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NBA Preview: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bucks should present best scrimmage challenge yet for bubble-undefeated Pelicans

New Orleans looks to finish with a perfect 8-0 record in exhibition contests this season.

Milwaukee Bucks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans once again made easy work of an undermanned squad after they beheaded the monster lineups the Denver Nuggets were forced to play without the likes of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Michael Porter Jr. among others.

The Pelicans have won seven consecutive exhibition contests dating back to last season and look to fill out a tidy 8-0 scorecard on Monday night against MVP and DPOY favorite as well as favorite for the Larry O’Brien trophy in Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bucks have been just as impressive as the Pelicans (at least in the box score) and will present the most viable challenge yet. While head coach Mike Budenholzer hasn’t been shy about playing his most imposing players, they shouldn’t log regular rotation minutes. Against the Sacramento Kings, the starters did not play past halftime.

Eric Bledsoe has been taking additional time to quarantine and will likely be replaced by Donte DiVincenzo in the starting lineup, with George Hill in relief.

The Bucks defeated the Pelicans twice in 2019-20, by double-digits in each effort. They have taken four straight and have not lost to the Pelicans since February of 2018 (a two-point loss in overtime).

Be sure to look for each of the Lopez brothers in addition to All-Star Khris Middleton and Kyle Korver, but don’t forget about Ersan Ilyasova and Marvin Williams. The two veterans have developed fast chemistry with one another in the pick-and-roll. Finally, Wesley Matthews is back to playing some of the best perimeter defense in the NBA. The challenge for the Pelicans offense may be considerable.

Alas, we will be deprived of watching Zion and Giannis Antetokounmpo go head to head.

I’m disappointed. You’re disappointed.

At the very least though, Zion has rejoined the NBA campus and is on day two of quarantining. He may be eligible for the Pelicans opening night affair against the Utah Jazz on July 30.

Still, Jrue Holiday will likely absorb the assignment for brief stretches and it’s always fun to see him play above his size. And yes, Giannis will win the matchup but that is true of anyone.

Once the starters have had their fill, the Pelicans will unload their bench and give fans another look at some of their developing youth. While Nickeil Alexander-Walker took a step back following his brilliant standout performance at Las Vegas Summer League and the ensuing preseason, he has looked better in these scrimmages.

He looked most comfortable in the first half against the Denver Nuggets. While the four turnovers and just two of eight from three stand out from his box score overall, he made several impressive reads and was in a nice rhythm for awhile. He led all scorers with 21 points, albeit on 19 shot attempts.

He’s always good for a flashy block, but Jaxson Hayes has continued to struggle to find his place on the defensive side of the floor, often making critical mistakes in positioning and awareness. However, offensively he’s still good for his daily highlight and even flashed a feathery mid-range shot attempt, the first we’d seen of it since the last summer league.

While Griffin urged us to remain patient through what was originally intended to be a ‘redshirt’ season, it’s hard not to track improvement or development with his game from last summer to now.

One of the bright spots thus far has been the play of recent acquisition Sindarius Thornwell. We knew he would assimilate the Pelicans scheme quickly based on his familiarity with Alvin Gentry’s offense via Mike D’Antoni as proxy and Jeff Bdzelik’s principles were once a staple of Rio Grande Valley’s schemes.

We also knew that Sin possessed skills of an underrated playmaker. Assistant coach Devan Blair hinted at it in my conversation with him two weeks ago when he informed me that the Vipers often inserted him into the lineup as a point guard due to his bevy of skills.

What was most impressive though a few nights ago was his touch as a perimeter shooter, which has always been his major weakness.

“He was better offensively than I anticipated,” Blair stated when I spoke with him. “But ultimately, he’s going to be 3-and-D. If he can hit an open 3, that’ll be a plus for him. He shoots it a little better than people think, especially if he has his feet set in the corner.”

Thornwell hit three of his four shots from three and scored 12 points on just four shots with seven assists, three rebounds and zero turnovers in 14 minutes.

It’s obviously a one game sample size against the end of Denver’s bench but an encouraging sight nonetheless. If he can continue to reach those marks, his size and defensive versatility could grant him the minutes usually allocated to Frank Jackson and E’Twaun Moore next season.

But we’re talking about practice. Likely very little of happens Monday night will matter beyond that, but man, it’s so nice to have basketball back. Even my wife walked into the tv room last night and said, ”Isn’t this nice? It almost feels normal.”

While many continue to struggle and the fight isn’t over, it’s nice to have a little normal if even for a moment.

Thanks for reading. And let’s geaux, Pels!

Who: New Orleans Pelicans vs. Milwaukee Bucks

When: 8:00 PM ET

Where to watch: Pelicans.com, NBA League Pass, FSNO

Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @PrestonEllis.