As Zion Williamson enters his third season in the league with very little to show for, the New Orleans Pelicans look to make moves to upgrade the roster. Devonte’ Graham and Jonas Valanciunas were big additions to the team, who lost starters Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, and Steven Adams via free agency or trade.
WIth Nickeil Alexander-Walker entering his third season, all eyes will be pointed on the superstar duo of Brandon Ingram and Williamson. Both are All-Star caliber players that have yet to get over the hump and achieve anything in the NBA outside of personal achievements. With little focus on New Orleans making a playoff run, can the team shock the league?
Point Guard - Devonte’ Graham
When the Charlotte Hornets drafted LaMelo Ball with the No. 3 overall pick in 2020, it clogged the backcourt with Ball, Graham, and Terry Rozier. Someone had to go and the sacrificial lamb ultimately was Graham. Last year, Graham saw his points, rebounds, assists, and overall shooting percentages decrease despite playing above 30 minutes per game. However, Graham will have more range as he is the true point guard and will not need to share time with anyone else.
Graham is just one year removed from a season in 2019-2020 that saw him average 18.2 points and 7.5 rebounds. The Hornets as a team weren’t all that great with a surrounding cast. Neither Ball nor Gordon Hayward was on the team. Graham may not score as much as he did this year, but we should see a rise in his playmaking.
Shooting Guard - Nickeil Alexander-Walker
Going into his third season in the league, Alexander-Walker will be the full-time shooting guard. The third-year pro has not played anything more than 47 games in a season, playing 47 and 46 respectively. Last year, in 21.9 minutes per game, he averaged 11.0 points and 3.1 rebounds. His shooting percentages were a little low, 41.9% from the field and 34.7% from deep. Needless to say, with Bledsoe and Ball gone, the team is going to rely on him to play efficiently at the two-guard.
Alexander-Walker showed promise of being an efficient shooter at times, scoring a career-high 37 points against the Clippers in January. It will be the first time in his career that he plays close to 30 minutes per night. A lot of questions will surround his durability and if he can make a developmental jump from last year’s number.
Small Forward - Brandon Ingram
Ingram didn’t make an All-Star appearance but had a respectable season that saw him average 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.9 assists. His points tied a career-high, while his assists were a career-high. Ingram didn’t look like he fit with Stan Van Gundy’s system. Pure and simple, he looked lost at times.
Ingram will have a fresh start, but this will be his third coach in three years. When Ingram was named Most Improved Player in 2020 and made an All-Star Game, the team looked like the arrow was going up with the addition of a healthy Williamson. Instead, everyone, including Ingram, just stayed the same.
Power Forward - Zion Williamson
We got a first-hand glance of what a healthy Williamson looks like in a season. Last year, Williamson averaged 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and shot 61.1% from the field. Williamson has been getting comparisons to a great value Shaq or a young Blake Griffin. Both would be rapidly welcomed in the city to help end a three-year playoff drought.
Williamson is just 21 years old but has been given the task of potentially being a face of the league in the next coming years. With that said, his former Duke teammate RJ Barrett has accomplished more from a team standpoint than him. While Williamson was an All-Star last year, he is dangerously walking the path of one Anthony Davis, a superstar with no playoff success. Williamson is hoping that he can make a change to that narrative this year.
Center - Jonas Valanciunas
It was a career season for Valanciunas last year in Memphis. He averaged 17.1 points and 12.5 rebounds, which was a career-high. That included shooting 59.2% from the field. Needless to say, Valanciunas is expected to be more of a physical threat in the paint than Steven Adams, who was traded to acquire Valanciunas.
How much will he help on the defensive end? That remains to be unseen, but the combination of Williamson and Valanciunas feels like a better version of what Detroit tried to pull off with Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond years back. That also only resulted in one first-round playoff appearance in which Griffin was an All-Star and Drummond led the league in rebounding.
Tomas Satoransky, Kira Lewis Jr., Jose Alvarado, Garrett Temple, Josh Hart, Naji Marshall, Marcos Louzada Silva, Herbert Jones, Wenyen Gabriel, Daulton Hommes, Jaxson Hayes, Willy Hernangomez
Resigning Josh Hart was a necessity. What he brings to the frontcourt in-depth is hard to replace. Hart averaged 9.2 points and 8.0 rebounds. It would be nice to see him improve on the defensive side while increasing his 43.9% shooting percentage. Jaxon Hayes is another player to keep an eye on in the frontcourt. Hayes enters Year 3 and is coming off a season where he averaged 7.5 points and 4.3 rebounds. The former No. 8 overall pick of 2019 has yet to take off in the league.
Another former first-round pick, Kira Lewis Jr., the No. 13 pick in 2020, will be looking to take the next step. Lewis averaged 6.4 points in 16.7 minutes of game time. As the Pelicans continue to gain experience, we have to remember that Alexander-Walker, Williamson, Hayes, and Lewis Jr. are homegrown prospects taken within the last three NBA drafts.
The addition of Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple was under the radar, but relatively big pickups. Satoransky can return to being backup point guard, which he thrived under in Washington and his last year with the Bulls. Temple is coming off a decent shooting season, his best since 2018.
Can The Pelicans Shock The NBA?
The easy answer is no for a variety of reasons. For starters, let’s give a run-through of the top eight teams that made the playoffs last year. That includes, in order of seeding, Jazz, Suns, Nuggets, Clippers, Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Lakers, Grizzlies, Warriors, Spurs. The Pelicans just missed the play-in tournament by two games with a 31-41 record.
The process of elimination says that the Jazz, Suns, Nuggets, Mavericks, Lakers, Grizzlies, and Warriors should be given a nod ahead as none of those teams seemed to get worse this offseason. The Clippers might have lost Kawhi Leonard, but have Paul George and a deep team around him. The Trail Blazers didn’t get worse, or better, but return Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. That means that realistically the only team outside the top-10 is the Spurs.
For now, we are thinking that the Pelicans, Kings, and Timberwolves will duke it out for the last spot in the playoffs. That could require at least a .500 record to get in. Are the Pelicans capable of doing that? In the two years that Ingram has been the best player, the team hasn’t won more than 31 games in a season. With both Ingram and Williamson leading the way, the team won exactly 31 games last year.
The pieces that surround both Ingram and Williamson, in theory, should help the team get to .500. The team is nowhere close to contending for a championship and the growing fear in town is that the team is going to lose Williamson to free agency after his deal runs out next season. However, how much of that falls on the Pelicans though? That question is going to be answered this season.
As much as the speculation points to Williamson’s unhappiness about the roster construction around him, this is the year for him to prove what he can do with real parts. Both Graham and Valanciunas are upgrades over Lonzo Ball and Steven Adams. Ball got better over time, but the combination of Ball and Ingram was never going to win anything major. Graham is the better offensive option, while Valanciunas is just the better overall player with now.
The other part of this is that most of the team’s first-round draft picks acquired in the Anthony Davis trade are entering their second or third years. The point of building around your superstar is to draft quality talent that grows into key contributors. The third year is when we see that development start to shape up and that will be for Alexander-Walker and Hayes.
If Williamson wants to be considered a face of this league, then he needs to do what Anthony Davis tried to do while in town. Even with a lackluster roster, Davis put the Pelicans into the conversation for a back-end playoff spot, and that was without a play-in tournament. If Williamson can’t lead the team to a No. 8 seed, then maybe, he isn’t as hyped up as we thought he was.