Pelicans

Pelicans Putting West on Notice with Glimpse at Potential

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The New Orleans Pelicans have star power.

Zion Williamson. Brandon Ingram. CJ McCollum. But it’s been the depth of the Pelicans that have shone through recently and why they sit near the top of the Western Conference.

Despite being without multiple starters for much of the last three weeks, the Pelicans have found their stride.

They haven’t been doing it with their offense in this recent stretch, which might be the most encouraging part. The Pelicans have been locking teams up defensively. They aren’t winning strictly due to having gifted offensive players. The team is buying in at the defensive end and different players are stepping up each night.

New Orleans is winning games in a variety of ways which is encouraging for a young squad. What makes the 23-14 Pelicans such a tough team? Let’s dive in.

Star power

You really can’t be a contender in the NBA without stars.

New Orleans has it with Zion Williamson. But to think it’s just Zion would be a mistake. Surrounding him you have solid supportive sidekicks in Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum. Add-in solid big man Jonas Valanciunas and the Pelicans have a solid core with a bonafide star.

This year, though, Ingram has had issues staying healthy. He has played in just 15 games due to a toe injury, averaging 20.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. Ingram was also shooting 47% from the field and a blistering 47% from three.

McCollum is averaging 20.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per contest, too. Upon Ingram’s return, the Pelicans have the makings of an extremely dangerous team to come out of the Western Conference.

Mt. Zion

Williamson is giving everyone a glimpse at the potential the everyone saw in him.

He is an athletic freak but hadn’t been able to stay healthy. New Orleans ponied up, paying Williamson the max, worth up to $231 million over five years. He has made the Pels look brilliant, averaging 26.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists on over 60% shooting.

He is letting the entire league know what he can do and how scary New Orleans is. As of January 3rd, the team is a half game behind Memphis for the No. 2 seed in the West with Ingram missing over half of the games while Zion is playing at an elite level.

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Balance & Depth

Zion playing well isn’t the only reason the Pels are where they are right now.

The aforementioned star-player necessity still requires quality depth as a compliment. The Pelicans have really created their own depth with young players. New Orleans has 10 players (!) who average more than 19 minutes per game. They are also fourth in the percentage of their minutes that have gone to first or second-year players.

The Pelicans have three second-year players — Herb Jones, Trey Murphy and Jose Alvarado — in their rotation, and (though Jones has missed nine games) all three are in the top 14 in total minutes among second-year players. And Dyson Daniels’ 525 minutes rank 16th among rookies.

The Pelicans got Jones back recently, but Ingram suffered a setback in his return from a left toe sprain. He’s now missed 17-straight games and the Pelicans have had their preferred starting lineup available in just once since late November.

This depth has suited the Pels well and despite missing multiple starters, including Zion thumped the Pacers by 20 at home Dec. 26. The yet-to-be-mentioned Naji Marshall scored 22 points.

Defense

Defense has held the Pelicans back in recent years.

It is where the team has been worse than average in each of the last four seasons. They’ve answered those questions, and they — amazingly — rank sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency. They’re just a hair from being the only team that ranks in the top five on both ends of the floor, even though they’ve had their starting lineup together for just one of their last 17 games.

The Pelicans have seen the biggest drop in opponent three-point percentage, from 36.5% (26th) last season to 33.7% (second) this season.

Increased playmaking

Williamson and McCollum are viewed largely as scorers

But both have distributed the ball and are well-rounded players with great scoring ability. The pair has taken a significant leap and are averaging career highs in assists. McCollum averages only 3.6 assists per game for his career, but this year averages 6.1 per contest. He never had a season where he averaged five per year until last year, when he was traded to New Orleans and averaged 5.8 dimes a game. Zion hasn’t averaged more than four assists per game, but sits at 4.6 right now.

Both have the reputation of scorers, but now they are making their teammates better.

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Adds up to Pelicans being a contender

In a wide-open West, the Pelicans have the makings of a contender. We saw the Suns come out of the West two years ago in a pretty open West. This year it really could be almost any of the West’s playoff teams to reach the NBA Finals.

With star power and young depth, why not the Pelicans?

About Mitchell Skurzewski

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