On February 17 entering the All-Star Break, the New Orleans Pelicans were 23-36 and looking like a team that was going to be in contention for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Two months later, the Pelicans found themselves beginning a first-round playoff series with the Phoenix Suns, the best team in the NBA this season.
New Orleans ultimately lost this series to the Suns, ending their season on Thursday, but they went head-to-head with the league’s No. 1 overall team record-wise and not only won a playoff game on their home court for the first-time since 2018, but they also went on the road and won a game in Phoenix during this series, something that only happened nine times during the regular season.
The turnaround this group made post-All-Star break and the job first-year head coach Willie Green did with this year’s Pelicans team is nothing short of spectacular and now, the future is looking very bright for a young New Orleans franchise.
Obviously losing in the playoffs is never fun and no team ever wishes to lose, but the Pelicans are definitely viewing their defeat to the Suns as a moral victory simply because nobody expected them to be in the playoffs halfway through the regular season.
Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Zion Williamson have a chance to be one of the best trios in the entire league heading into the 2022-23 season and with the team also having Jonas Valanciunas, Devonte’ Graham and other key young talents, this is just the start of something great in New Orleans.
However, with the offseason upon them, questions about what this Pelicans’ roster will look like heading into next season are being asked.
Between the NBA Draft, their current youth and upcoming contract situations, the New Orleans Pelicans’ front-office is going to be busy figuring out what the best path to success is for them in the offseason.
Zion Williamson’s Future In New Orleans
Zion Williamson sat out the entire 2021-22 season this year due to a fractured foot he suffered last offseason.
During his offseason training and workouts in 2021, Williamson suffered a broken right foot that required surgery to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal.
Initially, the Pelicans thought that Zion would be ready for the start of the regular season, but then they kept pushing back his return by a few weeks at a time.
By December, many were skeptical of if the young All-Star would play at all this season and then it was announced that the Pelicans’ star may have to undergo a second surgical procedure on his foot due to setbacks during his recovery process.
This injury and the 21-year-old rehabbing away from the team in Portland for half of the season casted a ton of doubt on Zion Williamson’s long-term future in New Orleans, especially given that there has been speculation in the past about him not wanting to stay long-term.
There were reports near the 2019 NBA Draft that Zion wanted to be drafted by the New York Knicks and following the 2020-21 season, there was talk about family members and those close to the young forward wanting him to leave New Orleans in the near future.
Throughout all the doubt and speculation, Zion Williamson has remained loyal so far to the Pelicans organization and everything appears to be fine between not only him and management, but him and his teammates as well.
“I just want to be there for [Williamson] and be someone to lean on who has gone through injuries and doubt and anxiety and all of the things that are associated with being removed from the team due to injury,” veteran guard CJ McCollum said back in March in regards to Williamson. “He’s a really young, talented player that has got a lot on his plate right now. I think it’s important for him to focus on the process and on the rehab. The rest of the things will handle itself.”
From the end of the regular season through the playoffs, Zion Williamson was with the Pelicans and was present at practices, working on his own game and trying to get back to full-speed and full-intensity workouts.
As for what the future holds for Williamson, there is still a lot up-in-the-air about his situation.
Eligible for a rookie extension of five-years and north of $180 million, the Pelicans have a big decision to make in regards to extending their All-Star forward given his year-long absence.
On Friday during his season-ending exit interview, Zion Williamson was asked about a potential extension from the Pelicans and said “of course” he would sign a new deal if offered, even going as far to state that he “couldn’t sign it fast enough” if presented to him.
This is certainly an encouraging sign for the Pelicans as an organization and now, time will tell if Williamson is actually willing to commit to his team long-term or if this was just an act put on in front of the media.
Extension Talks With CJ McCollum
Trading for CJ McCollum at the trade deadline this season ended up being one of the biggest moves in the NBA and one of the most impactful additions in the league.
McCollum fit in perfectly with the Pelicans this season and with Zion Williamson being out, the veteran guard proved to be the essential second star this team was missing next to Brandon Ingram.
While he has never been an All-Star, the 30-year-old shooting guard has always been one of the more well-respected players in the league and has always been one of the better scoring guards.
Eligible for a veteran extension worth upwards of $118.2 million, CJ McCollum had this to say recently when asked about if he wants to stay in New Orleans long-term.
“I’m not going nowhere. I’m here,” McCollum told Andscape’s Marc J. Spears. “Where am I going to go? Leave for what? I want to retire here. I’m 30 years old and I have a son who is 13 weeks old. I’m married. When you have something good, you hold on to it. This is something fun for both sides. We’re going to grow. I’m still learning the city. I’m going to find a house.”
Building something special in New Orleans is something high on McCollum’s priority list right now and after challenging the 64-win Phoenix Suns in the first-round of the playoffs, it is very clear to see that the Pelicans are on the verge of being a force.
