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Josh Hart’s fantastic, but situation could arise where Pelicans may have to trade one of their best players

Don’t underestimate his importance to New Orleans. The value is high. But addressing a glaring area of weakness probably sits higher.

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Portland Trail Blazers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Thank goodness for Josh Hart.

In a season that’s produced an 20-32 record to date, Hart clearly slots as a positive story. The 26-year-old has evolved into a much more valuable contributor in his fifth campaign, so much so, the New Orleans Pelicans should be careful about throwing his name around in trade proposals.

Hart is averaging career-highs in points (13.4), assists (4.1), steals (1.1) and field goal percentage (50.5%). He’s also getting to the free throw line at his best clip (3.8 FTA) and has more than doubled the amount of times he drives from the perimeter in games than in previous seasons.

All the while, Hart remains one of the best rebounders for his size, provides excellent defensive versatility and reminds viewers of Marvel’s Human Torch when in transition.

“Josh is a basketball player,” Willie Green said after the Pelicans’ 101-96 victory over the Warriors in January. “You put him on the floor, he gets things done. That’s game after game. The thing I love about Josh is that he just competes at a high level. No matter what the time, score, situation it is, he goes and lays it out on the line.”

Competing to the best of your abilities on every play. Many feel this should be a given, but real fans know that’s not the case across the league. Hart fulfills this duty better than nearly the rest of his peers though, yet it’s not breaking news.

Upon entering the league, Hart quickly cemented himself as a gritty player on the heels of a very successful run at Villanova University. The four-year collegiate player made a lasting impression, walking away with numerous awards, the 2016 National Championship, and a few weeks ago, a special jersey retirement ceremony.

Hart proved a capable 3-and-D wing in the pros right away, filling in admirably as a starter on the Lakers when necessary. However, he didn’t draw many eyes outside of Los Angeles because his low usage wasn’t filling up the box scores. His role was confined.

During his first few seasons with the Pelicans, Hart’s largely appeared the same player, albeit a slightly less dependable outside shooter but stronger rebounder and willing facilitator. There’s always been present, of course, that famous junkyard dog mentality.

Over the summer, John Hollinger’s BORD$ metric valued Hart at $11.4 million for the 2021-22 season.

Hart is one of the most interesting restricted free agents in this cycle, as he played a valuable role in New Orleans, but the Pelicans may be looking to reshape their roster. Hart is a tough defender and plus rebounder but only shot 32.6 percent from 3 last season and is at 34.8 percent in his career, which makes him a tough fit on a Pelicans roster that already has shooting deficiencies.

In another environment, however, his energetic play off the bench or as a fifth starter can bring a lot of value, and at 26, there is still the hope of further improvement. It probably takes an offer sheet above the full midlevel exception (MLE) to make the Pelicans flinch, but BORD$ says he’s worth it.

Hart would up receiving an unusual 3-year deal from the Pelicans, paying him $12 million for this season. However, that was predicated on a reserve role and career stats that don’t match the current higher outputs. One has to believe that Hollinger’s BORD$ metric would rate him much more valuable now.

This shouldn’t be overlooked.

The league has a need for high-energy glue guys who defend and can hit the open outside shot, but it’s not remotely accurate to restrict Hart to this definition anymore. His combination of rebounding, playmaking and shooting proficiency have vaulted him into some rarified air.

Check out the company that Hart’s currently keeping in this 2021-22 campaign when searching for players with a 10+ rebounding percentage, a 17.5+ assist percentage and a 58+ true shooting percentage, per Second Spectrum (stats through February 5).

Player TS% REB% AST% AST/TOV USG%
Nikola Jokic 66.0% 21.0% 39.0% 2.17 30.3%
Domantas Sabonis 65.0% 17.1% 22.7% 1.67 21.5%
Karl-Anthony Towns 62.9% 13.2% 18.8% 1.19 26.9%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 62.0% 16.2% 32.4% 1.74 34.5%
LeBron James 61.8% 10.4% 30.4% 2.08 30.5%
Joel Embiid 60.6% 16.7% 25.1% 1.54 37.1%
Josh Hart 60.2% 11.5% 18.3% 2.02 16.9%
Draymond Green 58.1% 12.2% 32.8% 2.36 14.2%

Nikola Jokic, Domantas Sabonis, Karl-Anthony Towns, LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green and ... Josh Hart.

