night. His numbers overseas weren’t flashy, but he fills a need and adds additional shooting. If all else fails, there’s a guy with a similar spelling to Melli’s first name that did alright in New Orleans.
It’s hard to overstate how exciting the prospect of seeing Zion Williamson playing in Pelicans garb. That his production could very well match his aesthetically unparalleled style of play makes for the epitomal must-watch player.
My dreams of Zion date further back than the anticipation of Lonzo Ball in the New Orleans backcourt, but I have high hopes for what the UCLA product can do in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo offense. Contrary to his fellow former Laker Brandon Ingram, Ball’s lack of success from three-point range has not discouraged him from launching from deep. If he can keep his three-point rate at or around his career mark of 51.3 percent, his gravity on that end will be more pronounced than some may think. His prowess on defense sets a high floor for excitement, but an offensive breakout could make him one of the league’s top attractions.
I look forward to learning a lot more about Nicolo Melli. Given the nature of his two-year contract, he figures to be a key contributor for the team from the jump, and the clash between basketball veteran and NBA newcomer is an enticing one. Derrick Favors finally getting to man the starting center spot he has long deserved may not be the most thrilling aspect of this Pelicans team, but he is firmly in his prime, with the potential to post career-bests in more ways than one. Given how solid of a career he’s had, that should be fun to watch.
The player I’m most excited to watch has been around the longest, and is another one gearing up for an opportunity that has been a long time coming. It’s hard not to get excited about what Jrue Holiday could do as Option Numero Uno given how much of the summer David Griffin has spent lauding the veteran guard. My mind tells me that calling him a potential MVP candidate is a bit hyperbolic, but my heart is more ready than ever to embrace the possibility. He’s so involved on both offense and defense that watching him play is never a bore. Everyday is a Holiday as a fan of the 2019-20 New Orleans Pelicans.
My five — in this order — are Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors, JJ Redick, and Lonzo Ball. Of course everybody’s number one is going to be Zion. I’m anxious to see how the Pelicans newest superstar performs this season and what parts of his game that we didn’t see featured in college show up in the professional ranks.
Moving beyond Zion, I’m incredibly interested to see Jrue Holiday in his new role as the franchise cornerstone — Holiday had always been a supplemental star in New Orleans behind Anthony Davis. Now for the first time in his career, a franchise is handing him the keys and will go as far as he takes them. Holiday was great in this role late last season with a bunch of replacement players around him, but now with a talented roster in tow, can Holiday reach the MVP-caliber level Pelicans Executive VP David Griffin has challenged him to be?
New addition Derrick Favors moving over to his more natural center position next to Zion will be fun to watch. In his introductory press conference, David Griffin mentioned Favors having “locked offensive potential” so I’m looking forward to see how much of it can be unlocked operating in Alvin Gentry’s high octane offense.
Speaking of new additions, ever since JJ Redick entered the league I’ve hoped the Pelicans could one day acquire a “Redick-like” player but never imagined the team could sign the actual JJ Redick. I’m fascinated to see if his mentorship of fellow Duke great Zion Williamson makes an impact and it will be amazing to have such a respected shooter opening up driving lanes for the Pelicans athletes this season.
Last but not least, Lonzo Ball is a Pelican I will be watching intently in 2019. He has the potential to be a generational passer/play-maker in the NBA. Whether Ball reaches that level will largely depend on whether he can improve his free throw shooting and be aggressive on the offensive end. If Ball can put it all together, he has a chance to have an iconic connection with an elite finisher like Zion Williamson. Secondarily, I’m interested in whether Lavar Ball can remain silent for an entire season — we can only hope.
Caveat, I left Zion off deliberately — He’s an obvious choice!
Lonzo Ball: He’s the key to the Lakers trade package panning out as a Pelican victory beyond the draft picks in my mind. If he can get back on track and find his shot (even if it’s ugly), then Zion has a point guard to pair with for a long, long time.
NAW: I am thrilled to watch such a smart young player on this team grow. I hope he slides into a reserve point guard role early on because he was electric in summer league with the ball in his hands. Keeping the pace up against reserve units is an area he could make an immediate impact. Also, see above regarding giving Zion a long term answer at point guard.
