Naji Marshall drives to the basket at Chicago

Pelicans 2021 preseason profile: Naji Marshall

While attempting to get New Orleans back into the NBA playoffs during his debut season as head coach, Willie Green has two recent All-Star forwards at his disposal; a pair of key veteran additions who were instrumental to team success at their previous stops in Memphis and Charlotte; and a handful of recent first-round draft picks.

Green’s roster also features an undrafted, 6-foot-7 forward who spent the middle of last season in the G League on a two-way contract, but over a mere six-month span, went from fan and media afterthought to a highly-valued role player. Naji Marshall’s NBA future was uncertain when he wasn’t selected in the 2020 draft, but he’s now spoken of in lofty terms by the Pelicans.

“Naji is as representative of what Willie and his coaching staff want us to be about as anybody else,” Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said of the 23-year-old’s hustling mentality and team-first approach. “There were many nights toward the end of last season (in April and May) where I was turning to our staff and saying, ‘Naji may be our best healthy player tonight’ – and this is a guy who started with us on a two-way (contract). Everything he’s about is very much in line with what Coach Green is preaching.”

“Naji from my experience being around him is a great human being, a high-character kid,” Green said. “He just wants it. So every day he comes in the gym, he’s bringing energy, hard work, and he’s a tough kid. (He’s in the gym so much) we have to pull him off the floor and protect him from himself. He’s the type of player and person who helps your culture.”

Marshall’s eye-opening close to the 2020-21 NBA regular season was followed up by the Xavier (Ohio) product powering the Pelicans to an unbeaten record in summer league (averages of 14.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists), where he enjoyed playing for Green for the first time. Marshall respects how the first-time NBA head coach had to scratch and claw his way to a 12-year playing career, after Green was a relatively unknown, second-round pick (No. 41 overall) in 2003.

“It’s the same thing I’ve been through,” Marshall said, alluding to entering the NBA with nothing handed to him. “There is a genuine connection. (It’s about) being a dog, earning everything.

“He’s an unbelievable guy. He’s a player’s coach, defense-first. That really fits my style of play. We’re all looking forward to this season, being coached by him.”

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