Expanding the search field to include those with a 9+ rebounding percentage, a 16+ assist percentage and a 56+ true shooting percentage adds Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, James Harden, Bam Adebayo, Jae’Sean Tate and Tobias Harris.

Care to venture a guess as to where these players sit in regards to salary?

Player 2021-22 salary Player 2021-22 salary
James Harden $44.3 mil (2) Nikola Jokic $31.6 mil (27)
LeBron James $41.2 mil (5) Joel Embiid $31.6 mil (27)
Kevin Durant $40.9 mil (6) Bam Adebayo $28.1 mil (37)
Giannis Antetokounmpo $39.3 mil (8) Draymond Green $24.0 mil (45)
Jimmy Butler $36.0 mil (12) Domantas Sabonis $18.4 mil (64)
Tobias Harris $36.0 mil (13) Josh Hart $12.0 mil (111)
Karl-Anthony Towns $31.7 mil (24) Jae'Sean Tate $1.5 mil (424)

Tate is providing mind-numbingly good value, but Hart’s a steal at $12 million himself.

It’s been a metamorphosis of sorts for one of the shortest players in stature — but not heart — on that list. The key to Hart’s growth has been that he’s now involved at the point of attack with greater frequency, handling the ball much more often than previously in his career.

Along with the typically strong rebounding totals, Hart is on pace to nearly double his assist percentage while living in a shooting efficiency neighborhood not seen since his rookie campaign. In many instances, a player’s effectiveness usually slips with additional responsibilities. Not so for Hart, who is flourishing in his greater role.

Within the flow of Green’s offense, Hart’s been a vital cog. He ranks above league average in spot-up situations, but his contributions really stand out elsewhere.

Points Per Possession Frequency Percentile
Isolation 1.12 3.2% 90.1
Cut 1.43 2.6% 80.3
Transition 1.18 36.4% 64.4

According to Second Spectrum, Hart has been incredibly effective in isolation situations, a potent cutter, and a flaming fireball in transition.

No one in the league is scoring a higher percentage of their points in transition than Hart, and his efficiency is astounding when factoring the number of attempts. You know this facet of his game is written in big bold letters at the top of every opponent’s scouting report, yet they can’t shut him down on fast breaks.

Honestly, when looking at the other playtype data, one wonders why Hart hasn’t been utilized to an even larger degree. With such below average production from the rest of the guards, the Pelicans are starving for more efficient offense from players not named Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas.

Player REB% AST% TS%
Zion Williamson 2020-21 10.6% 18.8% 64.9%
Josh Hart 2021-22 11.5% 18.3% 60.2%

Another thought that should enter minds is Hart profiles as an interesting replacement for Zion Williamson on the roster whenever he’s out. No, not from a purely scoring or talent standpoint — Zion’s combination of usage, efficiency and youth is otherworldly — but think about it from a rebounding, playmaking and shooting proficiency package, while coming at the forward position via a player who can match up against 3s and 4s.

Either way, Hart’s in the midst of a much under-discussed leap and the main explanation for his growth is rather simplistic: new head coach Willie Green placing a lot of trust in Josh on day one.

“Before the season, we went dinner,” Hart said after dishing 11 assists in a November win over the Grizzlies. “We had a great dinner, a great conversation. That was one of the things that he said he saw in me and trusted me, had the confidence in me to do those kind of things. It’s always good to hear it. When you see it and you’re in the game, running an ATO for you or running an ATO through you, that gives you all the confidence you need. That’s something that Willie’s been great for, especially with our young team, is building us up, giving us confidence to go out there and just play our game.”

