2017-18 Pelicans season preview: Frontcourt stats to watch

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Here are some of the key statistics to monitor throughout the 2017-18 regular season for the 10 Pelicans players who are primarily considered forwards or centers:

PROJECTED STARTERS

Dante Cunningham

Three-point shooting percentage. Like numerous bigs across the league such as Memphis center Marc Gasol, Cunningham rarely attempted threes during the early portion of his career, but has suddenly become a legitimate threat. He had a grand total of two made treys over his initial six years in the NBA, but went 146/355 the past two campaigns. Cunningham and Solomon Hill were dubbed the “Corner Boys” in ’16-17, specializing in hitting shots from the shortest distance beyond the arc. The Villanova product shot an excellent 39.2 percent on three-pointers overall last season, while taking far fewer long twos compared to early in his pro career. Via Basketball Reference, only 10 percent of his field-goal attempts last season came from 16-23 feet, compared to a 58.2 percent chunk in ’13-14 with Minnesota.

Anthony Davis

Rebounding average. Davis set a career high by averaging 11.8 rebounds per game, an area that is greatly needed by a New Orleans team that finished second-worst as a team in rebounding percentage (47.5 percent of available caroms, better than only Dallas at 46.4). Combined with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins for a full season and a plan to emphasize offensive rebounding to a greater extent this season, New Orleans hopes to be much more competitive on the backboards. Davis’ average of 9.5 defensive rebounds in ’16-17 was also a career high, by a wide margin (his previous best was 8.1).

DeMarcus Cousins

Team wins. As Cousins mentioned often in the offseason, he’s now near the top of the list of NBA players with the most career games without making a postseason appearance. While gaudy individual stats are nice and look great on paper, nothing comes close to the importance of Cousins helping turn the Pelicans into a postseason qualifier, after two straight non-playoff years. New Orleans’ 34-48 final record was actually the best 82-game finish for a Cousins team since he entered the league in 2010. The Pelicans probably need at least 10 more wins than that to be playoff-worthy in the West.

PROJECTED RESERVES

Darius Miller

Three-pointers made and attempted. During his first stint with the Pelicans from 2012-14, Miller was a very passive offensive player, rarely getting to the foul line and often reluctant to shoot. That will need to change this time, with New Orleans likely needing him to provide perimeter scoring in spot-up situations. Preseason stats don’t mean much, but Miller took 11 treys in 77 minutes, or one every seven minutes. Over 1,460 regular season minutes in the NBA, he’s taken just 134 threes, which equates to one every 10.9 minutes.

Cheick Diallo

Games played. Diallo remains one of the NBA’s least experienced players against top-notch competition, having been used sparingly during his one college season at Kansas, then logging just 17 games and 199 regular season minutes with the Pelicans in ’16-17. New Orleans doesn’t have extensive depth behind Davis and Cousins, partly due to injuries to Solomon Hill and Omer Asik, along with Cunningham being forced to take over at small forward for Hill. If Diallo receives extended and consistent playing time, it will be a first for him as a pro, excluding his numerous trips to the G League last winter.

Tony Allen

Minutes per game. Allen has recently discussed the Pelicans’ plan to keep his workload reasonable, which would allow him to remain fresh physically as the year progresses. What’s interesting is that the 35-year-old actually played more minutes last season with the Grizzlies (1,914) than he had since four years earlier, when he racked up a career-best 2,109 minutes and started 79 games for Memphis in ’12-13. The hard-nosed, energetic wing defender has gotten banged up a bit since then, averaging 63.3 games played in the last four seasons.

Alexis Ajinca

Games played. Ajinca has averaged almost exactly the same number of minutes per game for three consecutive seasons with New Orleans (14.1, 14.6 and 15.0), but his total game appearances dropped to just 39 last season, after 68 and 59 the previous two seasons, respectively. The NBA’s style of play and extensive small-lineup usage is moving away from giant centers who are most comfortable closer to the basket – Ajinca is 7-foot-2, 248 pounds – but to his credit, he’s been able to sporadically step in at a moment’s notice and produce. Unfortunately for the native of France, in today’s game, it’s becoming more and more difficult to predict when that might be.

Solomon Hill

Two-point shooting percentage. It’s easy to focus on how Hill’s three-point shooting will impact the Pelicans on offense when he returns from a hamstring injury, but it’s actually his rate from inside the arc that showed a drastic change in ’16-17. After shooting 51.5 percent on twos in his final season with Indiana, that figure took a precipitous drop to 42.8 percent in Hill’s first Pelicans campaign. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why that occurred, but it’s possible fewer cutting opportunities for easy hoops were available in New Orleans compared to his Indiana tenure. Hill eventually seemed to adjust and find his footing in the offensive system, with three of his top six scoring games occurring after March 10.

Omer Asik

Games played. Like in Ajinca’s case, it’s difficult to use Asik extensively against a number of opponents such as Golden State, which often features a lineup of five players who are untenable defensive matchups for a 7-foot, 255-pounder. Asik has an even bigger obstacle for now in getting back in the lineup, with a major digestive ailment causing him to not have appeared in an NBA game since February. Short term, the native of Turkey is trying to put weight back on and recently returned to the practice court.

Jalen Jones

Three-point shooting percentage. The two-way G League contract signee often played power forward in college at Texas A&M, but in the pros, his 6-foot-7, 220-pound frame means he’ll need to be a small forward/wing. Jones believes showing that he can consistently knock down perimeter shots is one of the biggest steps he must make to carve out a long-term role in the NBA.

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