Lonzo Ball (right) high-fives Zion Williamson

Pelicans demonstrate roster depth, notch resounding win to open preseason

by Jim Eichenhofer

ATLANTA – A few hours before tip-off Monday, Alvin Gentry promised that no matter how well – or how poorly – his team played in its preseason opener, he would not get overly pleased or displeased. The fifth-year New Orleans head coach and longtime NBA sideline boss mostly stuck to that vow following a 133-109 win over Atlanta, but it may not have always been easy. The Pelicans looked superb in their first opportunity to play together, despite a roster that has 14 new players among the 19 currently in uniform.

“There were some things we did extremely well, other things we have to spend time working on,” Gentry said. “Offensively, we did a good job of moving the ball. The pace was pretty good. Defensively, we’ve got a lot of work to do, (especially) controlling the ball a little more.”

Six different Pelicans players reached double digits in scoring, led by Jrue Holiday’s 21 points and Brandon Ingram’s 19, but rookie No. 1 pick Zion Williamson (16 points) not surprisingly garnered much of the attention Monday, either from fans inside State Farm Arena, or on national highlight shows. Playing roughly 170 miles from his hometown in Spartanburg, S.C., Williamson was greeted by many fans wearing his Pelicans or Duke jersey, as well as a few sporting his high school jersey, which was popularized by Drake sporting it in a 2017 Instagram post.

Williamson soared into the highlight reel immediately in the first half, throwing down dunks with sky-high elevation, just as he had in the ACC.

“There is a physicality about his game, especially offensively, that’s going to put him on the foul line quite a bit,” Gentry said of the 19-year-old, who shot seven free throws. “That’s always good, getting (the Pelicans) into the bonus early. He’s capable of doing that. I think you can see he’s an excellent passer, a willing passer.

“Zion had his moments (and) he’s going to continue to improve. He’s showing that he can get the ball to the basket offensively. He has work to do defensively, but that’s pretty much the case with every young kid who comes into this league.”

Holiday “played great,” as did international free-agent signee Nicolo Melli, who logged 22 minutes and produced an impactful all-around outing consisting of 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists. “Nicolo did a great job for us,” his coach said. “I think he was a plus-29 (New Orleans outscored Atlanta by 29 when he was on the floor).” Starting point guard Lonzo Ball added nine points, five rebounds and seven assists.

Meanwhile, backup center Jahlil Okafor (11 points, six rebounds, three assists in only 14 minutes) dominated in the first half. Reserve guards Nickeil Alexander-Walker (12 points in 15 minutes) and Frank Jackson (nine points in 16 minutes) ran circles around the Hawks for much of their second-half stints.

“There was a physicality and the offensive rebounding part was really good,” Gentry said of Okafor, who planted himself in the paint and kept pulling boards away from Atlanta. “For the most part, everybody who went in and played, I was really happy with. Frank and Nickeil did a great job when they came in in the second half. The first game gives us a lot to talk about and a lot of areas to improve. But also showing some very good things, because there were some things we did extremely well.”

New Orleans finished in the bottom 10 of the NBA in defensive efficiency last season, but hopes to make major strides in ’19-20. It’s an area Gentry wants to see progress throughout preseason, with the Pelicans visiting Chicago next on Wednesday.

“I thought we were active, but we didn’t contain the ball like we needed to,” Gentry said of the defense. “If you let people in the paint, it breaks down your defense and creates penetrate-and-pitch situations.”

Overall, though, it was a satisfying start to the five-game preseason slate and an ultra-early glimpse of how the Pelicans hope to play, at least at one end of the floor.

“We are a deep team and we have a bunch of guys who can play,” Gentry said. “We just have to figure out how we can put this rotation together and get the best out of most of the players.”

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