Josh Hart: Finally, a 3&D wing who can actually rebound too. One thing that Darius Miller now and Quincy Pondexter before him struggled with is contributing on the defensive glass. Think back to any depressing sequence of offensive rebounds by the opponent and Miller or Pondexter happened to be out on the floor, giving absolutely nothing on the glass. Hart has the capacity to be a legitimate stopper on the wing who can space the floor and get after it on the glass to actually end possessions, too.
Nicolo Melli: Reading and listening to others talk about him, my hopes are high. I doubt he’s a long term solution, but short term Melli is the key to playing small around Zion without actually going down to only one big man.
Derrick Favors: He was hilariously underrated by fans in late June and even early July with their hearts set on Al Horford. Favors is going to be a monster. We’ll finally see actual screens set by a Pelicans big man, complete with contact and all. Favors is going to make life easier on Zion and Jrue. He’s going to defend both the rim and in space. He’s going to communicate. Favors is an ideal pairing with Zion both as a player and a mentor.
Zion is number one, I can’t help it. The guy is a force of nature with a gravitational pull on all my attention. Outside big Z though, I’ll be very curious to see the evolution of Derrick and whether/how he expands on his role with New Orleans. Finding a fit at the 5 next to Anthony Davis was a perpetual chore for the Pelicans over the past era, it would be quite charming then if they should stumble into a perfect fit coinciding with his departure. NAW, Josh Hart, Lonzo and Ingram are the rest of my most interesting men to watch for the coming season.
- Jrue Holiday: My Holiday journey has been arduous. There was a time when I would have flipped Jrue for a number of guards around the league, now he’s one of my favorite players to watch in the entire NBA. Watching him gain peace of mind over the last couple of seasons has been incredible and I’m looking forward to seeing if he can take his game to a higher level this season.
- Zion Williamson: Anytime a prospect is heralded as “generational,” it hits me with both excitement and trepidation. It’s become the “he’s the next Jordan” of this decade. I’m less interested in watching Zion’s physical gifts than seeing how his mind for the game develops. How quickly he adjusts to the NBA will determine how high the Pelicans’ ceiling is this season.
- Derrick Favors: After the Pels lost to the Jazz at the Smoothie King Center 132-111 in the fifth game of last season, I started telling Oleh that I wanted to see Favors in a Pelicans uniform. Over the last four seasons he’s flown under the radar. He could potentially be an All-Star at center this season.
- Lonzo Ball: I could have easily switched Ball and Favors; they are that close in my mind. I think Ball has the highest upside of anyone not named Zion on this roster. The things he does well can not be taught, and the things he needs to improve can be learned. I’ll be watching to see Lonzo’s growth outside of the cocoon of Los Angeles and how much he embraces his new home.
- Brandon Ingram: The decision on Ingram’s future is as important as any that has to be made over the course of this season. Can he regain the form he showed in the games leading up to his surgery? Is he a multi-positional defender, and can he be a credible threat from distance? If he can, the long-standing question at small forward is finally answered.
- Zion Williamson: Nobody else comes close here for me than the future face of the franchise himself. The best prospect in over a decade, Zion will be one of the league’s most thrilling attractions from day one. He has something for everyone, from jaw-dropping dunks to savant level passes and defensive rotations. Along with his off-court magnetism, I suspect Zion will top this list for many Pels fans in due time.
- Lonzo Ball: One of my favorite players in the NBA, Ball has always been underappreciated. From his lack of scoring gravity to his injuries to the turmoil surrounding his family, Lonzo Ball’s actual basketball skill has always been clouded by muck. A basketball genius, he plays the game of basketball in a way few can, with his speed on the court only matched by the speed his brain processing his surroundings. With his elite passing and defensive abilities, Lonzo Ball brings so much more than meets the eye and is always a joy to watch.
- Didi Louzada: Hips don’t lie. That may be a strange inclusion for most in an article about basketball. A dancer on the court, Didi Louzada’s movements are as aesthetically pleasing as they come.
