For the first time since March 8, the New Orleans Pelicans are about to play basketball that matters.
Tomorrow night, New Orleans will face the Utah Jazz in their first of eight seeding games before the NBA playoffs kick off. With postseason aspirations still alive and well, Pels’ fans are ecstatic — and they should be. The whole roster (assuming Zion Williamson receives a thumbs up) is fully available and healthy. They’ve continued to put in work and stay fit over the hiatus, proceeding to go 3-0 in their scrimmages in decisive fashion.
Considering the fact that starters throughout the league don’t play with the same tenacity or as in the same durations in these games as they do during the regular season, take that undefeated (and 8-0 in total exhibition games this year) record with a grain of salt.
Fun to watch? Yes. Does it hold a boatload of significance? Probably not.
There is some information to be gleaned from these contests, though. And yes, some of that information applies to the season at-hand, not just the bench or the collective roster going into next season.
So what can we takeaway from the meaningless basketball we all just watched so fervently?
Nickeil Alexander-Walker — What’s the plan here?
The Pelicans don’t have a definitive player off the bench to fill Lonzo Ball’s role when he’s off the court.
Frank Jackson isn’t a-run-the-offense kind of point guard. He’s a catch-and-shoot (preferably when he’s wide open) and cutting guard. Basically, that’s all the value he brings on that side of the ball. He is a decent defender and provides some value there off the bench. But really, he’s not going to do much more for you than those three things.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker was a bright spot for the Pelicans in his summer league minutes, putting up 24.3 points, six assists and 4.3 rebounds per game, but he couldn’t quite get that to translate to the regular season — at least not consistently. He quickly earned the reputation of a point guard who dribbles the air out of the ball and takes bad shots.
However, there were several nights throughout the season where NAW looked solid even in limited minutes. In some instances, he looked solid enough to fill that backup role. In five games this season (three in January, one in October, and another in November), the Virginia Tech product averaged 12.2 points, 4.6 assists and 18 minutes per game while shooting 42.8 percent from the field (there have been a couple outlier games for him as well). That’s the epitome of what the Pels need from a guy in the backup point guard position — nothing incredibly flashy.
Currently reviewing some film from the last time the #Pelicans and the #Jazz played each other in January -- the 138-132 OT win for the Pels.— Eliot Clough (@EliotClough) July 28, 2020
This is one of the few times NAW looked good in significant minutes. 5-11 from the field, and confident in the PnR
For the majority of his minutes so far in Orlando, that’s not what fans have seen. In the three games, NAW has averaged 14.3 points and four assists in 24 minutes a game while shooting 39.5 percent from the field.
Those numbers don’t look too bad until one realizes the majority of the good play came in garbage time. In addition, the classic, chucking of shots we’ve seen all season came out in full force earlier on against the more talented portion of each team’s lineup.
What we know is that there’s a specific role to be filled, and that as of now Alexander-Walker isn’t filling it properly. Don’t expect too much from him in these upcoming games.
Nikola Jokic would've kept on the weight if he had known Jrue was going to be defending him. pic.twitter.com/hbXUcKSZTn— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) July 26, 2020
Jrue is a damn good defender
We already knew this. It’s nice to get it reaffirmed, though, especially against Nikola Jokic.
Hailing from Serbia, Jokic stands nine inches taller than Holiday, weighs 50+ more pounds and passes with the efficiency of a starting point guard. Jrue shut him down physically despite the mismatch, further exemplifying his elite role-versatility on the defensive end.
Holiday is damn good defensively. Lethal, actually.
Jaxson Hayes should humble himself and take some time to learn from Derrick Favors
Jaxson Hayes has an incredibly high ceiling in this league. With his length and athleticism, that’s undeniable.
But Hayes hasn’t developed much throughout this season.
Offensively, he looks more comfortable and confident, but defensively there’s much left to be desired. And rebounding... don’t get me started on rebounding.
