Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday guide new-look Pelicans into future
LAS VEGAS -- Did the Pelicans improve more than any other 2013 lottery team this offseason?
Pondering that question first requires the double-take that comes with the franchise's new nickname, a Gulf Coast-centric moniker that drew some guffaws and raised eyebrows when the change from 'Hornets' was officially announced earlier this year.
"I mean, it's funny, I'm not going to lie," new point guard Jrue Holiday admitted Wednesday. "It's funny saying it. 'We're the Pelicans.' But I've said it about half a million times now, so I'm used to it."
Holiday's acquisition was the centerpiece of a bold roster retooling that should give New Orleans a decent shot to jump out of the Western Conference's No. 14 spot, where they placed last year with 27 wins, and into contention for a spot in the postseason. The playoff bubble picture out West is always crowded, and the Pelicans will need to climb over the Blazers, Timberwolves and Kings -- three teams that spent money to improve this summer -- to get into a position where avoiding a third straight lottery trip could be become a reality. It's a tall order, but one that stands as a goal for a team oozing with intriguing young talent.
"[Ownership and management] want us to be competitors," Holiday said. "Starting off this year being the Pelicans, starting off something new, I think we're doing it the right way. ... We want to make the playoffs, especially with the moves that we made."
Those moves include the draft-day trade with Philadelphia that landed Holiday, a 23-year-old All-Star point guard, in exchange for the No. 6 pick in this year's draft, Nerlens Noel, and a protected 2014 first-round pick, and a three-team, sign-and-trade that landed Tyreke Evans from Sacramento. New Orleans also received second-round pick Jeff Withey, a shot-blocking specialist, from the Blazers in that move. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu was re-signed, and Anthony Morrow and Greg Stiemsma were picked up in free agency; gone are point guard Greivis Vasquez and center Robin Lopez.
While the Pistons added Josh Smith, the Bobcats added Al Jefferson, the Suns acquired Eric Bledsoe and the Blazers filled out their decrepit bench, the Holiday and Evans trades make New Orleans the only 2013 lottery team that can claim two high-profile additions without any major defections this summer.
All that action has meaningfully upgraded New Orleans' talent base without significantly aging the roster. If we consider Holiday, Eric Gordon, Evans, Ryan Anderson, 2012 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis, Aminu, Jason Smith, Austin Rivers, Stiemsma, Withey, Morrow and Brian Roberts, the Pelicans have 12 players who are 27 or younger. What's more, their five core pieces -- Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson and Davis -- are 25 or under and locked into deals that run through at least the next two seasons.
New Orleans' young talent has been on display in Las Vegas this week, where Holiday, Davis and Anderson were all invited to participate in USA Basketball's minicamp in advance of the 2014 FIBA World Cup. The Pelicans are one of just two NBA teams -- the Cavaliers being the other -- to have three players invited to Vegas, and Pelicans coach Monty Williams, one of the league's youngest head coaches at 41, has been on hand too, as he was named a USA Basketball assistant coach earlier this year.
Williams wasn't interested in elaborating on his vision for how the new pieces will fit together in line-ups, saying that it was too early in the summer to address the possibility of an increased use of smallball or how he will use Evans with Holiday and Gordon expected to start in the backcourt. The fourth-year coach did make it clear, though, that Holiday is a welcome addition on a team that finished No. 28 in defensive efficiency last season.
"Jrue can play," Williams said. "He's a big guard, can play the point, can play some two. He's got better vision than I thought. He's got such a good pace and he defends on the ball. That, to me, is something I really value. I don't know of anyone in the league that wouldn't want to have a point guard like him."
Davis, who just turned 20, sounded downright giddy when asked to discuss Holiday, replying "Who?" after hearing "Jrue" multiple times, clearly amusing himself with his Dr. Seuss-esque rhyming abilities.
