With Zion sidelined, Brandon Ingram became the Pelicans' unquestioned leader on the court. He took the step many hoped he would take while playing in Los Angeles, but the fit never seemed right there and New Orleans allowed him to shine. He averaged 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He has become a reliable outside shooter, shooting at a 38.7 percent clip from beyond the arch to go with his 46.6 percent shooting from the field. Going forward, Ingram and Zion provide a great one-two punch in the front court and Ingram’s ability to spot up from outside and pass really complements Zion’s skills well.
Zion is obviously the present and future for the Pelicans. When he finally made his season debut, he made the most of it and made an impact in limited minutes. He also showed off a perimeter game that many didn’t expect. In fact most draft analysis dinged Zion for his perimeter shooting. He averaged 23.6 points per game and his shooting percentages were solid in his rookie campaign. While he is undersized at power forward, Zion has shown that it really is not an issue. His athleticism allows him to drive from the perimeter and his strength makes him a challenge down in the paint. If he can develop a better midrange game, he will be much more dangerous so that defenders don't sag off him just to deny his penetration.
Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball share the ball-handling duties for New Orleans. Ball averaged 12.4 points and seven assists per game. Holiday averaged 19.6 points and 6.9 assists. Holiday is obviously more of a scorer, but Ball can be hard to stop in transition. The backcourt combination works well for the Pelicans.
New Orleans uses Derrick Favors at center, but he’s not someone they rely on much for offense, although he adds an extra 10 points per game. They get the same type of performance from Josh Hart off the bench. Hart can go off for some big-scoring nights at times, but he’s very inconsistent on a night-to-night basis.
Perhaps their most important bench scorer is JJ Redick. He’s good for about 15 points per game and gives the Pelicans another long-range scoring option, averaging 45 percent from beyond the arch last season. He also moves well without the ball and keeps the offense in motion.
Defense is where New Orleans struggles most. Most games they have to really rely on offense and have the ability to keep pace with their opponents because the defense simply does not make enough stops. They do have the potential to be much better though. Lead assistant Jeff Bzdelk is one of the better defensive minds in the league, and their backcourt of Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday is among one of the top defensive backcourts in the league.
The Pelicans need some help in some key areas like rim protection, perimeter defense and defensive rebounding. For as much of a star as Zion can be, he is not a great rebounder, with averages at about seven per game - but only four of those come on the defensive end. While Derrick Favors picks up some of the slack but it’s not enough.
Sticking with Zion, he has the potential to be a solid defender, but he still reaches a lot for steals and gambles when trying to jump into passing lanes to try to get into transition offense. Sometimes that pulls him out of position. He can also struggle in pick-and-pop situations against bigs that can shoot from the perimeter, but on the positive, he can switch on smaller players and have the speed and athleticism to keep up with them and use his low center of gravity and strength to defend bigs down low. He was an improvement for New Orleans on defense when he became active, but there’s definitely some room to grow.
At the same time, Brandon Ingram made several improvements and showed some real growth last year. He has the tools in speed, height and athleticism to become a very good defender. If he progressed a bit more in that area, he could really become a superstar-level player and bring the Pelicans to the next level.
Alvin Gentry is a very well respected coach around the NBA. When he hasn’t been a head coach, he’s been a top assistant to some of the best head coaches in the league. I think he’s also the right fit for a young roster that is transitioning.
Aside from his ability to teach and develop young talent, which will especially be tested with Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, he has assembled a nice staff. We already addressed Bzdelik as one of the top defensive minds, but his associated head coach on offense is Chris Finch, who is as highly regarded for his work on the offensive end as Bzdelik is on defense. Fred Vinson is a holdover who has playing experience and a ton of international coaching experience. Former NBA player Michael Ruffin and former WNBA great Teresa Weatherspoon are on the player development staff
Former NBA player and current Pelicans GM Trajan Langdon has done a nice job, getting some good talent back in the Anthony Davis trade and making some solid draft choices. He also went out and signed Derrick Favors and JJ Redick knowing the young Pelicans needed some veteran experience and leadership. He also seems to have found a gem in Nicolo Melli.
The Pelicans do have some choices to make though as Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, Jahlil Okafor, Frank Jackson and Kenrich Williams all become free agents. Favors has held down the center position well and Jackson is the primary backup at point guard. Moore is a nice player to have off the bench, but he has struggled with a lot of injuries lately.
They will have some roster and cap flexibility to possibly go after another few veteran pieces that can help them get to that next level, so the outlook really depends on what they choose to do in the offseason, but things seem to be heading in the right direction.
New Orleans Pelicans Roster FAQ
Will the Pelicans look to extend Ingram this summer or will they just give him the qualifying offer?
While Zion Williamson made a big impact on the team when he became activated, you can’t overlook what Brandon Ingram did for the team prior to that and that it seems like Ingram can still be as dominant with Zion on the floor, something he was unable to do with LeBron James. Ingram seems like a long-term piece for New Orleans. While it’s not a big-market team, Ingram already had that experience in LA, and he has to feel good about finally finding a comfort level. Aside from that, it seems like being part of a young core that could rapidly improve would be a tempting reason to stay around. Langdon has to make it a priority to get him signed to an extension this summer. If they just sign him to the qualifying offer of $9.4 million, Ingram becomes a free agent at the end of next year, and that would set back the team’s progress even more.
Will New Orleans look to make their own free agent, Derrick Favors, a priority in the offseason?
Favors is no doubt a bit undersized at center, but with more and more teams not using a true center, he still can defend fours and fives well. He was about a 10-point, 10-rebound player last season, and the contract they signed him to was really rich at $17.6 million. The Pelicans will likely look to re-sign Favors, but they’ll likely only bring him back if he takes a pay cut.
He will be entering his 12th NBA season so he’s near the tail end of his prime. If they can get him on a two-year deal at about $20-$24 million, it seems like a win-win for both sides. The Pelicans will still have enough cap space to sign free agents, and Favors would be making likely above his market value on likely his last big contract before he becomes a MLE or under player.
Will Jaxson Hayes or Nickeil Alexander-Walker develop into more than reserve players?
The good news here is that there’s no rush and the Pelicans have time. They have team options on both contracts up to 2022-23 and then have qualifying offers after that so there’s no reason to rush them along.
We knew Hayes was a bit raw coming out of the University of Texas after just one year, but he had a nice rookie campaign, especially considering he averaged just 17 minutes per game and put up 7.5 points and four rebounds. With a playing time bump and more development, he could make a good jump in his sophomore season.
Alexander-Walker played even fewer minutes, but the Pelicans had a bunch of depth at his position. He averaged five points and two rebounds in 10.7 minutes per game. He had a two-game stretch back in November, where he got to play consecutive 30-minute games and he finished quirk 27 points against Miami, shooting 6-of-9 from deep and then scoring 19 the next night against Golden State, making five threes so that’s definitely a good sign of things to come.
Has E’Twaun Moore played his last game for the Pelicans?
The Pelicans like Moore and the offense he provides off the bench, but in the four years they’ve had him, he’s only been healthy for an entire season for one of those seasons. Apart from that, his minutes were reduced, which also reduces his stats across the board.
Moore is an undersized shooting guard and they’ve got some depth at his position with Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. There’s likely no way they’d re-sign him at or above what he made last year - $8.6 million - so he’d have to take either part of the MLE or the bi-annual exception if they bring him back.
New Orleans would likely prefer to give Alexander-Walker more minutes and not have so many players ahead of him to stunt his development, so my feeling is that he won’t be back, and he can probably make more on the free agent market.