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The early progression of Kira Lewis Jr. gives the Pelicans several options

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The rookie has shown positives and further improvement should be expected, but how much more could be mind blowing!

Houston Rockets v New Orleans Pelicans
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - FEBRUARY 09: Kira Lewis Jr. #13 of the New Orleans Pelicans drives against Sterling Brown #0 of the Houston Rockets during the second half at the Smoothie King Center on February 09, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The date is November 18, 2020 and the New Orleans Pelicans are on the clock in the NBA Draft. Armed with the 13th overall pick, the Pels select 6’3 sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr out of Alabama. Usually they say the rest is history, however, this is just the start of the rookie’s career yet his potential already signals a memorable voyage lies ahead.

In selecting Lewis, the Pelicans chose a 19-year-old guard who averaged 13.5 points, 2.9 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game and was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team in his first collegiate season. Lewis then backed it up with an 18.5, 4.8 and 5.2 sophomore campaign which subsequently saw him once again garner All-SEC honours, this time on the First-Team.

The impression that Kira would be able to make an impact on the next level was furthered in pre-draft work, displaying his natural abilities as the fastest guard during the NBA Draft Combine. With this knowledge and his NCAA stats combined, the Pelicans must have sensed they were selecting a guard who would not only be able to score from all over the floor but also facilitate with great pace — a necessity with the likes of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram as the go-to guys in New Orleans.

Fast forward to today, it’s pretty evident that the above is exactly what the team has gotten in Lewis Jr. Although the standard box score doesn’t stand out yet — Kira is averaging 5.3 points per game, 0.9 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 11.9 minutes on the court, these numbers are very impressive for a rookie at the beginning stages of learning his craft. He already turns the ball over less than any other playmaking guard on the Pelicans per-36 minute data.

Sticking with numbers just for a second longer, his performance against the Chicago Bulls Wednesday night was most impressive. In 24 minutes of action, he repaid the team with 14 points, two rebounds, four assists, two steals and zero turnovers. Although the Pelicans ultimately fell to the Bulls and snapped their four-game win streak, Kira’s line was a huge positive to take from that game as were his shooting numbers: 5-of-7 from the field (71.4%) and 2-of-3 from three-point range (66.7%).

If you take what we have seen so far this season and transfer all the numbers into per-36 minute stats, things look better and better from the prized young rookie when in comparison to the other lead guards in New Orleans.

By pushing his current minutes from 11.9 to 36 per game, Kira’s numbers become those of a player who could challenge the likes of Eric Bledsoe and Ball for more playing time, perhaps even a starting position. Crazy, right? Well, maybe not.

Per-36, Lonzo Ball is currently averaging 16.1 PPG on 5.9-of-14.2 shooting (41.9%) while knocking down 3.3 of his 8.8 three point attempts (37.6%). As for Kira, he’s looking at numbers of 16.0 PPG on 5.8-of-14.2 shooting (40.9%) while knocking down 1.5 of his 3.9 three point attempts (38.9%). This clearly tells us that while you might lose some three-point prowess, there’s no differences in the scoring production and percentages.

Notably, the rebounding and assists numbers favour Lonzo (5.3 & 5.6) over Kira (2.3 & 4.3), but the rookie has been turning the ball over less, committing 1.3 miscues to Zo’s 2.2 — which is an area the team as a whole needs continued refinement.

As for Bledsoe, I hear you ask? Well, he’s outscoring Kira by a negligible 0.4 at 16.4 PPG per-36. Bled is marginally better shooting the ball from the field (44.4%) and from down town (42%) as well as in the assist department (Eric provides just 0.3 more assists than Kira). That said, like Ball, Bledsoe turns the ball over more than the former Alabama guard with 2.3 per game to as we already know Kira’s 1.3. Steals also give the nod to Kira over Bled (1.1 to 0.8).

For the now, Kira’s impact doesn’t impact the scoring output of the team a great deal according to Cleaning the Glass, and in fact the Pelicans are -5.3 in scoring when he’s on the court. However, the Pels turnover percentage sits at -4.4% when he is on the court, putting the team in the 98th percentile of the league. Again, something in which the team absolutely needs to work on.

As always, when looking at the potential of a rookie, initial stats should be read with plenty of context. Future variance is a near certainty. Thus, it’s sometimes best to rely on the eye test and watch how a fresh face looks in team settings — how does he fit with teammates, both among other reserves and the main cogs in the rotation? This is where things become interesting as the 19-year-old has shown serious potential.

Zion recently spoke highly of Kira, telling the media that he was ‘unbelievable’ during a practice and that he was ‘‘excited’ to see him grow as a player.

The fact that a franchise cornerstone talked up Kira after watching his incredible capacity first hand says a lot. Votes of confidence are important. When it comes time to contemplate as to whether Lewis should be handed the reins as the next starting point guard on the Pelicans, the decision is an easier one.

The thing that has impressed me the most is how Kira has looked when on the court. He’s looked the part of a great competitor. His ability to get to the rim with his pace and quickness is incredible. His decision-making of when to shoot or facilitate has largely been flawless. And he seems to have all the necessary shots in his bag.

Over the past few weeks, the Pels have been much more adept at hitting the three-ball, and specifically Lonzo Ball, who seems incredibly proficient when he’s in position and set to fire from deep.

Running Kira alongside Ball could enable the Pelicans to spread and stretch the floor further, meaning that guys like Zo and Ingram are potentially left wide open for 3s. Along with this, Kira has shown the ability to handle the ball in traffic and use his pace effectively next to a cutting Zion for lobs and dunks or even an easy lay-up finish.

One thing to monitor going forward, Kira could be on the verge of falling into greater opportunity this season if any trade rumors come to fruition. Applying to JJ Redick and Lonzo as well, Bledsoe has been made available on the market. Should the Pels look to move Eric to shore up other areas of need, the guard position would remain well stocked.

Between Lewis Jr, Ball and the team’s other rising young gun, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans has depth so giving up Bledsoe wouldn’t necessarily hurt the team or make fans feel uncomfortable with what they would be watching night in and night out.

Time will only tell if Stan Van Gundy feels comfortable in handing the starting guard position to Kira at some point this season, but it’s a good sign that Lewis has been the first man off the bench in recent games. It seems likely that should the team make a move, he could win the job.

Again, time is the key word here. We must not forget that Kira is just a 19-year-old and his body still has years of maturity left. In addition, his game requires further development. The Pelicans have the time to allow for growth at a natural progression, but after witnessing Lewis’ 167 minutes to date, it’s fun to think about what lies ahead. The potential is obvious.

The young core may or may not consist of Zion, Ingram and Ball in the eyes of the front office at the moment and that’s completely understandable. But with that said, you can go ahead and firmly add the name of Kira Lewis Jr into any configuration.

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 @TomJWade.