When made available to the media on July 21, prior to any of the scrimmages being played, Hayes had this to say about adjusting his defensive play to the NBA level:
“I wouldn’t really say I had too much trouble with that.”
If you have the opportunity, go watch a replay of the scrimmages. He definitely had trouble with it sometimes.
While the Texas product went on to say that he’s gotten a lot of help from Favors and the coaching staff this season, this part of his game clearly needs more work.
Hayes, at times, looks completely lost on that side of the court, leading to easy layups for opponents. Help assignments are a struggle, fouling is still an issue and awareness simply isn’t there a lot of the time.
It’s not that he’s incapable of playing quality defense. It’s not that the young man can’t beef up and throw a body on his opponents when going for a board and it’s not that he’d be unable to learn these concepts.
It’s that he needs to actively seek out the development. It’s difficult to imagine Favors turning down a request from Hayes to get extra work in. Plus, the former member of the Utah Jazz has plenty to provide to him.
This we know — Hayes will see minutes over the coming eight games but the value defensively probably won’t be there, at least for now.
The need for a defensive wing couldn’t be more obvious
If you’ve listened to just one episode of the BLEAV in the New Orleans Pelicans podcast hosted by yours truly, or have read this article, you know there should be an emphasis on grabbing a solid wing-defender this off season. Jrue is excellent on that end of the court, but he can only do so much against the LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo-types in this league.
Check the Greek Freak’s stat line from just a few days ago and you’ll know what we’re talking about. In just 23 minutes, Giannis put up 30 points and hauled in 8 rebounds while going 8-15 from the field and 12-15 from the line. Imagine if this contest had remained close in a regular season match — the MVP candidate likely would have surpassed 40, maybe 50 points.
With a mixture of Pelicans thrown out him, Giannis continued to put the ball in the hole. Lord knows Nicolo Melli was going to be incapable of stopping him (this is the matchup that started the contest, and Melli was immediately bodied). As referenced before, Jrue can only do so much and Josh Hart simply can’t match that type of size.
The same rang true this season when the Pels took on the Boston Celtics on Jan. 11 (Jayson Tatum — 41 points), LA Clippers on Jan. 18 (Kawhi Leonard — 39 points), Houston Rockets on Feb. 2 (James Harden — 40 points), Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 13 and Miami Heat on Mar. 6 (Jimmy Butler — 28 points). Just to name a few.
There’s plenty to be excited about after what we’ve seen from the Pels in these scrimmages, but this is not one of those things. New Orleans needs to fill this gaping hole in their roster this off season. Whether it’s through development of their current roster, the draft (unlikely) or using the mid-level exception to grab a free agent.
The Pels have chemistry — even without Zion
Following the infamous 6-22 start from the Pels, and starting with their win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 18, something clicked. With the return of Derrick Favors, the Pelicans’ net-rating improved to 3.8 through their next 36 games, good enough for ninth in the NBA.
The ball moved quicker, the team trusted each other, there was a newfound leadership and cohesiveness that was almost non-existent prior. It was fun to watch Pelicans basketball again — it was fun to see them win again.
One would think a four month break from one another, and the sport itself for some, plus the absence of Zion Williamson would have been a hindrance to team chemistry, especially with a team as young as the Pelicans. Think again.
Much like previously, New Orleans remained unselfish, and gave up good shots for great ones (well, except when they took 28 three-pointers in the first half against the Bucks).
With the (hopefully sooner rather than later) return of Zion to the starting lineup for the Pelicans, said ball movement will have to shift. Not stall, or change significantly, but shift. The Pels will need to be cognizant of the fact that they have an absolute bull near the basket, rather than shooting three-pointers at the same clip they have been.
Not to mention, with other teams focusing much of their energy on stopping the 2019 first overall pick, it will free up shots on the perimeter and further the ball movement that has already been present.
The Pelicans have their chemistry, they have their young star and they have plenty to be excited and aware of going into the coming eight games.