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NBA Preview: Pelicans lose Nickeil Alexander-Walker to health and safety protocols ahead of matchup with Magic

Plus, Jonas Valanciunas is out with a non-COVID illness

Orlando Magic v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans are slated to tip-off against the Orlando Magic tonight, one of a dozen or so NBA teams that have lost numerous players to health and safety protocols this month.

In their matchup against the Atlanta Hawks yesterday, the Magic were without six players.

It might come as a surprise then to learn that the Magic managed to eke out a 104-98 victory over the Hawks, but Atlanta was quite shorthanded too, missing Trae Young, Clint Capela, Kevin Huerter, among others.

The Magic notched a win over the Nets in their previous game on the schedule for much of the same reasoning, too. Thanks to COVID-19, Brooklyn was without Kevin Durant, James Harden and a slew of others, which prompted Richard Jefferson to say, “This is a little known fact: This is the most fans that have ever watched a G-League game.”

So while the Magic are entering Thursday evening’s battle against the Pelicans on a two-game winning streak, it’s difficult to point to many examples of good basketball. Against the Nets, they shot 41.5% from the field and 32.3% from 3-point range, while committing 16 turnovers. Their efficiency was better against the Hawks, but the Magic didn’t crack 30% from 3-point range for the game, missed 6 of 23 free throws and committed 24 personal fouls.

On paper, a largely healthy Pelicans squad should beat a bad Magic team that’s without a number of their regular personnel. After all, New Orleans is playing their best ball of the season, having won four of their last five games. While the offense has been average during this stretch (109.9 ORTG — 16th), the defense has shined (105.9 DRTG — 8th).

The Devonte’ Graham-Brandon Ingram-Josh Hart-Herb Jones-Jonas Valanciunas starting five has set the tone. In 192 minutes this season, they have a 108.7 offensive rating and a sparkling 100.3 defensive rating.

Unfortunately, we won’t get to see this five at tip-off tonight, as well as at least one other regular member of the rotation.

The Pelicans announced yesterday that Valanciunas is out due to a non-Covid illness, BUT earlier this morning, Nickeil Alexander-Walker earned the distinction of being the first player on the team to get placed on the health and safety protocols list.

One had a sense that this or similar news might be coming today.

It’s unclear whether Jose Alvarado has tested positive for COVID-19. Neither Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania have reported it and the team has listed Alvarado as out on the latest injury report with a “not with team” designation.

One has to imagine that Willy Hernangomez might slide into Jonas Valanciunas’ starting spot, and Jaxson Hayes could receive plenty of minutes in the backup center role, but how Willie Green fills for the absence of Nickeil is anyone’s guess.

Alexander-Walker is New Orleans’ leading scorer off the bench and coming off a fantastic 27-point performance. There isn’t an obvious replacement. Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple do not look for their shots regularly. Trey Murphy seems like a good choice at first glance, but he’s largely limited to catch and shoot opportunities. Naji Marshall hasn’t seen meaningful minutes since early November.

What appeared an almost certain W less than 24 hours ago, isn’t anymore. The Pelicans are going to have to make up for the absences of at least two key players against the Magic. Fingers crossed!

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (11-21) at Orlando Magic (7-25)

When: December 23, 2021, 6:00 pm

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, 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 @OlehKosel.