“I can’t say anything about that. We haven’t talked yet. I haven’t talked to upper management,” McCollum said in regards to the possibility of an upcoming extension. “But I told my wife before I left [Portland] that ‘Wherever I go, I want to finish my career. New Orleans is on the list of places I would like to finish my career.’ I told my agent that. I’m not about bouncing around. I don’t go through free agency. I’ve been in the league nine years. Have you ever seen me be a free agent? When I’m committed to something, I’m committed to it. New Orleans, in my mind, I’m finishing my career here. That is how I devote myself to a city, things and people.”
CJ McCollum enters the offseason with just one more year left on his contract, set to make $35.8 million during the 2022-23 season before unrestricted free agency.
Pelicans’ Youth Primed To Take Big Leap In 22-23
Having a “three-headed monster” in Ingram, McCollum and Williamson will be huge for the New Orleans Pelicans, but what they discovered the most about themselves this season is that their youth is well ahead of schedule in terms of development.
Herbert Jones was drafted 35th overall in 2021 by the Pelicans and he not only turned out to be a starter for them most of the year, but he finished the regular season as one of the best overall rookies from the 2021 NBA Draft.
In 78 regular season games, Jones averaged 9.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals and shot 47.6% from the floor. Being an elite-level two-way forward, Herb Jones was able to play multiple different roles for the Pelicans this season and guard some of the best this league has to offer as a result.
“It’s incredible to see his attention to detail, his athleticism,” McCollum said in regards to the rookie forward during the playoffs. “I’ve never seen a guy this young, this smart, this sharp, this unbothered, this unfazed. He’s getting the toughest assignments every night.”
Jones finished the regular season ranked third amongst all players in steals (130) and tied for 36th in the league in blocked shots (60).
Trey Murphy III, the Pelicans first-round pick in 2021 and Jose Alvarado, an undrafted rookie that went from a two-way player to a core talent in the backcourt, were also two young rookies that stepped up this season in different ways.
While his minutes were limited on the wing, Murphy showed flashes of his potential as a “3-and-D” player in this league and his athleticism as a runner in transition is something New Orleans is very excited about.
As for Jose Alvarado, he quickly became the “heart and soul” of the Pelicans late in the season. A fan-favorite, Alvarado made a name for himself being a hard-nosed defender that did not back down from any assignment, even if it was to guard future Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul in the first-round of the playoffs!
The undrafted rookie earned himself a standard NBA contract with the Pelicans after playing well on his two-way deal near the end of the regular season and now, he will enter the offseason as one of the key players on New Orleans’ bench.
One of the younger teams in the league, the Pelicans also still have Kira Lewis Jr., who is coming off a torn ACL, and sharpshooter Devonte’ Graham as youthful assets on their roster.
With Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson also still being young talents, the Pelicans have a lot to look forward to this offseason in terms of developing their young core further.
2022 NBA Draft
The New Orleans Pelicans already have a strong, young core in place and they will be able to add even more youthful talent to their roster in the offseason via the NBA Draft.
While they traded away their own first-round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft to the Charlotte Hornets as part of the sign-and-trade deal to acquire Devonte’ Graham last offseason, New Orleans does own the Los Angeles Lakers first-round pick this season, assuming it ends up inside the Top-10.
Finishing the regular season 33-49, the Lakers currently have a 99.5% chance of their pick landing inside of the Top-10 during the NBA Draft Lottery, so it is pretty safe to assume that New Orleans will be acquiring this pick.
With a ton of athletic and versatile players in this year’s draft class, there is really no telling to what the Pelicans could look to add.
A lot of their decision will likely factor into the idea of taking the “best available talent” that falls to them, but should this pick end up eighth or ninth overall, prospects like AJ Griffin (Duke), Johnny Davis (Wisconsin), Jeremy Sochan (Baylor) and Ochai Agbaji (Kansas) could all be options on the wing for the Pelicans to consider.
Davis and Agbaji are more of offensive-minded talents at the shooting guard position, as Sochan is more of a defensive-oriented player on the wing like Herbert Jones and Griffin is an 18-year-old wing with a ton of two-way potential, similar to Brandon Ingram when he was being evaluated coming out of Duke in 2016.
Maybe the Pelicans will consider other, older prospects with their lottery pick in this year’s draft simply because they have a ton of youth already and are looking for “win-now” pieces that can join the organization and help them get back to competing in the playoffs.
Potentially having this Top-10 pick, the Pelicans will also be presented with opportunities to trade their draft pick in attempts to land another big name player.
Cap-wise, New Orleans could have a tough time taking on another big contract, especially if they are to extend McCollum and Williamson in the offseason, but Devonte’ Graham, Larry Nance Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas could potentially be moved in a deal for the Pelicans to get an “upgrade” somewhere else on their roster.
It is going to be very interesting to see what the Pelicans’ front-office has in store this offseason and everything for them will start with the 2022 NBA Draft.
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