Larry Nance Jr. #22, Trey Murphy III #25 and CJ McCollum #3 of the New Orleans Pelicans face the Sacramento Kings on April 5.

Larry Nance Jr. compares his former Lakers squad to current Pelicans – with one major difference

When he joined the New Orleans roster in February, the Pelicans’ personnel reminded forward/center Larry Nance Jr. of something he’d previously experienced at the start of his NBA career. Like the youth-filled Los Angeles Lakers squad Nance played for from 2015-18, he recognized that the Pelicans are loaded with promising talent and recent first-round draft picks. Unlike those Laker teams, however, New Orleans boasts something exceptionally invaluable, a component every club needs: Experienced, veteran pros to help guide the youngsters.

“I haven’t seen this talented of a young group since L.A.,” Nance said of the Pelicans. “But this team has the vets to handle it. (With the Lakers, the young core) was Julius (Randle), D’Angelo (Russell), Jordan (Clarkson), myself, (Kyle) Kuzma, Lonzo (Ball) and B.I. (Brandon Ingram). We have that kind of young talent here, looking at this (Pelicans) group. But (in Los Angeles) we just didn’t have the veterans or the leadership, to know what to do with that talent. This (Pelicans) team does.”

New Orleans may possess the NBA’s premier group of under-age-25 talent (even if Ingram no longer qualifies, having celebrated his 25th birthday on Sept. 2). Last October, The Ringer ranked the Pelicans as having the second-best group of under-25 players, behind only an Atlanta team coming off an Eastern Conference finals appearance.

Larry Nance Jr.'s impressions of Zion Williamson | Pelicans Training Camp 2022

An All-Star during his full season of 2020-21, Zion Williamson is still only 22. Making major impacts as rookies last season, Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado are 23 and 24, respectively. A starter last season, Jaxson Hayes is 22, as is key reserve Trey Murphy III. Bench defender Naji Marshall is 24. Recent lottery picks Kira Lewis Jr. and Dyson Daniels are 21 and 19, respectively.

As the 29-year-old Nance points out, helping to balance that substantial amount of youth are seasoned Pelicans including guard CJ McCollum (31), center Jonas Valanciunas (30) and Garrett Temple (36). Although many of Nance’s former Lakers teammates went on to accomplish big things individually at other NBA stops – Randle, Russell and Ingram made All-Star appearances for New York, Brooklyn and New Orleans, respectively, while Clarkson won Sixth Man of the Year for Utah – as a Lakers core they never achieved success. L.A. averaged just 26 wins during Nance’s three seasons in Southern California, never sniffing the playoffs.

NBA teams relying heavily on young players rarely win many games. The February trade midway through 2021-22 that landed McCollum and Nance provided the Pelicans with a major boost in NBA know-how and savvy. After moving cross-country in the deal from Portland, McCollum and Nance immediately focused on team chemistry and developing bonds away from basketball. To their delight, McCollum and Nance noticed that New Orleans’ contingent of youngsters is full of eager learners, more than willing to seek wisdom and advice.

“We have young guys who listen,” said Temple, entering his 13th NBA season. “When you have guys who want to soak up anything they can, and always want to get better, that leads to a great locker room. With players who come in with an open mind, and just want to win and improve, it bodes well for the whole team.”

Prior to the Pelicans increasing their NBA experience by acquiring McCollum and Nance, they began last season at 1-12, enduring the growing pains that can be unavoidable when trying to integrate unproven players. After the All-Star break, New Orleans compiled a 13-8 stretch (8-2 when Ingram played). The turnaround in results was obvious.

“They had a rough start,” Nance said of the Pelicans, who were 3-16 in November. “Guys were hurt, guys were not ready. They were bringing some young guys along, but then caught fire at the end (of the season). That didn’t have only to do with what was going on on the court. Between CJ, myself, (Temple), some of the older guys on this team (there was an emphasis on) team dinners, spending more time around each other, making sure the off-court chemistry is as good as the on. It’s stuff we’re going to continue to do.”

“They made a huge impact,” Hayes said of McCollum and Nance. “It was getting two veteran guys from big-time teams. Larry has been to the NBA Finals (with Cleveland in 2018). CJ is the President of the NBA (Players Association). They’re teaching us things not only about basketball, but also how to be a professional.”

“Those guys have been a part of great franchises,” Williamson said. “Larry, being in Cleveland with LeBron. CJ being in Portland, with him and Dame (Lillard) doing their thing. They’ve been in the league a long time. They’ve been in situations I’ve yet to be in. When we’re in certain games, they know what to expect a little more, instead of us just going in blind. After we got that big win (in Game 2 of the playoffs) in Phoenix, the first thought was ‘Celebrate.’ CJ was like, ‘Nope. Just go to the locker room. We’ve got business to do.’ I respect that.”

After sitting out the playoffs for three straight seasons, the Pelicans returned in April and are projected by every NBA analyst to make another jump in the standings. While wins and losses will be easy to measure, the New Orleans franchise now seems to have made significant progress in another, less tangible area, according to Nance. It’s among the reasons he believes the future is very promising for the Pelicans.

“When I first got in the league, (New Orleans) had a bit of a bug about it around the NBA,” Nance said. “Guys didn’t really want to play (in New Orleans). There was a lot of (roster) turnover and that type of stuff. But last year you could really say, ‘Alright, I like the culture that’s brewing here. These guys are young and talented. I like the way they play.’

“They seemed like great people from the outside looking in. Willie (Green) and his staff are terrific. Everybody knows that Griff (David Griffin) is top-tier as well, and the people he has around him. Getting here just confirmed all of what I had thought. At this point, New Orleans feels like the NBA’s best-kept secret right now. I think we’re going to be really, really good for a long time to come.”