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NBA Preview: Pelicans to square off against Magic in Orlando bubble finale

New Orleans’ mix of reserves get one last opportunity to shine

New Orleans Pelicans v Sacramento Kings Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Although it came in a loss to the Sacramento Kings, the New Orleans Pelicans finally displayed the fire that fans had been longing to see inside the bubble.

With Brandon Ingram, Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick all sitting the contest out, a few unlikely suspects emerged and provided a bounty of highlights. You never want to celebrate much about losses, but at this time of the year, the focus is exclusively on player development.

Lonzo Ball stole the headlines following what had been one of the most disappointing stretches of his season leading up to Tuesday. As Antonio Daniels pointed out, he played angry and once again assumed the role of a confident floor general and perimeter assassin.

Thanks to his efforts, the Pelicans managed to recover Jahlil Okafor’s second free throw, tightening the gap to just four points with 31.4 seconds remaining. Lonzo’s efforts also covered what was an egregious error by head coach Alvin Gentry.

You can find more in-depth analysis from the Pelicans’ loss in Oleh’s 1400-word recap here; however, this matchup wasn’t about Lonzo rediscovering his confidence and touch. It was about the future and finding who will be a part of the solution going forward.

Through bubble play, Jaxson Hayes has assumed the bulk of the workload when Favors’ sits. Curious, seeing as though Hayes has been quite unspectacular on the defensive end: often missing assignments, failing to rotate and fouling with regularity. And as far as communicating goes, Hayes isn’t known to do much of that either.

Okafor is the better player right now and some believe he could have made a difference in critical moments against Utah and San Antonio. For all of flaws, the man is a walking bucket. The Kings threw the bulky Alex Len, who carries a wide birth at seven feet and well over 250 pounds, at Okafor, but it didn’t matter.

Okafor moved into and around Len at will with nimble feet, proving far too quick to be contained individually.

In the second half, head coach Luke Walton opted to stick the smaller and quicker Harry Giles III on Okafor to mitigate the destruction of Len. It did not work, as Okafor used his considerable sizable advantage to bully Giles into the basket area.

Okafor wasn’t alone in the list of unlikely heroes to outperform expectation.

Sure, Frank Jackson had his share of awful moments. He nearly air-balled a technical free throw and continues to miss open threes. In fact, Jackson shoots under 28 percent on open looks this year (4-6 feet) and under 40 percent on wide open looks. Jackson must improve this aspect of his game, but he once again flashed the same potential that lends the coaching staff to be so high on him.

His lightning quick burst, 6’7” wingspan, relentless energy and off-ball movement make the extended looks understandable, and when Jackson has been afforded minutes, he’s played well this season.

Jackson saw 20+ minutes in 14 games in 2019-20. In those games, he averaged 13.2 points, 2.3 assists, 2.4 rebounds in 24.2 minutes on 47.6 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three (just above league average). He carried a +3.0 plus/minus.

One player who has inexplicably vanished is Kenrich Williams. Known as a versatile and dogged defender and elite-level rebounder at his position, Kenrich has fallen off a cliff offensively. He can move the ball some, but he’s been adamantly against taking a shot in any instance. In fact, Kenrich scored 10 points or more in just three of 38 games despite seeing 20 minutes or more in 21 of those contests.

Still, expect Frank and Kenrich to return in 2020-21 and I’ll tell you why.

Excluding Darius Miller, the Pelicans have just eight players under contract for 2020-21. True, they do have four picks but three of them are projected to fall to 39th (Washington), 43rd and 60th (Milwaukee).

At those slots in 2019, teams drafted Alen Smailagic, Jaylen Nowell and Vanja Marinkovic.

The Pelicans best hope is to combine those players and move up, sell them for future considerations, groom them as two-way candidates or stash them overseas. It is extremely unlikely that any of them will make the team and even less likely that they will contribute in any meaningful manner next season.

Of the second round picks in 2019, only 12 played in more than 100 minutes, seven greater than 300, and three greater than 500.

For the sake of our argument, let’s say two draft picks make the team, the Pelicans re-sign Derrick Favors and use up the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions on two free agents. That still leaves open two positions. Sure the Pelicans can scour for veteran leadership on minimum contracts, but those type of difference makers prefer contenders. Finding young talent on minimal contracts who can contribute is a challenge.

Frank Jackson and Kenrich should come cheap. Their qualifying offers ($2 million and $1.9 million) should make them strong candidates to receive a further look.

Sindarius Thornwell could be another candidate who grabs a spot or at the very least a two-way spot in Josh Gray’s place. Of course, Didi Louzada may be destined for a two-way contract, too. If two backcourt players were to occupy those positions, it could make Frank’s continued stay in New Orleans tenuous, regardless of price and age (22).

Frank and Kenny will have one more opportunity to shape the front office’s decisions on their futures. Thornwell and Okafor will also be auditioning for future suitors. E’Twaun Moore is set to become an unrestricted free agent and may be allotted plenty of run against Orlando for showcase purposes.

Nicolo Melli is one concern I’ve recently taken note of. Over the past 19 games, he’s averaging just over seven points in 19 minutes per game while shooting 37.2 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from three. If the Pelicans are able to lock in a floor spacing big who can offer minutes at the 4 or 5 in 2020-21, Melli could become trade bait quickly.

The Magic

The Orlando Magic will be missing the majority of their difference-makers as well. Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier, Al Farouq-Aminu and Michael Carter Williams will be absent.

Markelle Fultz, DJ Augustin and Nikola Vucevic should participate and give the Pelicans plenty of challenge. Khem Birch is an underrated energy big who will prove a handful for Okafor on the boards and in the post. Wes Iwundu is a tireless defender who has greatly improved his jump shot. Pelicans fans should recognize Tulane’s own Melvin Frazier who will get plenty of run throughout. Former Pelican James Ennis III as well as Gary Clark will fill out the wings and likely earn the start.

Also, it’s important to keep an eye on the race out West. The Trail Blazers hold the eighth seed with the Suns, Grizzlies and Spurs tied for ninth. If the Suns or Spurs get fortunate and wind up in the playoffs as the eighth seed, the Pelicans will improve by one position in the NBA Draft lottery.

Finally, the odds that head coach Alvin Gentry may be coaching his last game must be considered. Gentry has directed the Pelicans to one playoff series win (2017-18) in five years and an overall record of 175-399 (.439 W/L percentage). Though the Pelicans have underperformed during his tenure, he’s a nice guy who has represented the city and franchise well. If this is his last ride, we should all wish him well in the future.

Let’s geaux Pels!

Who: Orlando Magic vs New Orleans Pelicans

When: August 13, 8:00 p.m. Central

Where to watch: FSNO, NBA League Pass

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.