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Pelicans fall 112-106 to Kings, but Lonzo Ball and reserve players entertain with solid effort and production

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Plenty of positives for New Orleans despite the loss

New Orleans Pelicans v Sacramento Kings Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

With the New Orleans Pelicans getting eliminated from the 2020 postseason race at the start of the week, it was tempting to begin tonight’s recap of the 112-106 loss to the Sacramento Kings as “the team’s first exhibition loss of the season,” but it wouldn’t have been right to make a mockery of the proceedings.

While the game meant nothing in the standings, we witnessed enough good effort and several fun storylines stem from the play of the team’s young reserves, the likely future of the Pelicans.

The contest was competitive throughout. Even when New Orleans trailed by double digits with close to five minutes remaining in regulation, no shoulders drooped. With 31.4 seconds left, the deficit was cut to four and a comeback remained a distinct possibility. The players exhibited genuine energy and excitement, but then the Kings finally managed to close the door, dropping the Pelicans to a 2-5 Orlando record.

If New Orleans had shown this type of effort witnessed consistently tonight in some of their prior games, the Pelicans might still be thinking about an appearance in the play-in tournament. But alas, we have to wait for next year to dream about the playoffs.

Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram were ruled out of action with various injuries on Monday, but JJ Redick and Derrick Favors may as well have joined them on the inactive list too as neither saw any action versus the Kings. However, that wasn’t a negative. Those series of moves allowed us to get our first looks at Jahlil Okafor and Sindarius Thornwell in these restart seeding games, and they didn’t disappoint.

But first, we must begin with Lonzo Ball because he resembled more closely the guy that we saw before the coronavirus shutdown than the recent bubble bust version.

“The big thing is that I thought Lonzo Ball played well and he was almost back to where he was before we had the hiatus.” — Alvin Gentry to postgame media.

After nice penetration to find some space from a comfortable shooting distance, Ball scored the game’s first points on a jumper from the free throw line area. He proceeded to attempt a slam dunk past Alex Len — his aggressiveness was rewarded with two made foul shots — and then splashed home a three-pointer.

By the end of the first quarter, Ball was perfect from the field, perfect from the three-point line and perfect from the charity stripe — a far cry from the previous six games inside the bubble.

For the contest, Lonzo Ball finished with 16 points, four assists, three rebounds and two blocks. He ran the offense with confidence, he got his body into his defensive assignments, and in the fourth quarter, we saw a guy adamant about wanting to finish the comeback off with a victory.

With the Pelicans trailing 107-99, Ball knocked down a three to cut the deficit to six. Then on the Pelicans next offensive possession, Harry Giles blocked Jahlil Okafor’s shot attempt, but there appeared to be contact on the play that went uncalled. Ball was immediately vociferous towards the referee. Normally, he’s very unassuming, rarely showing any emotion or being demonstrative on the court, but that wasn’t the case tonight.

Ball’s pride was on full display and it was noticeable throughout. Even Antonio Daniels remarked at one point on the Fox Sports New Orleans broadcast, “He’s playing angry.”

In the grand scheme of things, this game and Ball’s contributions matter little, but call me a big fan of seeing him bounce back with a solid performance right after admitting to media that he felt he had let the team down up to this point inside the bubble. It’s important he not end this season with only a sour taste in his mouth — he remains a very big part of the team’s future.

“As I said to you guys earlier, I don’t worry about him because I know that when the time comes he’ll be ready to play,” Gentry said. “He’s struggled a little bit down here, but I just know how important he is to our team and what he means to our team.”

Ball was far from the only one to make a positive impression though. Jahlil Okafor and Frank Jackson immediately made their presences felt when they checked in off the bench. In the first half, they combined for 28 points and missed just a single shot out of 13 attempts. Okafor was scoring on a flurry of nifty moves, often overpowering Kings’ defenders. Jackson was spry in his movements too, utilizing his athleticism and energy to score from all over the court.

Considering Jackson has struggled mightily with efficiency throughout his tenure and Okafor had not seen more than 10 minutes of action since January 13, their contributions of 18 points (8-11 shooting) and 21 points (9-11 shooting) respectively were somewhat surprising.

Both players will hit free agency this offseason, with Frank’s being of the restricted variety. Whether they remain in New Orleans or be forced to attempt to latch on elsewhere, finishing the season on a positive note could help those causes.

The same can be said for E’Twaun Moore, who drew the start in place of Holiday, and he finished with 14 points (6-11), four rebounds and three assists. Moore, though, should find little difficultly in signing his next NBA contract as he remains a savvy scorer who can be relied upon for key minutes. If he does depart New Orleans, however, one won’t miss those faulty lob connections.

While some didn’t inspire nearly as much, like Kenrich Williams (continues to show a lack of desired aggression on offense) and Nicolo Melli (1-10 shooting, 0-4 from deep), others were a mixed bag.

Jaxson Hayes started in place of Favors and he shined statistically: nine points, five rebounds and 4-4 shooting in 22 minutes.

The flashes are always great, but will Hayes ever develop into a substantially more-rounded player? I know that this season was supposed to be a redshirt-like campaign — so you don’t want to grade him too harshly; however, we haven’t really seen any evidence of dominant stretches in the crucial big-man categories (rebounding, paint protection).

As Hayes continues to learn the game, improvement should come, but with that reach and athleticism plus having four months to improve during the shutdown, I would have expected to see a little more substance inside the bubble. For instance, he has registered only one block in seven games spanning 98 minutes.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker continues to alternate good moments with examples of ones we’d prefer to forget. Although he’s only a rookie that received inconsistent minutes, you keep hoping for a breakout of some kind before next season. The splashes he made in summer league and the preseason were too memorable for this entire regular season too wind up too vanilla.

Lastly and fittingly, we get to the New Orleans Pelicans newest addition, Sindarius Thornwell. In 16 minutes — his first action in a regular season game for the Pelicans — Sin was splendid, tantalizing like he did in the scrimmages: seven points (3-5 FGs), three assists, two rebounds, one three and one steal.

There’s a certain headiness to his play that you like and wish Kenrich would exhibit. Thornwell appears a good decision-maker and looks to score when the opportunity presents itself while the motor is always switched in the on position. If that outside shot is falling, he feels like a guy who’ll fill up a box score, but it’ll never be empty calories.

I know we’ve barely caught a glimpse of him on the floor, but Thornwell has piqued my curiosity so much so that I hope the front office intends to keep him around the organization. Please at least give him another look in the next training camp.

Look at this: almost 1400 words that consist largely of positives from a defeat to a mediocre Kings team. In a nutshell that tells the story of how dismal the bubble performances had been leading up to tonight’s game but with an eye also on knowing only one more game remains ahead. Then we’ll be without Pelicans’ basketball again for honestly who knows how long. Welp.

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 @OlehKosel.