"He's one of the smoothest players I've seen," Davis said. "Nothing bothers him, nothing worries him. He goes out there and does what he has to do to win. That's excellent. ... He's an exceptional player. He can definitely come off the pick and roll pretty well. He can score the ball. A leader. He wants to come right in and get involved."
The Holiday/Davis pairing is an interesting one, as both players have the potential to be among the best two-way guys at their position for years to come. Both possess generally upbeat, happy-go-lucky personalities while also being capable of flipping a switch to an ultra-competitive side on the court. Davis said that he's already enjoying a "great chemistry" with Holiday, while Holiday said Davis is "one of those guys you gravitate towards" both on and off the court.
But even though Holiday has three years and an All-Star appearance on Davis, he said that the Pelicans will ultimately go as far as Davis' rising star carries them.
"Anthony is the franchise guy," Holiday said. "I just want to bring some heart. Not saying that there wasn't heart there [in New Orleans before] but [I bring] heart, hard work, defense. Getting stops, getting out on the break. Trying to be a point guard, trying to be a leader."
That level of respect for Davis' game and potential has been commonplace in Vegas all week. USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski announced Monday that he wouldn't discuss particular players at the camp, apparently to avoid favoritism. By Wednesday, he was breaking his own rule, openly gushing about Davis, who was the last player added to the 2012 gold medal-winning Olympics team last summer.
"The very first thing [I noticed about the big men in camp] is how much Anthony Davis has developed," Krzyzewski said. "One of the reasons he was on the Olympic team was because we look and see he's a guy who is going to get a lot better and hopefully be on a number of teams. His defense in yesterday's practice was outstanding."
USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo was also effusive in his praise of Davis.
"I've seen real improvement with the guy we had last year, Anthony Davis, because we've had more time to see him," he said. "I think in the next couple of years, he has a chance to elevate himself even to another level, because he has one skill that sets him apart: he can block shots any place on the floor. He's the one big I would say, really, 'Wow.'"
Highlight blocks aside, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Davis' game this week has been his mid-range jumper. During the 2012-13 season, Davis took 62 percent of his field goal attempts in the protected circle, according to NBA.com's stats. But during portions of practice that have been open to the media, Davis has consistently taken and made elbow jumpers, looking like a young Chris Bosh or LaMarcus Aldridge at times.
"I've been working on my jumper, trying to be more versatile, expand my game," Davis explained. "That's what I've been doing. Come out here and try to show guys what I can do. They took the reins off me and said go play."
You could see the wheels turning for Holiday as he imagined the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop possibilities that will be available thanks to Davis' expanded range.
"Anthony showed me a lot more [this week]," Holiday said. "He can dribble, we know he's athletic, hitting step-back jumpers, 15-foot jumpers and all that. I didn't know he had that until now."
The biggest uncertainty regarding Davis -- aside from his health -- is what position he will play, and whether that matters.
How many minutes can Davis handle at the five? Can the Anderson/Davis combination function more effectively on the defensive end with the new pieces surrounding them? Are there enough shots to keep Gordon, Evans and Anderson happy while still maximizing Davis' offensive output? If not, what's the best approach to staggering those players in the rotation?
Williams wouldn't divulge any particulars, and Davis said that he didn't know whether he would be featured more prominently as a center.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to play," he admitted. "Last year I played some three, I played four, I played five. Whatever position, I have to be a basketball player. That's what I'm going to do."
Davis didn't sound concerned in the slightest, and it's hard to blame him. Ultimately, the Pelicans will find a way to make it work around him, as the sheer talent and extraordinary wingspan that made him the No. 1 high-school player in the country and the first player taken in last year's draft are expected to help him land a spot on USA Basketball's 2014 team.
From now until training camp, Davis can concentrate on the important stuff, like standing up for his team's new name.
"I love it, the Pelicans, [Louisiana's] state bird," he said. "Our colors are nice, our logo is nice, we just started on a new slate."
Initial jokes aside, Holiday eventually got in line with The Franchise.