The NBA’s free agency frenzy is about to begin but Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin says to expect a calm, quiet summer. It’s getting easier to believe him after the problems of the past were replaced with an inspired playoff run. The only worry surrounding this stacked roster is the issue of not having a surplus of developmental minutes for the younger players like Dyson Daniels and Kira Lewis Jr.
Head Coach Willie Green has a good problem on his hands going into the training camp. With Zion Williamson returning, the Pelicans are stacked with more talent than they have minutes available. It’s just one piece of evidence Griffin’s approach is working after three years on the job.
Alvin Gentry, Stan Van Gundy, Anthony Davis, and Jrue Holiday are all gone for differing reasons. They’ve been replaced by Willie Green, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum, Dyson Daniels, and Zion Williamson. This new foundation has the feel of a championship core. Finding a way to keep everyone happy is Green’s next big coaching challenge.
Stars Sell Tickets
Brandon Ingram (34 mpg) has averaged 34 minutes per game the last four seasons. He had a breakout performance in the NBA Playoffs but was an All-Star team snub. Look for the Duke product to show off his skill set a little longer this season.
Zion Williamson (33 mpg) has averaged 25.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game on 60.4% shooting from the floor. However, the 2019 first overall pick has only played 85 professional games. He can now play with no restrictions and the “max level player” appears to be in the greatest shape of his life going by the new Nike ads. The Pelicans will not pause to sign him to a contract extension and the minutes that come with such a deal.
CJ McCollum (33 mpg) gave the Portland Trail Blazers between 33-36 minutes a night for most of the last decade. With Ingram and Williamson leading the charge, McCollum will be afforded some extra breaks while the young guys finish out games.
The Pelicans will be winning more blowout games than they lose next season. Ingram, McCollum, and Williamson will still average at least 90-95 minutes combined per game.
Seeing More Of The Supporting Cast
Herb Jones (30 mpg) was an All-Defensive team snub but is still refining his shot and ballhandling. The second-round sensation played 84 games, logging 2.561 minutes, and led all rookies with 130 steals, good for third-best in the entire NBA. Jones blocked 60 shots and solidified a starting role going into training camp.
Jonas Valanciunas (25 mpg) has helped improve the team culture on every stop of his professional journey. From Toronto to Memphis and now New Orleans, the big man from Lithuania has fought through the bumps and bruises associated with the job and still soldiered on during deep playoff runs.
The well-respected veteran will give Williamson room to operate and the team will give the 30-year-old some longer breaks during the regular season. Still, he will have the time to post a similar 17.8 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. Willie Green will not just sit a big man that makes 54.4% of his shots, including 82.0% from the free-throw line and 36.1% from three-point range.
Larry Nance Jr. (20 mpg) was immediately trusted, playing most of his 350 minutes with New Orleans during the NBA Playoffs. The self-described "winning basketball player" said during exit interviews, “Whatever the team needs from me. I was coming in with an open mind, and just trying to get in where I fit in. One thing I can tell you is there’s a place on every single team for a winning player. That’s all I tried to be night in and night out.”
Jose Alvarado (15 mpg) will fight for minutes just to prove he was no one-hit-wonder. The undrafted free agent fought through the G-League to earn every dollar on his newly-sign four-year deal. He will be pushed for minutes but he will not be pushed around.
The competition is good for the team and so is Alvarado’s energy, even when he was a relatively unknown newcomer sitting at the end of the bench. Now, after hounding Chris Paul for six games, the NBA knows he can shoot as well as defend. The next challenge is stepping up to run the reserve unit offense or risk losing his court time.
Playoff Tested Reserves
The Pelicans have roughly 180 minutes allotted to the top seven players. Trey Murphy III (20 mpg) pushes it up to around 200 minutes. He had to spend some extra time with the Birmingham Squadron to get more comfortable with the NBA's three-point arc but the 17th overall pick found his confidence and was crucial to the team's late-season success.
Murphy III's 21-point outburst against the Los Angeles Lakers will not be soon forgotten. He will get some leeway to start the 2022-23 season even if there are bumps in the learning curve.
Naji Marshall (10 mpg) plays with energy off the bench and has become a well-rounded wing option. Marshall, like Alvarado, knows the path of an undrafted two-way player. The Xavier (Ohio) product could barely get off the bench until February but averaged 16 minutes per game once he did. Marshall has proven to be an invaluable defensive presence off the bench but this is where the minute crunch starts to really affect the roster.
Marshall and Murphy III may not get 20 minutes consistently, they will be part of the rotational plans. However, Jaxson Hayes (10 mpg) and Devonte’ Graham (10 mpg) will need a few minutes if only to build up their trade value if they are on the team to start the season.
Hayes, Graham, Nance Jr., and Garrett Temple (CD-DNP) are the most obvious trade options to move during free agency. The Pelicans will have to earmark some minutes to entice any significant offseason acquisition through a trade or free agency.
Just Hoping To See The Court
Dyson Daniels will have to earn the few extra minutes available. Willie Green will not just run someone out when there are more deserving players on the bench. GM Trajan Langdon said Daniels did not hide from any competition, showing the right attitude during the draft process.
The 8th overall pick explained, "Any NBA team you go to, you have to earn your spot no matter what. They have a great team here. They have scorers. They have Zion coming back. I feel like I can fit so many different roles. I can be a playmaker...My game is rapidly improving and I'm a winner. I going to do whatever it takes to help us win."
Kira Lewis Jr. will likely be restricted to start the season after having surgery in December though there is a belief he could participate in camp. Daniels and Lewis Jr. are the two youngest players on the team. Those fresh legs need to develop enough to lessen CJ McCollum’s burden towards the end of the regular season. The Pelicans need McCollum ready for at least 16 extra postseason battles.
Willy Hernangomez averaged 9.1 points and 6.8 rebounds. He had 20 points and 10 rebounds in Philadelphia, keeping the shorthanded Pelicans close in a respectable loss to the 76ers. That attitude is why David Griffin said, “We refused to trade him because of what he gives the group (from a chemistry and locker-room standpoint).”
Hernangomez finished the 2021-22 season 8th overall in rebounds per minute. Only Stephen Adams grabbed more offensive rebounds per minute. There are multiple teams interested in the Spanish international and he has the talent to step into a bigger role than he has filled in New Orleans. If he can be traded for a first-round pick, or be included in a deal instead of sending out draft assets, the Pelicans might have to listen. Hernangomez versus Jaxson Hayes might be the most interesting training camp battle to watch.
E.J. Liddell was never expected to fall to the 42nd overall pick according to Trajan Langdon. The Pelicans scooped him up though and might have landed the steal of the draft. Liddell averaged 19.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.5 blocks per game at Ohio State, earning third-team All-American, first-team All-Big Ten, and Big Ten All-Defensive honors. Liddell led the Buckeyes in scoring, rebounding, blocks, free throws made and attempted, and was second in assists.
There are social media threads calling him the next Draymond Green. If that is anywhere close to the truth, Liddell will get some minutes on a Willie Green coaching squad. The 6-foot 7-inch, 240 pounds second-rounder is heading to Las Vegas looking to throw his weight around.
With no big Davis or Holiday trades looming, the front office insists they will be observing the markets more than proactively engaging in a search for a deal. General manager Trajan Langdon said New Orleans’ front office “likes the team as it stands. I don’t think we’ll be calling people to try to make specific moves with our guys. But we have to be open to calls. If there is any time we feel there is a chance to get better, we’re going to listen. I think that’s going to be our approach over the next few weeks.”
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