Lonzo Ball high-fives Brandon Ingram during Monday's game vs. Utah

David Griffin discusses Pelicans' across-the-board improvements on radio show

by Jim Eichenhofer

The transformation continues for the New Orleans Pelicans, who began the regular season 1-7 and suffered through a franchise-record 13-game losing streak in November/December, but are now one of the NBA’s hotter teams, having won seven of their last 10 games. In the Western Conference, only Utah (9-1), Oklahoma City (8-2) and Houston (8-2) have better records over the same span.

In an interview for tonight’s “Pelicans Weekly” radio show (6 p.m., ESPN New Orleans 100.3 FM), Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin discusses a few key elements that have made New Orleans perhaps the league’s most improved in-season team. An overview of a few of the biggest takeaways from Griffin’s conversation with broadcaster Todd Graffagnini:

Hard work is paying off for Lonzo Ball.

The point guard’s impact over the past few weeks can be attributed to how much time he’s spent working on a daily basis. After playing inconsistently early in his debut season with the Pelicans, Ball, 22, is in the midst of the best stretch of his three-year NBA career, including topping 20 points in four consecutive games. He had never strung together consecutive games of 20-plus points in his previous two seasons with the Lakers. 

“It’s rewarding to see the work these guys have been putting in pay off a little bit,” Griffin said. “(Ball) in particular has put in an awful lot of time on an individual level. He gets in extra lifts; he’s been getting extra work on skill development with coaches. It’s starting to come to fruition for him in the way he had hoped. You’re always gratified to see kids get rewarded for the time they’ve put in.”

Ball is on pace to set career highs in every shooting category, as well as in scoring (12.0 ppg).

Brandon Ingram is reaching another level – and wants more.

A bona fide candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, Ingram is averaging a whopping 7.0 more points per game compared to ’18-19, as well as roughly two more rebounds and one more assist. The fourth-year pro is taking more shots as New Orleans’ No. 1 scoring option compared to his role in Los Angeles, but the bump in production has also come with stunning upgrades in efficiency. Ingram is shooting 40.2 percent from three-point range (he shot just 32.9 with the Lakers), as well as 87.0 percent from the foul line (66.2 percent with Los Angeles).

“(Ingram) obviously is growing every day by leaps and bounds,” Griffin said. “His desire to be great really translates to the fact that he wants to be coached really hard. You see him come in and ask for input on the defensive side (in terms of how he can improve).”

Derrick Favors’ presence has been invaluable.

Not only has New Orleans gone 7-6 since the starting center returned to the lineup Dec. 13, but if you look closely at the Pelicans’ defeats during that span, they’ve all been competitive. Early in the season, New Orleans sustained some ugly blowout losses, but since Dec. 13 they have a seven-point loss at Philadelphia, an OT defeat to Brooklyn and two-point heartbreaker vs. Utah, Favors’ previous team. The Pelicans’ ability to be in every game is largely due to defensive improvement, which is giving them a chance to compete against any opponent.

“Teamwide, we’ve improved a great deal on that side of the ball,” Griffin said of NOLA’s defense. “Some of that is scheme, but most of that is Fave. Him coming back has had a profound impact on the trust level everyone has. When Fave came back, I think everyone had a sense of, ‘OK, there’s somebody that has my back.’ That’s made everyone more accountable to one another and a level of ownership in the defense we didn’t have before.”

Pelicans are better positioned for Zion Williamson’s debut.

Griffin breaks down why he’s been pleased with the process surrounding Williamson’s return to the court, saying “we’ve taken a holistic approach.”

He reiterated his displeasure with the notion from some media that the best course of action for the No. 1 pick would be to sit out the season.

“I’ve heard the narrative that maybe he should not play at all – that would be absurd from where he is,” Griffin said. “You don’t take a player who’s worked this hard, put himself in this kind of condition, then say, ‘By the way, none of that matters (because you’re not playing).’ He’s worked this hard because he wants to play. He’s a basketball player. He wants to lead his guys.”

Griffin often said during the offseason that Williamson is “not the savior” for the Pelicans, who had a discouraging start to ’19-20 to say the least, but statistically are the NBA’s fifth-best team during a 7-3 stretch, with a net rating of plus 6.2 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com.

“The phenomenon of Zion will need a team that’s prepared for that now a little bit,” Griffin said of Williamson’s imminent return. “We’re playing better, our guys understand each other better, they understand their roles a little bit clearer. Our 5-0 preseason may have masked some of our deficiencies, (but) now we know who we really are. Zion’s had some time to learn who we really are as a team, and where he needs to fill in. I’m optimistic that he’s physically going to be the best version of himself, but also coming in at the right time.”

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