The New Orleans Pelicans entered the last NBA draft armed with zero lottery picks, but the strongest of arguments can made that their 2021 rookie class shined the brightest, standing above all others come season’s end.
Let’s revisit our initial evaluations of the 2021 NBA Draft. What grade would you give the New Orleans front office now for their choices made last summer?
Kevin Barrios: A+
I gave the draft a B+ this offseason and that was too low. One of my biggest gripes was dumping all of the second-round picks that the Pelicans had. I really liked a lot of players in the 2nd round and was hoping to have a stacked Birmingham Squad — some of the guys I had targeted looked promising. However, that feeling changed quickly.
Herb Jones ascended into defensive star territory while also showing flashes of blooming into a capable offensive player, making any gripes about missing out on the Greg Brown IIIs of the world seem silly now.
Trey Murphy III also looks to be a great young player. He probably should have been starting down the stretch and in the playoffs because he has proven to be more than just a shooter. He has a high basketball IQ, is a solid defender, fights for rebounds and loose balls, plays with intensity and will dunk on his grandmother — I now, perhaps irrationally, expect him to become some modern version of Rasheed Wallace.
While Jose Alvarado was not drafted, you also have to lump him in with this rookie class. He was a huge part of the cultural shift we witnessed this season. He made up for the Devonte’ Graham mistake — even if the coaching staff took way too long to figure that out — with his heart, hustle, mosquito-like annoyance on defense, floater, camouflaged steal attempts, rebounding and his ability to run the offense.
While none of these rookies may ever reach the ceiling of an Evan Mobley or a Cade Cunningham, they are winning players that slot perfectly around true stars like Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and CJ McCollum. Having inexpensive contributors, who will likely not demand a max contract, allow for a franchise to field a highly competitive roster in an environment that usually places such limitations on small markets. Nailing the role players around the stars is a key in going from a good team to a championship contender that can survive even while missing a star for a stretch of games. Therefore, I have to give the draft an A+ — especially when considering the draft positions the front office found themselves in.
Travis Tate: A+
I, like many here, had a generally hopeful attitude when considering the rookies, but nobody could have expected what we had by April. Trey, Herb, and Jose are *quite* the collection for a team trying to surround three bona fide stars. They’re an A+ and I’m guessing the best overall class of any team in the league with three or more picks/signings.
Charlie Gonzalez: A+
Honestly, I’m impressed with how dead on my assessment of the draft was! Also I’m fairly shocked that I was as positive on likely dumping the Lakers’ first-rounder in the Jonas Valanciunas trade. But overall my primary excitement that garnered the team an “A” grade really bore out. Murphy showcased his sharpshooting, developed well and showed his knack for improvement, playing the perfect 3-and-D role the team desperately needed.
Like many, we simply couldn’t have predicted #NotOnHerb. The acquisition of Jones at the 35th pick has serious potential to be franchise altering. He would easily go in the top 10, if not higher, in a redraft. I nailed the aspects about Jones we saw all year with regards to his defense, work ethic and tenacity. What I neglected to realize was how much of a facilitator and playmaker Jones would be able to become at the next level. Plus, I called Jones being Vinson’s next major success story. (This year it’s going to be Jose Alvarado.)
Speaking of Alvarado, I think you have to consider his success when you look at this draft class and grade the results for the front office. They simply could not have done better in providing for this roster, team and culture then to acquire the three rookies they did. All three have become folk heroes in one season and should only elevate their status gaining more reps and a chance to improve this summer. Think I’ll bump my “A” up to an “A+”.
David Fisher: A+
Whew. I really lamented selecting Herb Jones over Ayo Dosunmu? WRONG! I thought Jones was destined for a long stint in Birmingham and instead he was a stalwart starter and one of the best defenders in the entire league as a rookie. While Dosunmu was good this season, he is leagues behind Jones and I’ll make an argument that Jose Alvarado was a more impactful player this season as an undrafted rookie free agent.
Alvarado may be the soul of the New Orleans Pelicans. No one embodies what this franchise is about better than a 6’0” (probably more like 5’10”) UDFA who will pick you up full court for every minute he is on the floor. He’s a fan favorite and he is good. Really, really good.
Trey Murphy III took some time to find his footing in the league. The last two months of the season and postseason were absolutely incredible. Per 36 minutes he was putting up 15.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1,6 assists with a .450/.443/.900 slash line and a 62.9% TS%. You think he’s just a shooter? WRONG!
All that with good defense that was constantly getting better? A+ for David Griffin, Trajan Langdon, Swin Cash, and everyone else involved with the Pelicans draft board last summer.
Oleh Kosel: A+
Expectations were decently high but tempered immediately after the 2021 Draft. My initial grade of the two New Orleans selections was a B. The Pelicans needed to improve their defense and find some shooting. The additions of Trey Murphy and Herb Jones fit the bill.
Things worked out a whole lot better than that, right?
The Pelicans walked away with the best class despite picking 17th and 35th, and then utilizing a two-way contract on an undrafted player. This shouldn’t elicit much of an argument in my opinion. Jones (1), Jose Alvarado (4) and Murphy (10) all finished in the top 10 of FiveThirtyEight’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) metric among rookies receiving 500+ minutes. (This includes minutes from the regular season and playoffs.)
“Without a doubt,” Murphy said during his season exit interview on whether the Pelicans have the best draft class. “There shouldn’t be any question. How many rookies played in the playoffs this year or as a group? Did they even log the amount of minutes as we did?”
The trio each averaged 19.5 minutes or more in the postseason. Only Scottie Barnes met that threshold among rookies on other teams. Willie Green showed confidence in his young guns and rightfully so.
Jones is already considered by many to be a top 10 defender in the league, but he also possesses playmaking skills and capabilities in transition. A lot of future value hinges on his ability to knock down shots and there was good progress made on that front.
After surpassing 70% once from the free throw line in college, Jones posted an 84.0 FT% in his first pro campaign. While his 33.7 3PT% doesn’t jump off the page, Jones showed steady improvement, culminating in a fine Play-In showing (42.9%) and playoffs (41.7%).
Alvarado didn’t crack the regular rotation until January, but once he did, he never left. By the end of the season, the SKC crowds regularly chanted his name after a momentum-changing play. Opponents dreaded handling the ball around him.
Jose Alvarado finished with a 4.2 steal percentage during the regular season. For comparison, Matisse Thybulle led the league at 3.4%. (Herb Jones finished fourth at 2.7%.) Yeah, Jose’s a terror, so don’t be surprised if he finishes next season atop the steals leaderboard.
Trey Murphy III experienced the most uneven campaign among three Pelican rookies, but he flashes the highest ceiling. He wields a deadly outside jumper inside that 6’8 athletic frame. Who will ever forget his Play-In performance against the Clippers to help the Pelicans come from behind and advance to the playoffs??
There’s going to be countless more articles written on Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado and Trey Murphy. Why? Because they were the best of the best and it’s likely they’ll continue to prove that true collectively down the road.