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NBA Preview: Jonas Valanciunas key for Pelicans’ chances of beating Wizards

Few centers have been better offensively around the league

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Fresh off their second victory of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans start a two-game road trip in Washington D.C., facing the Wizards Monday evening.

That’s the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Wizards.

With an overall record of 9-3, there’s not a team that has surprised more out of the gates. Signing Spencer Dinwiddie in free agency and trading Russell Westbrook for Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the Lakers 22nd first-round pick (which turned into Aaron Holiday) is making Bradley Beal look like a very smart man for remaining patient with Washington’s front office.

While four players are averaging at least 15 points per game (Beal, Kuzma, Harrell and Dinwiddie) — and having a deeper team has been one of the keys, Washington’s defense has been the real secret to their success.

Sporting the fourth-best defensive rating (102.4), the Wizards are holding opponents to a 42.6 field goal percentage (3rd-best) and a 29.5 3-point percentage (league-best). Their approach isn’t flashy. They do a good job of limiting opponents to one shot per possession (75.1 DREB% — 7th). They force the second-fewest turnovers (12.6), and not coincidentally, average the least amount of fast break points (7.8). However, all their players have bought into their new head coach’s schemes.

“A lot of times in this league what separates good teams and bad teams is defensive schemes,” Kuzma said last Wednesday. “I’ve been on both sides of the ball. I’ve been on good teams and I’ve been on bad teams throughout the early part of my career. One of the reasons I thought we were bad is we didn’t really have schemes and whatnot.

“When you come here — first day of training camp, we want to be a top-10 defensive team. Okay, how do we get that? {Wes Unseld Jr.} puts us in great situations, and it’s really no error out there. You know what to do. [If] it’s a step up, near side, we know what to do. Same thing, if they’re locking and trail, we know what to do. That just clears up a lot of thoughts you may have on the court so you can just play freely.”

How can the Pelicans snap the Wizards four-game winning streak tonight? By playing solid basketball, of course, but also placing a focus on winning the paint battle.

The Wizards, as evidenced by their 3-point stats (makes, attempts and 3PT% all rank in the bottom half of the league), rely on getting to the hoop. They’re sixth in the league in drives (51.8), eighth in free throw attempts (20.8), and are tied for fourth in points in the paint (49.7), attempting nearly 52% of their shots from inside that area. However, they’re also susceptible to giving up scores from up in close (47.3 opponent points in the paint).

Enter Jonas Valanciunas.

JV has been the Pelicans most dependable player from the start of this season. He just had a streak of 11 straight double-doubles snapped. He is on pace for career-bests in points (19.6), rebounds (13.5) and 3-point makes (1.1). His ability to score from around the rim, the midrange area and the 3-point line has been a revelation for fans after watching Steven Adams and Derrick Favors the last few years.

And Valanciunas will be key in breaking through the Wizards’ defense. Whether that’s punishing the lighter Daniel Gafford or smaller Harrell in the paint, stretching the floor with his shot-making ability or helping dictate in the passing game from the top of the key area, running the offense through Valanciunas should open things up for Brandon Ingram, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and the rest of the crew.

One fortunate turn of events, the Wizards will be without Bradley Beal, who is out for personal reasons. Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Davis Bertans are also going to miss this matchup on behalf of Washington.

The Pelicans looked good against the Memphis Grizzlies a few nights ago. If they can put together another all-around performance, they should have an opportunity to shock the surprising Wizards.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (2-12) at Washington Wizards (9-3)

When: November 15, 2021, 6:00 pm

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans

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 @OlehKosel.