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New Orleans Pelicans most important player not named Ingram or Zion

There’s a few candidates to keep an eye on

NBA: Preseason-New Orleans Pelicans at Utah Jazz Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Asides Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson, who is the most important player to the success of the New Orleans Pelicans this season?

Kevin: A Trio of Young Guys

There are three correct answers in my opinion — Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Trey Murphy III and Jaxson Hayes. I feel like we know what Valanciunas and Graham are by now so it’s easy to understand their role and how they fit.

Nickeil could be a third star, a Cavs-era Jordan Clarkson or a guy that never puts it all together. He’s looked like all of these things, but I believe in him and think he could possibly be the third guy that defenses fear.

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

NAW has a great handle, can finish in a multitude of ways around the basket, has shown that he can knock down threes off the dribble, the step-back, from odd angles and off the catch. He has made jaw-dropping passes and plays the passing lanes well with his length. He’s not very quick, and he doesn’t have insane hops, but he has the tools to create space for his shot.

He can be a 25-point per game scorer if it all clicks, but he hasn’t been as consistent as you’d like. In fairness, his role has never been coherent and he seems to be saddled with coaches that want to give a bulk of what should be his minutes to underwhelming veterans that stand in his way. Hopefully, he is given a real opportunity from the jump to have an impactful and consistent role for this team because I do believe he has all of the tools to shine with or without Zion in the lineup.

The case for Trey Murphy is simply his shooting ability. If he can carry forward his summer league and preseason numbers, plus find other ways to contribute, he can elevate everyone else on the floor with his game.

Jaxson has always been a low floor, high ceiling player due to his maturity and approach to the game. Say what you want about Stan Van Gundy and Steven Adams, but I do believe their presence helped Jaxson become more of a professional. He was on course to being the Wizards’ era JaVale McGee. However, he seems to have changed his approach to preparation. If that sticks and his defensive IQ catches up to his physical gifts, he could be the anchor that steadies a creaky defensive team.

All are worthy candidates, but NAW is the guy for me because of his ability to create for himself, others and his defense.

New Orleans Pelicans v Utah Jazz Photo by Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Mike: Devonte’ Graham

According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, the third-highest WAR projection behind Zion (8.5) and Ingram (5.1) is Devonte’ Graham. In the previous two seasons, he’s been a consistently dynamic force on offense without sacrificing too much on the defensive end. If he proves capable of orchestrating the offense and maintaining a degree of competency from three-point land, the ends of games should become a lot more difficult for opponents to gameplan against.

David: Nickeil Alexander-Walker

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, without question in my mind.

Even though I don’t project him as a starter (see previously) I expect he is going to finish games and be third or fourth (behind Jonas Valanciunas) in usage. Can NAW properly balance his aggressiveness looking for his own shot versus working in the flow of the offense? Is that best achieved with him in a super sub role, or as a starter, where he is clearly the 3rd (or 4th) option behind Zion, BI, and possibly Jonas? Some of that is up to NAW, and some of it is up to the coaching staff to figure out.

NAW showed tremendous flashes this off-season with the Canadian National Team and also in the first two preseason outings. Then we got to see NAW when his outside shot isn’t falling in the last two games and his shot selection left a lot to be desired. If this team is going to make the playoffs, NAW has to make better decisions on when to swing for the fences and when to go for singles and doubles.

Oleh: Jonas Valanciunas

With Zion Williamson unavailable at the start of the 2021-22 campaign — and he’s missed 59 of 144 games in his first two seasons, someone is going to have to pick up the slack on the inside during his absences. Fortunately for the Pelicans, they traded for Jonas Valanciunas in the offseason.

New Orleans Pelicans v Utah Jazz

The nine-year center is in the midst of his prime, coming off his best season as a pro with the Grizzlies. He averaged 17.1 points and 12.5 rebounds, doing most of his damage in the paint. He is elite in the post and on the glass. Only nine other players hit more field goals in the restricted area, but unlike traditional bigs, Valanciunas proved more than adept from any range.

Restricted Non-restricted midrange 3-pointers
Jonas Valanciunas 67.4 FG% 52.0 FG% 55.8 FG% 36.8 3PT%
Nikola Jokic 70.2 FG% 56.9 FG% 51.5 FG% 38.8 3PT%

Nikola Jokic is obviously the gold standard, but strictly from an efficiency standpoint, Valanciunas compared really well to the MVP candidate last season. Being a reliable weapon that draws the eyes of opposing defenses from various parts of the floor should prove invaluable.

Defensively, Valanciunas is not a traditional shot blocker nor a good lateral mover. However, he can hold his own if a coach’s schemes keep him close to the paint, say through the use of multiple drop coverages after opponent pick and rolls. If he’s not stuck on the perimeter chasing around faster players, he’s been effective. For instance, he’s done a better job of dissuading shots around the rim than Steven Adams in four of the last five seasons.

The Pelicans have two stars and then a lot of players who fit well on paper. Many of them are unproven, but Valanciunas is not. His steady contributions will be key amid a number of young guys trying to establish themselves, especially on nights Zion is not in uniform.

Travis: Probably Jonas Valanciunas

My hope in the clouds: NAW has turned the corner and reliably provides consistent offense without big-time blunders. And what exactly is he defensively?

More likely: Jonas Valanciunas, who has all the nasty of Steven Adams but with a much more polished offensive game.