I have a major addiction to Didi Louzada's hip movement pic.twitter.com/7a2TwKctLq— Ben Pfeifer (@Ben_Pfeifer_) July 19, 2019
As a draft fanatic first and foremost, I always will have an affinity for the prospects I enjoyed watching the most. Louzada’s graceful mobility along with his reactive team defense, smooth jumper and overall athleticism keep me glued to my screen. I know this is technically cheating since Louzada will play in Australia this season, but Didi is still a Pelican and I am patiently awaiting the day he makes his debut on an NBA court; he is ready to play NBA basketball now.
4. Jrue Holiday: The best player on the Pelicans, Holiday is absent from many top point guard lists and debates, though he belongs there wholly. He carried New Orleans’ offense last season amongst the tumult off of the court. The eye of the storm, Jrue has been through hell and high water with this Pelicans’ team over the last season and will come out the other side better for it. I can’t wait to watch Holiday tear up opposing defenses with the most talented supporting cast he has played with in a long time.
5. Kenrich Williams: I’m not sure how I can best articulate my love for Kenrich Williams. A seemingly idiosyncratic inclusion on this list, Williams scratches my itch for super smart, high feel players. With some shooting development, I truly believe Williams is a rotation player in the NBA and can be a valuable contributor for the Pelicans down the road.
To be perfectly honest, I’m going to be glued watching nearly every player on this revamped New Orleans roster. Not only am I excited about the returning players and no one should overlook the best group of incoming veterans in franchise history, the Pelicans rookie class has the potential to develop into a formidable core for years to come. That said, here’s my favorite five:
- Zion Williamson: Uhh, duh, right? Transcendent players don’t come around often, so by default Zion tops my list. Just as all other onlookers, I’m sure I’ll be oohing and ahhing after every highlight, but I’m most interested to see how often we see his famed killers kill mentality show up. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to watch a number of gladiators grace the court over the years, but Michael Jordan remains the bar, which included a dominant rookie season. How many games can Zion will the Pelicans to victory during his inaugural campaign?
- Lonzo Ball: I’ve always felt the comparisons to Jason Kidd were a little unfair considering he was one of the best to ever play the point guard position, but Ball should have every opportunity to carve out a very strong career despite injuries derailing his first two seasons. His instincts, IQ and facilitating skills are of the elite variety and his defense above average after gaining the requisite strength and learning the nuances of the league. I’m buying that Ball can still find success without the development of a consistent jumper, but that road requires a significant boost in attempts from inside the paint and in conjunction possessing no fear of the free throw line. One can’t be a complete zero from a scoring standpoint in crunch time minutes anymore. Can Ball move towards some middle ground this season?
- Jrue Holiday: He’s been and remains my favorite member of the roster. The reason Holiday occupies third place on my list though is because we know what to expect from him. Yeah, we’re spoiled! There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be one of the best two-way players in the league once more, and the intensity will shine on every play. While I am a little curious to see if the accuracy on his perimeter jumper improves, there’s no guessing elsewhere with his game — he’s going to be an All-Star this season if the Pelicans can win enough games.
- Derrick Favors: I, too, am curious to look for an increase in offensive production, but it’s on the other end of the floor that he’ll make his greatest impact. In fact, just as I like the odds of enough team wins getting Jrue into the 2020 All-Star game, I think a solid W/L record can earn Favors votes for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. The ability has always been there, but now that he’s away from Gobert and on another team with solid defensive potential, Favors may finally earn the praise he deserves. If the Pelicans become a top 10 defensive team, D-Faves is going to be the biggest reason why for getting stops.
- Nickeil Alexander-Walker: I’m a fan of all four 2019 draft picks, but there’s something crazy fun about NAW that dares us to dream big. In a span of just a handful of summer league games, Alexander-Walker showed us the complete package: He can score from everywhere, facilitate, rebound, defend and lead a team down the stretch of a close game. If he can add necessary strength and smoothness to his game, I genuinely see NAW’s ceiling as approaching a less explosive but healthy Brandon Roy — yeah, I love him, too.
I want to see what Jrue Holiday is like as the lead dog out there — he’s so valuable on both sides of the ball. I’m most curious about Ball because a guy can’t shoot 40 percent from the free throw line for forever, right? But his “floor game” might be huge. But let’s not mess around any longer: literally, all the rookies are super exciting headlined by the number one overall pick, but I find myself more optimistic about NAW than even The Great Zion. Give me all the NAW and some Didi Louzada Silva on the side.