Conversations with Joel Meyers: Part 2 with ESPN's Tim Legler

Joel Meyers, the longtime TV voice of the New Orleans Pelicans and a veteran NBA broadcaster, will be sharing with Pelicans fans weekly conversations he has with friends and colleagues in the media and the NBA. Up first is Tim Legler, lead NBA studio analyst for ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” This is the second of two parts of Joel's conversation with Tim.

Joel Meyers: What are your first impressions on what you’ve seen from the Pels this year? What do you see from them going forward?

Tim Legler: This is a team that I’m just enamored with. The thing for me all season was just the entertainment value. This is a team that’s got a lot of talent…a lot of young talent. They play a style that is really entertaining to watch, incredibly difficult to guard. They can beat you inside-out. They can beat you off ball-screens. They can obviously beat you with pace and transition. The young talent base, first of all, I’m just really enamored with and I think there’s an incredible about of upside there. Obviously, not having Zion Williamson for the vast majority of the season didn’t let you get this team to really peak for a long enough period of time where you (could) say, ‘Hey, that would’ve been a bona-fide playoff team.’ Once you saw him on the court, he adds a dimension to your offense of physicality and high-percentage shots and the ability to finish at such a high rate. It just really enhances all of the perimeter talent that is on this team, because you’ve got so many different guys that can score and can beat you. I’ve seen great improvement from some of the young players. Obviously, Brandon Ingram has taken it to a level where now he’s not only maybe the Most Improved Player in the league, but he’s going to be now a perennial All-Star from this point going forward. You look at the improvement of Lonzo Ball and what he did to his shot. I’ve got to give him all of the credit in the world because what he was doing – the way he was shooting the ball mechanically – was not going to work at the NBA level. For him to go from what he looked like his whole life to where he’s releasing the ball from (now) and the threat that he became from the three-point line in one season…really dramatic. So you add that to what Zion Williamson brings to the table, and this is a fun, young group. They look like they’ve got pretty good chemistry, and I think they’ve got enough diverse offensive talent that they’re on their way to becoming a real factor in the Western Conference.

Joel Meyers: Yeah, it’s interesting for down the road purposes because of the Laker trade with Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and I want your thoughts on Josh Hart as well, but also the picks that are coming over in 2021 and 2023. Josh Hart has a chance to be one of the best rebounding guards in the NBA, and you got to watch him at Villanova.

Tim Legler: He’s got a motor that’s off the charts. He’s just a winner. He’s tough, he’s hard-nosed. He plays at absolute break-neck speed every minute that he’s on the court. He’s got really no weaknesses in his game. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a guy that is creative enough with the ball to become like a 20-point scorer in the NBA, but I do think he’s got the potential – because of the way he guards and the way he wants to guard, I think he’s got the potential to become one of the better two-way combo guards in the league. He plays so hard defensively. He’s physical, so he can play bigger guys. He’s a very good open three-point shooter and he excels in transition the way he attacks the rim. Josh Hart is a key pickup. I saw a ton of him in college, as most of us did, but I’m more familiar with those schools out of Philly because I’m watching them all the time and that’s what’s always stood out to me about Josh Hart. This is just a guy that, when he was on the court, good things happened because he knows how to play, (has) an incredible IQ for the game. When you combine that IQ with that intensity level, you get a guy that’s a real impact player. When he comes into the game – and eventually who knows, maybe he’s a starter in this league full-time – he’s just a guy that makes winning plays. He’s a great pickup in that trade. You look at all the talent haul that they got back, they set themselves up for a very bright future here in (a short time).

Joel Meyers: Not to mention getting Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Didi Louzada in the 2019 draft. Sustainable success is the goal, what have you seen objectively from a distance?

Tim Legler: Yeah you bring up a couple of young guys that we saw in Vegas (Summer League). That’s where we saw Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes. You saw, No. 1, that they had great chemistry together. But I think they opened some eyes for some people. It’s interesting to see the way that that could be a springboard to your first year in the league. Just look at a guy like Kyle Kuzma; he’s a great example. Look at what he did in Vegas. He did things in the Summer League that none of us had seen him do in college. Now you say, ‘Wow.’ The confidence boost that he got from that carried over into his first year and I think that sets you up to have success annually. I think you’re seeing some of that with the guys that they drafted as well. Jaxson Hayes can do things athletically that very few guys his size in the league can do. He’s just one of the best runners, finishers, and plays with great verticality above the rim. He gives you great energy and bounce because he can make plays out of nothing. When you don’t run anything for him, he can go make plays for himself because of his athletic ability. Alexander-Walker is just a guy who is a much better play-maker and passer than I thought that he was. He had streakiness his rookie year but that’s absolutely typical for any guard. You’re not going to see guys hit this stride in terms of their efficiency and their shooting percentages be consistent until you get into year three, year four. I think that’s where he’s headed as well. The future is incredibly bright. I think it’s a shame, if this ends up being the end of the regular season, that the Pels won’t get that opportunity to close the ground because I think they had a real shot if this had played out and you had a normal 82-game season. I think they had a real shot to get that eighth spot and set themselves up for whatever that may have meant – playing the Lakers in the first round most likely. Regardless, the taste of the experience those young players would’ve gotten would’ve made them so hungry and you would’ve seen a team come back on a mission next year. We’ll see how that plays out. Regardless, they’re headed in the right direction and there’s no question in my mind that with that young talent and a guy like Zion Williamson, who I think can be transcendent, you have now a team that is going to be poised to make some serious noise in the West.

