With starters Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson, along with key reserve Jaxson Hayes, all sitting out due to injury, the New Orleans Pelicans followed the lead of its youngsters on the way to earning a 104-86 win over the Orlando Magic.
Rookie Trey Murphy III led all scorers with 20 points in 29 minutes off the bench, and Nickeil Alexander Walker added 19, as the Pelicans overcame a 13-point first half deficit to pick up their first win of the preseason.
Second-year point guard Kira Lewis Jr. added 10 points and Jonas Valanciunas scored 13 points in his Pelicans debut before being ejected.
Wendell Carter Jr. posted a double-double for the Magic, with 13 points and 11 rebounds. Cole Anthony (12) and Terrance Ross (11) also reached double figures.
Former Pelicans guard E’Twaun Moore scored six points in 14 minutes.
New Orleans outscored Orlando 86-60 over the final three quarters of the game.
It was a dramatic turnaround from the team’s performance in the opening quarter, where the Pelicans made 4-of-24 shots while falling behind 26-18. Many of those misses came right at the rim as the Pelicans struggled to finish their shots.
Orlando made things even more difficult by rejecting as many shots as the Pels made in the period.
But in the second quarter, NAW and the second unit got going.
Nickeil scored 14 of his 19 points, making four three-pointers in six attempts. He also dished out three assists, as he carried the team on his back to a 52-51 halftime advantage.
After two games, Alexander-Walker is averaging a team-high 20.5 points, while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 47 percent from beyond the arc on nearly eight attempts per game. His six free throw attempts per game leads the club as well.
Nickeil’s success on offense hasn’t lessened his effort on the defensive end. He leads the team there too, with two thefts each night.
And he’s doing it all in under 23 minutes of action.
In his third year, NAW looks like he’s about to enter a breakout campaign.
New Orleans made the Magic “feel them” defensively throughout the second half.
The Pels held Orlando to four field goals of their own in the third quarter. Their active hands collected six steals and two blocks as New Orleans was able to extend its lead by three heading into the fourth.
Trey Murphy took it home from there.
As the defense continued to fight, limiting the Magic to 18 points in the final period, Murphy unleashed the jumper that has fans salivating at his potential.
Murphy went 4-for-5, including making all three of his attempts from deep to close with 11 points.
While seeing someone regular make open shots is a relatively new experience for Pelicans fans, Trey’s teammates are already used to these types of displays.
“I mean, it’s nothing we haven’t seen,” said fellow rookie Herbert Jones. “He does it all the time in practice. He showed it in summer league, and he’s showing it now. Hopefully, he keeps shooting the ball as well as he is.”
In two games so far this preseason, Murphy is 12-19 (63.2) from 3-point range, and is tied with NAW for the team scoring lead at 20.5 ppg.
As impressive as the offensive output from that duo was, this Pelicans won this game with their defense.
The same kinetic energy and effort that New Orleans showed in the Las Vegas Summer League was present at the SKC on Wednesday night. It was that effort that won the game for the Pelicans.
Head coach Willie Green expects his team to embrace that mindset.
“What I liked best was it was an ugly win for us,” he said. “We didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, we got off to a slow start, but we grinded with our defense. Our defense created offense for us. It’s what we talked about. Our mentality at home, no matter who we play, it just set the tone for what type of team we will be.”
Green isn’t the first coach to come to New Orleans with that message, but it’s imperative that it resonates for at least 84 more games.
It’s hard not to be encouraged, excited even, after this type of game.
The Pelicans appear to have found another gem in Herbert Jones, who played backup center in place of Hayes. He attacked his assignment and created problems defensively and was opportunistic on offense.
New Orleans is far from a finished product. The projected starting lineup isn’t really a thing yet, and the Pelicans have yet to have more than three starters on the floor in the preseason.
But this was an important moment for Willie Green and his team. They were tested and they passed.
Hopefully, the lessons learned tonight carry over into game three of the preseason on Friday, when the Pelicans face Lonzo Ball and the Chicago Bulls.