After a successful run that resulted in several play-in victories and taking the Phoenix Suns to six games in their playoff series, the New Orleans Pelicans could have decided to bask in the glory of a great turnaround.
Herb Jones never left the gym during the offseason months. Trey Murphy gained 13 pounds of muscle since the end of the last campaign. Willy Hernangomez won the MVP award in leading Spain to a gold medal in EuroBasket. And Zion Williamson’s chiseled physique was so impressive on media day that David Griffin, staffers and media alike couldn’t help but smile far and wide.
“This group is about work rate,” Griffin said. “They’re about honoring commitment to one another. Our players worked harder than any group I’ve seen this offseason by leaps and bounds. I’ve been with a championship team. I’ve been with teams that went to the finals several times, the conference finals several times. I’ve never seen a young group work for each other as hard as this group did.”
“I think all of our players, they understand what we were able to accomplish and we want to build on that,” Willie Green said. “That’s our mentality coming into camp. Nothing is going to be given to us. There is a bit of some expectations out there. And that’s good, that means we have a chance to be a good team.”
Without a doubt, Williamson, who hasn’t played in an NBA game since May 4, 2021, has the most to prove. However, if his leaner frame and summer workouts are any indication, Zion will soon resume taking the league by storm.
Not only did he announce that he’s moving faster and jumping higher, Williamson had sensations of doing things athletically for the first time in his life during workouts.
"I'm in the gym and something happens... I'm like 'Oh man, I can really do that! That's different!'" pic.twitter.com/pQpzfJPXZV— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) September 26, 2022
Equally as important, Zion is in a good place mentally.
“I found true resolve within the game of basketball,” Williamson said. “Something mentally in me shifted, changed and the game of basketball, that’s it for me. That’s my love. That’s what I want to do.”
All of this is great news for the Pelicans — but should be near terrifying for the rest of the league.
Last year’s group without Williamson was able to dig themselves out of a 3-16 start and play above .500 ball the rest of the way. They enjoyed post season success without CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. knowing much of the playbook. There were a lot of fresh faces.
Now these three vital players will be fully integrated in the attack. Jose Alvarado, Jones and Murphy are no longer rookies that had to learn teammates, referees and just the rigors of the Association on the fly. Don’t also forget that Willie Green is no longer a first-time head coach.
“Last season I just didn’t know what to expect,” Green said. “You just don’t know what you don’t know. I have a better grasp on how I want to start camp, a better grasp on the players that we have because we pretty much have the same team. I think we can be more advanced in the things that we’re running on both ends of the floor.”
In addition to those individuals benefitting from last season, remember Jonas Valanciunas remains one of the steadiest centers in the game. Larry Nance Jr. is primed to make a greater impact as he confirmed yesterday that he was never fully healthy after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last February. Devonte’ Graham should be chomping at the bit to show last season’s oft shooting slumps are a thing of the past and Jaxson Hayes is entering a contract year.
Then there’s Dyson Daniels. Don’t make the mistake of overlooking the newest addition to the New Orleans roster because he might be ready to contribute right from the jump.
“You’re going to see a different Dyson than you saw in one game, I’ll tell you that” Langdon said. “We saw a different Dyson when he came back. Probably from mid-August, he didn’t mess around. He was frustrated at the fact he couldn’t play in the summer league. I think in just the lead-up, with the pre-draft process and going through the draft and going into summer league, he was fatigued.
“He’s not a guy that you have to run plays for him. You can throw him on the court with anybody. He’s a worker. He’s a competitor. He’s going to push practice. He’s going to get better, but he’s going to make everyone around him better as well.”
This should remind you of another on the roster — Herb Jones. The eighth pick of the 2022 NBA draft not only has a great motor, his body is NBA-ready, he thinks the game really well for a rookie and he oozes defensive ability.
With the Pelicans possessing so many talented and committed players, the message of how competitive training camp will be from Langdon, Griffin and Green is important. Not everyone is going to receive consistent playing time, even if the coaching staff decides to roll with a 10-man rotation.
Take for example, Willy Hernangomez. He has oftentimes been the third-string center on the depth chart since arriving in New Orleans. He reiterated multiple times during media day that he wants to play.
“I’m prepared,” Hernangomez said. “My confidence is super high. Everyone saw when I get minutes, I can be one of the best centers. For me, I just want to keep doing what I do and that is play basketball — and I expect to play.
“Jonas and I, we had a bet: the winner of that game between Spain and Lithuania was going to be the starting center. So, I guess you’ll see me here.”
While Hernangomez was joking, of course, I don’t believe it’s safe to assume that Jaxson is set to receive minutes ahead of Willy. Or Devonte is assured time over Dyson. And where does Naji Marshall fit into this mix?
The only given is that the starting five is set in stone (McCollum, Jones, Ingram, Williamson and Valanciunas). Murphy, Nance and Alvarado have probably clinched back-up roles, at least initially. As for the rest of those outside of Kira Lewis Jr., who is still in the midst of rehab and not progressed to 5-on-5 work yet, it’s a complete tossup.
Competition is a really good thing, provided the “disease of me” stays entirely away. While the ups and downs of an 82-game schedule lead to practically all receiving playing time at some point, not everyone is going to welcome their early-season roles with open arms. However, distractions should not be expected as the camaraderie is as strong as it’s likely ever been inside the New Orleans locker room.
The lasting message from this year’s media day was succinctly stated by the Pelicans general manager.
“I think the biggest thing is our guys are ready,” Langdon said. “The amount of work they’ve put in over the summer. The amount of time they’ve been here. The amount of time they’ve been together. These guys have gotten better.”
There’s good reason why fans have been excited for months in New Orleans. Without a doubt, Media Day 2022 only further cemented those feelings.