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Pelicans eager to see Zion Williamson play alongside Steven Adams

New Orleans is focused on increasing physicality and establishing a defensive identity after a busy offseason.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Former No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson will form an imposing frontcourt with Steven Adams.

You might walk off the floor victorious.

Just know you’ll catch a physical beatdown trying to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans this season.

That’s the thought that immediately crossed the mind of Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy when New Orleans sent away Jrue Holiday in a four-team trade to acquire former Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams and former Milwaukee Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe to play alongside Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and the rest of the club’s collection of promising young talent.

“Find me a 4 and 5 together anywhere in the league that’s as physical as those two guys,” Van Gundy said of New Orleans’ new frontcourt duo of Willamson and Adams during a Zoom call on Monday.  “When we made that trade, I said, ‘Look, the one thing I know for sure: you might come in here and shoot the ball great. You might find a way to beat us. You’re not punking the New Orleans Pelicans ever with those two guys next to each other.”

The shortened offseason wheeling and dealing of executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin yielded what the organization believes are key ingredients to completing its vision for a tougher, more competitive squad capable of consistently living up to New Orleans’ mantra of “Won’t Bow Down.” The reboot for 2020-21 started off with Griffin’s October hiring of Van Gundy, who led teams that finished in the top 10 in defensive rating in nine of his 12 seasons as a head coach in Miami (2003-06), Orlando (2007-12) and Detroit (2014-18). Van Gundy inherits an underachieving Pelicans squad that finished last season ranked 21st in defensive rating (118.8), 28th in opponent points in the paint (52.2), 28th in opponent fast break points (15.4) and 26th in opponent second-chance points (13.6).

To further assist Van Gundy in the effort Griffin acquired two physical, defensive-minded veterans with playoff experience in Adams and Bledsoe. Griffin envisions Bledsoe playing alongside Lonzo Ball in the starting backcourt, while Williamson and Adams man the 4 and 5 spots, respectively, with 2019-20 Kia NBA Most Improved Player Brandon Ingram holding it down at small forward. Griffin mentioned Williamson could play some small forward this season, as the team plans to put the ball into his hands more.

Ingram, meanwhile, officially signed a five-year max deal worth a reported $158 million early Monday before Van Gundy and Griffin addressed the media.

When the Pelicans bussed out of the NBA bubble in Orlando back in August after finishing a disappointing 2-6 and out of the postseason, Ingram shared his thoughts on the future with Griffin and general manager Trajan Langdon. Griffin described the moment as “very, very powerful.”

“Brandon shared very plainly with Trajan and I he doesn’t intend to [miss] the playoffs again in his career and he was taking a position of leadership in this franchise,” Griffin said. “He’s somebody that really represents the things that we are about, and his on-court talent is very clear and evident.  He’s just scratching the surface of who he can be. I think the thing that might be most exciting from a basketball perspective is Brandon knows he’s got a lot of room for improvement on the defensive side of the ball, and he really wanted to be pushed on that side of the ball. So, I think the synergies that could exist between Brandon, the players that we’ve mentioned already in [Eric Bledsoe] and Steven [Adams] as leaders for our group are significant. But I also think the coachability of those three as our leaders really lend themselves to coach Van Gundy and his staff making the kind of impact that they want to as well.”

Locking up Ingram for the next five years, in addition to signing Adams to a two-year extension last week certainly helps. As it stands now, three of New Orleans’ starters (Ball, Ingram, and Williamson) are 23 years old or younger, while Adams is just 27 with 59 games of playoff experience under his belt. Bledsoe turns 31 on Dec. 9 and has played in 48 postseason games.

That’s not even accounting for all the other young talent on the Pelicans roster. Remember, New Orleans benefitted last season from timely contributions from 2019 first-round picks Jaxon Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The Pelicans also used the 13th pick in the draft earlier this month to select Alabama point guard Kira Lewis Jr., and they’ve got a couple of solid veteran contributors in Josh Hart and sharpshooter J.J. Redick.

“To express a higher level of competitiveness as a group, we needed more grit and toughness and more of a defensive identity,” Griffin explained. “Literally every move that we’ve made fits that theme. There is not a player that we brought in here that isn’t about the things that we cared the most about, and everyone we’re bringing in here on a human level is the types of people that we really wanted to represent us.”

Will it all translate to winning? It’s impossible to know at this point. But when the Pelicans hit the court Sunday for their first practice, the plan is to start putting the building blocks in place, according to Van Gundy, who expects to immediately run through “transition defense, right from our offensive rebounding rules, to getting back will be the very first thing we address basketball wise.”

Van Gundy pointed out four areas of defensive improvement he’d like to see this season.

“No. 1, we just talked about: we’ve got to get back. We can’t be giving up easy buckets in transition,” Van Gundy said. “No. 2 is we’ve got to keep the ball out of the paint. We gave up 52 points a game in the paint last year. I don’t think you can build a sustainable defense around that. What sort of goes along with that and helps is we’ve got to cut our fouls. We gave up almost 25 free-throw attempts a game last year. So, if you’re giving up 52 in the paint and you’re giving up 25 free-throw attempts, it gets really, really difficult no matter what else you do. The fourth one is we’ve got to be a better defensive rebounding team. We were a really good offensive rebounding team and got a lot of second-chance points, and a really poor defensive rebounding team that gave up a lot of second-chance points. So, if we can do those four things, I’d be pretty happy.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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