Joel Meyers: Looking at the final thing, and a lot of teams are duos now, where it's AD (Anthony Davis) and LeBron (James) in LA. We've got a lot of really good duos, not 'Big 3's' anymore. And one guy is just 22, and that's Brandon Ingram at the three (position). And you've got Zion Williamson at the four (position) who doesn't even turn 20 until over the summer. Projections for these two working together because one guy is an outside guy, although Brandon can go inside. We've seen his strength and development there. But how do you see that duo working out? Is it going to be considered as you see it over the next four or five years developing into one of the top twosomes in the NBA?

Tim Legler: Yeah, I really think they’ve got a chance to do it. I think one of the keys there is going to be Brandon Ingram continuing to evolve as a play-maker because now you talk about playing some two-man basketball with Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Good luck trying to defend that once Brandon Ingram passing ability gets to that level where he can pick you apart by making pocket passes, lobs. Where he can come off a ball screen with Zion, there's too much traffic guarding those two guys, and now he's throwing a bullet pass to the opposite corner to a spot-up shooter. When you get to that LeBron James type of play-making where every single time he runs action, he can find anyone on the floor to beat you and make the right read. I'm not saying that Brandon Ingram will necessarily ever get to that level because LeBron James is one of the greatest play-makers in the history of this league. But imagine now a guy that can score the way he can because he's added to his ability to stay on balance because he's added some strength. That he can now get to spots pull up, elevate. He's got so much in his game in terms of a one-on-one scorer. Now imagine if you continue to hone his passing skills where you can run two-man game with those two guys and the way Zion catches it out of a ball screen and dive and just explodes into people and over people and he's got the finesse around the rim to finish anything. You now have something really, really special that's going to be incredibly difficult to defend. So I do think they're headed there and obviously, they're young, and they're going to improve. They're going to continue to polish their games. But you look at the combination of just the raw scoring ability of Ingram and then that combination of power and athletic ability in a guy that’s Zion Williamson's size, which has never been seen. You have something really, really unique with those two guys. So yeah, if the chemistry stays good and they continue to polish their games and hone – and particularly Brandon Ingram's ability to be that big-time play-maker – I think now you have something that could potentially be as good as any duo in the league.

Joel Meyers: Let me ask you this because you need a good duo you need guys to be attracted to a certain destination. Because we saw San Antonio and it started with first (Tim) Duncan obviously '97 and David was in the prime of his basketball career. David Robinson, who came in '87, first overall pick. But then (Tony) Parker 28th overall in '01. (Manu) Ginobili joins them in '02. (Bruce) Bowen arrives in '03 as a free agent. '05, Brent Barry comes in. A couple of other guys come in. Because of that kind of duo, they're the model obviously, after 22 seasons. But can a small market – can a market that's not looked at as New York, LA, or Chicago, can it be a destination because of a duo?

Tim Legler: Yeah, I think it can be. I think it's not just the duo. I think it's the nature of who we're talking about. I think Zion Williamson is a guy that's a guy that's going to attract players and are going to want to play with him. Because he's a guy that is not a ball-stopping player, he's not a guy that's difficult to play with because he's going to 'iso' you a ton. He's a guy that the way he moves, catches, and finishes is so quick and so decisive that I think there are going to be other elite players that can easily see themselves playing with him without compromising their own game because he does it so efficiently. I think that's a real attraction to players. So, and I think what you saw them do this year once he came back and the ground they made up after that really difficult start when they had injuries. They had a brutal schedule to start the year that did not allow them to get out of the gates quickly. They dug themselves a huge hole. To see them make up the ground once they got him back and you saw that chemistry come together. I think players around the league are noticing that kind of thing. He's got a charisma about him as well. The way he carries himself, he just seems like an incredibly likable, fun-loving kid that would be easy to join up with and play without sacrificing or compromising who you are as a player. That's really what a lot of these guys think about on that level. They want to be able to go somewhere and play with another star, but they don't want to have to compromise who they are to make that happen. It's got to be a natural fit, and I think Zion Williamson can be a natural fit with a lot of guys. So, whether it's just two of them or you add a third guy, I think that it absolutely can work in a place like New Orleans because I think people took notice of what they have going on down there and that young talent is really attractive. You start to think about doing this every year because you just don't want to go somewhere for a two or three year hit. If you're a player who wants to think about joining up with this and adding to it, you want to think about longevity. You mentioned the Spurs; that was a two-decade run of success, the gold standard. You want to go to a place like New Orleans that's got young players that are showing you that that's where they are headed. So, even with those two guys, I think it's a great start. I think they have the real potential to add outside talent as free agents that are going to want to play with them, particularly with Zion, because what he brings to the table is so unique. I think guys would like to have a taste of that.