A disastrous 3-16 start blossomed into the No. 8 seed in the West, after New Orleans downed San Antonio and the LA Clippers in the Play-In Tournament to advance to the postseason for the first time since 2018 under a first-year head coach in Willie Green. Once the Pelicans hit the playoff stage, they pushed the top-seeded Phoenix Suns to the limit over six games. Amazingly, New Orleans mapped its current course of optimism without the services of 2019 No. 1 pick Zion Williamson, who missed the entire season due to a right foot injury.
How did they do it? That part is multi-faceted but highlighted by the February trade for veteran point guard CJ McCollum, as well as strong play from Brandon Ingram, not to mention the lightning-quick emergence of rookies Herbert Jones, Jose Alvarado and Trey Murphy III. As Williamson watched the New Orleans’ playoff excitement unfold as a spectator, you could almost predict what would transpire next. Williamson, who had played in just 85 games in his first three NBA seasons, wanted in on the fun.
So, the power forward headlined the Pelicans’ most significant offseason development in July by signing a five-year maximum rookie extension. The move provides New Orleans a Big Three comprised of Ingram, Williamson and McCollum that is built to compete alongside its strong supporting cast for years to come. The club also drafted Dyson Daniels (No. 8), E.J. Liddell (41st) and Karlo Matkovic. Liddell suffered a knee injury in July that required surgery. But Daniels could join the latest in the Pels’ line of young contributors. New Orleans selected Murphy in the first round of the 2021 draft and Jones in the second round, in addition to bringing in Alvarado as an undrafted free agent. So, there’s precedence for early contributions here.
By far, it’s the health of Williamson, who has played 85 of a possible 226 contests over his three seasons. The former No. 1 overall pick now works with a trainer and a chef to keep him lean, so that his rare explosiveness doesn’t inflict too much wear and tear on the body. Don’t forget Williamson averages 25.7 points on 60.4% shooting with 7 rebounds and 3.2 assists. If the Pels can keep him on the floor alongside McCollum and Ingram, the brass knows the sky’s the limit.
The Williamson health factor looms large here, but what we saw last season provides at least some optimism about New Orleans’ capabilities without its power forward in the lineup. If Williamson stays healthy, and all the surprising youngsters build on their strong rookie campaigns, the Pelicans could wind up turning into the legitimate perennial playoff contender we’ve been anticipating for a couple of years. Green and McCollum’s steadying influence will help, as well as Ingram’s growth as a leader. This Pels squad should be just as gritty as Memphis. Projection: Playoffs.
1 KEY STAT TO KNOW
1-12 — The Pelicans started last season 1-12. That’s tied for the second-worst record through 13 games in NBA history for a team that eventually made the playoffs.
— John Schuhmann
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
CJ McCollum: Steady, savvy vet was the only player in the NBA last season to average 22 points or more and five-plus assists with fewer than 2.1 turnovers.
Brandon Ingram: Raised his game in a major way in first playoff series from 22.7/5.8/5.6 to 27.9/6.2/6.2.
Herbert Jones: Second-round pick finished 2021-22 as the only rookie in franchise history to rack up 80 steals or more and 45-plus blocks in a single season.
Zion Williamson: The 22-year-old hasn’t participated in an NBA game since May 4, 2021.
Jonas Valanciunas: Just two players – Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert – finished last season with more double-doubles than the Pels’ big, who is also deadly from deep.
Jose Alvarado: Undrafted rookie led all first-year players last season in total-plus minus (plus-143).
Trey Murphy III: Second-round pick finished 2021-22 leading all NBA rookies in 3-point percentage (38.2%).
Devonte’ Graham: First season in New Orleans was so-so, but Graham provides valuable outside shooting when playing up to his capabilities.
LAST 5 SEASONS
How the Pelicans have fared stats-wise over the last 5 seasons …
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
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