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Pelicans may have unlocked Larry Nance Jr. at perfect time

With the first round of the 2022 playoffs looming against the Suns, Nance could prove pivotal

New Orleans Pelicans v LA Clippers - Play-In Tournament Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Before Larry Nance Jr. made his Pelicans debut in late March, he made sure to note how excited he was to be joining a team that was “playing for something.” He told reporters that he had been in locker rooms both good and bad, but that this New Orleans group was a “great” one. “Player one through 15 has a voice in there,” he said, amplifying the team’s wholistic approach to winning. It doesn’t matter who goes out and gets theirs, as long as the team is winning games.

Fitting then, Nance Jr. was the one in the position to have the best game of his young Pelicans career on Friday night in a do-or-die play-in matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers. The Pelicans would hardly have competed as well against the favored home squad had Nance not played at such a high level. To the tune of 14 points and 16 rebounds on a wildly efficient 87.5 percent shooting, the journeyman forward’s output was more pivotal than it has ever been with New Orleans, as he propelled his newest squad to a 105-101 win and an official spot in the postseason.

“This team is resilient,” Nance said postgame. Nance, who was traded along with guard CJ McCollum from Portland in February and recently returned from knee surgery, commended the Pelicans’ ability to rebound from a 1-12 start to the season. “That’s so hard to pick yourself up from. I’ve been in seasons like that, it’s hard to keep going and keep striving for it.”

On a night when Jonas Valanciunas – who had dominated the Clippers this season, averaging 22.8 points and 13.3 rebounds per game in four head-to-head meetings – was all but dormant on either end, Nance was active and persistent as a scorer, and when crashing the boards. Not a single make came outside the paint, with his deepest attempt (a difficult leaning hook with which Nance channeled his inner Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) coming on the rim of the free-throw circle. He was disciplined in his offensive approach; he attempted just eight shots, draining seven, almost as though he was only willing to attempt the shots he knew he would make. If that was, indeed, the game plan, it was a winning one.

Beyond his scoring, Nance was an incessant force on the glass, pulling down 16 total rebounds but almost reaching an even split between offensive and defensive boards (nine and seven, respectively). He turned a handful of his offensive boards into scoring opportunities for himself and for teammates – his four assists were somehow the second-most by any Pelican, trailing just McCollum’s six – while his defensive boards required a physicality we’ve rarely seen to this point from the seventh year forward. As The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor tweeted, the “Cavs showed his upside, Blazers failed to make it work, and now the Pelicans might be the team to finally unlock him.”

For one game, at least, it seems that either they’ve unlocked him, or he’s unlocked his potential as a bench contributor on a roster where his skillset fits like a glove. Scouting reports back in 2015, before he was drafted, described Nance as “limited in the post,” “over-cautious in traffic,” and a forward with “clunky and rigid” footwork and a “spotty” basketball IQ. And for much of his career, he’s fit that bill. He’s never scored more than 10.1 points per game in a season. His most involved stint – which, at least from a minutes per game perspective (31.2), came in 2020-21, his final campaign as a Cav – was arguably his most inefficient.

Since being traded to New Orleans at the deadline this season, his playing time has been inconsistent, appearing in just nine games and playing a mere 20.2 minutes on average in them. He has, however, been efficient, maintaining per game shooting splits of 55-50-100 – sure, that can be attributed to a small sample size, but it’s notable.

But on Friday, at least for the night, he looked like a player who has every intention on ridding his reputation of those aforementioned shortcomings. He was decisive in the post, especially on offensive rebounds, when he often opted for a putback as opposed to an unnecessary reset. Now, entering a series against the heavily favored and top-seeded Phoenix Suns, his involvement will remain crucial.

Nance never saw the floor against the Suns once he joined the Pelicans due to injury, but he did see time in three meetings while with the Trail Blazers early in the season. His responsibilities with Portland were different – he served as a valuable floor-spacer, able to linger on the wing as a stretch-four, knocking down the occasional triple when he had room to fire. He was also an active cutter, never missing the opportunity to whizz down an open lane, receiving a pass and scoring in stride.

But with New Orleans, he’s used more as a paint-dweller, board-crasher, and dump pass option down in the restricted area. He showed flashes of that ability against the Suns with Portland, but hardly in the same manner as he’s capable of being used when being fed by a driving CJ McCollum or the upstart Jose Alvarado. Not to mention, the above the rim presence he showed in the game on Friday night could be one of big value in this series against the Suns. New Orleans has several perimeter scorers to hang with Devin Booker and co., despite not being able to outplay them completely. But the Pelicans’ frontcourt has been the lingering question mark; Valanciunas is typically a stout scorer in the painted area, but his lesser output on Friday serves as a cause for concern heading into a series against Deandre Ayton, in particular.

Nance is hardly the new age Kevin Garnett, but if he can put forth the same sort of effort he did against the Clippers, he could provide another option for a Pelicans’ team that could use them in bunches in a series no one believes they stand a chance of winning. Unlikely? Certainly. But crazier things have happened. And more unsuspecting players have been keys to a shocking upset. So, why not Nance?

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 @bywillbjarnar.