CJ McCollum #3 of the New Orleans Pelicans fights for a loose ball with Jalen Williams #8 of the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 26.

First look: Powered by young players, Pelicans-Thunder not your typical 1-8 first-round series

New Orleans will visit Oklahoma City for Game 1 on Sunday at 8:30 p.m.

The Western Conference’s 1-8 first-round matchup is a unique one for a variety of reasons, including that Oklahoma City and New Orleans both rely heavily on talented young players not yet in their prime as pros. One of those early-career standouts, Pelicans forward Zion Williamson, is currently sidelined by a hamstring injury, robbing the series of a blossoming star, but there will still be plenty of budding talent on the floor in the best-of-seven.

Headlined by MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder arguably possess the NBA’s premier core group of youngsters. When ESPN.com published its November rankings of the league’s top 25 players under the age of 25 based on future potential, the website included OKC’s Chet Holmgren (13th), Jalen Williams and Josh Giddey (Gilgeous-Alexander was ineligible, having celebrated his 25th birthday last summer). Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Williamson ranked higher than anyone from the two teams, placing seventh on a list topped by Dallas guard Luka Doncic.

Historically, many 1-8 playoff series feature a top seed led by grizzled, accomplished veterans and an upstart No. 8 trying to make a name for itself on the postseason stage for the first time, but the latter actually applies to both the Thunder and Pelicans. They coincidentally met in the West’s 9-10 play-in game in 2023, with OKC eliminating NOLA in a game not decided until the final minute. The Thunder were ousted in their subsequent play-in contest at Minnesota, however, preventing them from advancing to the playoffs. As a result, this West quarterfinal round marks the deepest numerous OKC players have been in the postseason, including for Williams, Giddey and rookie Holmgren. Although nearly every Pelicans rotation member has some prior West playoff experience, for third-year pros Herb Jones, Trey Murphy and Jose Alvarado – as well as fourth-year forward Naji Marshall – that consists entirely of a first-round series vs. Phoenix two years ago that the Suns won in six games.

A snapshot of each team’s most common starters:

CJ McCollum: The 11-year veteran is one of the NBA’s premier three-point shooters and is making his 10th playoff trip, only missing the bracket in 2023.

Herb Jones: “Not On Herb.” The third-year wing is a top candidate to be named First-Team All-Defense as a highly disruptive presence at that end of the floor.

Brandon Ingram: In the playoffs for the second time in his eight-year NBA career, his first trip in 2022 vs. Phoenix showed off his all-around talent on a national stage.

Trey Murphy: A dynamic offensive player who can erupt from three-point range, but is also athletic enough to have finished as runner-up in the 2023 dunk contest.

Jonas Valanciunas: The low-post scorer and elite rebounder is making his eighth playoff trip (five with Toronto, one with Memphis, two with New Orleans).

Josh Giddey: A crafty and unselfish passer in the mold of a traditional point guard, the type of backcourt player becoming rarer in the NBA over the past decade.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: A shifty driver capable of pump-faking defenders off-balance and out of position, he thrives in the paint and at the foul line. SGA finished third in the NBA in scoring (30.1 ppg).

Lu Dort: Reliable three-point shooter and stalwart defender who draws difficult assignments. Made his playoff debut for a much different OKC team in the 2020 bubble.

Jalen Williams: An under-the-radar late-lottery pick in 2022 after three college years at Santa Clara, the steady and versatile “J Dub” plays well beyond his chronological age (23).

Chet Holmgren: Picked No. 2 overall in 2022 (after Orlando’s Paolo Banchero), the Gonzaga product missed last season due to injury, but has been the NBA’s second-best rookie in 2023-24.

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