The New Orleans Pelicans remain world beaters in exhibition games, but unlike last year’s 8-0 jaunt through the silly portion of the schedule (5-0 in preseason, 3-0 in the pre-bubble action), Monday night’s 114-92 victory over the Miami Heat featured several new exciting developments.
During the course of the 2019 preseason, the defense was abysmal, giving up an average of 118.2 points per contest to opponents. While the Pelicans won all of their matchups, they didn’t slow anyone down. They were also middling on the glass (50.1 REB%) and from the free throw line (73.8%).
Monday’s win clearly represents just one meaningless game — and Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic didn’t play, but watching New Orleans hold Miami to 92 points, out-rebound the Heat 51-35 and knock down 26-31 (83.9%) from the charity stripe was...a good different. The man responsible for much of the improvement? Zion Williamson.
While the 20-year-old starting power forward was his usual efficient self (26 points on 13 shots), it was Zion’s work on the glass (11 rebounds) and accuracy exhibited from the free throw line (10-11 FTA) that had Stan Van Gundy singing his praises in post-game.
“The two most impressive things about his night to me were his defensive rebounding — he hasn’t really been doing too much of that in practice, to be honest, and it wasn’t a strength last year. For him to be able to rebound the ball the way he did on the defensive end was good and then obviously his free throw shooting was outstanding. He’s been putting in a lot of time with Fred Vinson.”
Brandon Ingram later informed the media that Zion has been arriving early to the training facility to work with the famed shooting coach on his free throws before every practice. No lie, Williamson’s form from the foul line did look more fluid, showing greater arc and cleaner release off the finger tips. For his efforts, check out Vinson getting a tap on his leg from another assistant coach after Zion sank his fourth free throw.
At this point I believe he was 4 for 4. Check out Vinson in the back getting congratulated. pic.twitter.com/uuLHmVodpJ— Ali Golshani (@Ali__Golshani) December 15, 2020
Defensively, though, Williamson admittedly still looked a little lost. He completely whiffed on several rotations early, and outside of his work on the glass, didn’t make an impact on that end of the floor throughout. The Pelicans’ other cornerstone, conversely, did have some impressive moments.
Holy hell, Brandon Ingram. pic.twitter.com/c9JatcAR4w— The Bird Calls (@TheBirdCallsNO) December 15, 2020
Ingram was whistled for goaltending on this instance, but upon replay, that appeared to be a clean block. No matter, BI finished with three steals and a block, exhibiting far greater energy on that end of the floor than I can ever recall seeing previously in a New Orleans uniform.
While Ingram labeled his defensive effort as “shit” to media after the game for failing to get into the ball more, bad positioning and other early mistakes, realize he is his own biggest critic. In addition, just as his own defense improved as the game progressed, so too did the team’s intensity and cohesiveness on that end after the first quarter. There was, however, no need to lament any part of Ingram’s offense.
BI finished the game with 22 points, dished out six assists, canned a couple of threes and shot a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line. He was a maestro, particularly during the second quarter. BI singlehandedly turned a close contest into a comfortable margin for the Pelicans, one they would never relinquish. He knocked down four jumpers in the frame, but everyone is going to remember the flush over poor KZ Okpala.
Like good young leaders, Zion and BI did their best to lead the Pelicans, but there were a lot of other individual positives that must be noted.
Lonzo Ball didn’t have his outside shot going (2-9 3PTA), but his 12 points, six assists and four rebounds were useful. He, along with Steven Adams, had the ball hopping around the perimeter. This was important because, despite New Orleans not possessing the deadliest long range gunners, they were able to muster a lot of good looks within Van Gundy’s new motion offense. Those claiming that spacing is going to be a big issue with Eric Bledsoe, Zion and Adams in the starting lineup suddenly don’t have as strong a leg to stand on?
Speaking of Adams, it was readily apparent that he’s going to be an upgrade over Derrick Favors. His activity in and around the restricted area were noticeable better (seven points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes), but I just loved how he didn’t look like a typical NBA center with the ball at the top of the key. Adams’ dribble hand-offs were fun, as he created space for teammates to operate, and then the vision and touch shown on his passes really influenced the game. One never felt that he and Zion clogged up the paint simply because neither scares opponents with a jumper.
Josh Hart, who started for Bledsoe, was spry (11 points, four rebounds, four steals) and Kira Lewis Jr., the 13th overall pick from the 2020 NBA Draft, didn’t look completely overmatched, scoring five points and nabbing two rebounds. However, Nickeil Alexander-Walker made us dream again in the first half.
NAW produced 14 points, five rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes, but he immediately made his impact felt. He knocked down two of his four three-pointers on the night in the first quarter, en route to a quick eight points. He’s already told Van Gundy that shooting guard is likely his best position and he certainly looked the part, sometimes seeking out shots too eagerly after cooling and not within the flow of the offense.
All in all as preseason games go, this one was fun. The Pelicans shaky execution (six turnovers in the first quarter) improved drastically, and a lot of players made positive, winning contributions.
Up next, the Pelicans welcome the Milwaukee Bucks (Jrue Holiday!) on Friday in the Smoothie King Center. After that, it’s onto to the regular season!