In conjunction with his larger role, it must also be mentioned that Hart’s electing to take smarter shots. In prior seasons, the majority of his field goal attempts came from behind the 3-point line. But he’s never been regarded as a good floor spacer. This season, though, less than a third of his attempts have come from the outside as he’s lived primarily in the paint. That’s his wheelhouse and it’s resulted in a career-best true shooting percentage — a mark that sits neck and neck with Valanciunas’.

Hart’s undoubtedly been unlocked, but there’s another layer to his value that he brings. Having moved higher up on the pecking order this season has allowed his already strong voice to resonate louder, greater assisting efforts to lead this inexperienced New Orleans locker room.

When the Pelicans got off to a woeful start, Hart was the most outspoken member of the roster about what needed to change in order for the team to start enjoying better results.

Since arriving in New Orleans, David Griffin has sought to establish a winning culture on the Pelicans. The first few seasons saw that plan go awry for a number of reasons, hence the little continuity that followed, but this current campaign feels different despite another subpar record.

Willie Green looks more and more the perfect coaching hire with each passing day. He sits front and center of the locker room turnaround, but the head coach is surrounded by a cast of veterans and fresh faces who have truly bought in, executing a brand of basketball that has led to a 17-16 record over the last 33 games without a single minute from Zion.

The available preferred starting lineup, featuring a +12.2 net rating, is good. Jonas Valanciunas is providing wonderful stability at the center position. Brandon Ingram has never looked so involved all over the floor while putting up All-Star numbers. Devonte’ Graham has been a clutch shot-maker at times. Herb Jones has been a godsend: dependable like a veteran while wowing like a top rookie that he is — all at the low price of the 35th draft pick last summer.

Then there’s Josh Hart, who embodies Green’s point-five basketball better than anyone else on the roster. One never sees him pound the air out of the ball, attempt a shot not in his repertoire or be indecisive with his decision-making. He’s also always hustling, making a play on either end and winning those 50/50 balls.

The amount of “give a damn” is visible on every possession.

This skill isn’t easily quantifiable by statistics unless a play results in a box score notation, but make no mistake, it’s important to winning locker rooms. Being able to create one’s own energy is extremely valuable. It can be infectious, leading to positive shifts in momentum and be a deciding factor in close games.

So, there should be little doubt about two things: Hart’s current contract is incredibly team-friendly and he’s one of the New Orleans’ best players. Any playoff-bound team would love to have him on their roster.

The Atlanta Hawks showing interest in Hart recently should not surprise anyone. However, trading him for a role player like Eric Gordon should be out of the question. Ditto about attempting to flip him for future assets. He’s much more valuable to the Pelicans right now than some ordinary first round pick.

The hard question though is, what should the front office do if there’s a legitimate opportunity to land a De’Aaron Fox or CJ McCollum? Utilizing Hart’s contract seems necessary to closing a deal for a bonafide player. To acquire a difference-making piece requires sending out good value.

If not Hart, then either Valanciunas or Graham are needed for salary purposes. One doesn’t want to part with Valanciunas for obvious reasons. He’s been the team’s second-best player behind Ingram.

Graham, on the other hand, hasn’t been as effective. His shooting has been wildly inconsistent and that’s been a problem in his career. In addition, the plan probably shouldn’t be for Graham to remain a starter alongside an incoming 6’3 or 6’4 starting guard.

But Graham might be a deal breaker for other front offices. He’s guaranteed a lot more years and money on his contract, and his quality of play hasn’t been on as high a level as Hart’s.

For much of this season, I was convinced that the Pelicans should hang onto Hart. I still hope that any real improvements to the roster before the trade deadline can be accomplished without sending out one of my roster favorites. But with how porous the guard play has been overall, the team’s ceiling is undoubtedly capped. It needs to be addressed with a big move, especially for future purposes.

It’s a shame that there isn’t more tradable salary, another expiring contract or two, because Josh Hart almost feels like a keeper. He’s been a vital contributor, helping lay the foundation of what appears to be the start of something special here in New Orleans.

Going forward, the Pelicans need more players like Josh Hart. Not less. But it’s possible that if a certain trade scenario arises, the next step requires a tearful goodbye.

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.