Pelicans improving in several areas since moving Kenrich Williams into starting lineup

In one corner of the home locker room, center Jaxson Hayes described him as “the heart and soul of this team.” A few feet away, guard Jrue Holiday issued one of the best compliments a player could ever give to a teammate, saying he’s “underpaid.”

The procession of profuse praise Tuesday from the Pelicans was for power forward Kenrich Williams, who only scored eight points vs. Portland, but managed to impact New Orleans’ 115-104 win in numerous other ways. As such, it was the prototypical “Kenny Hustle” night, with the second-year pro playing relentless defense (three steals, one block), sacrificing his body (three charges drawn) and outworking everyone to keep possessions alive (three offensive rebounds, part of a season-best 13-rebound outing).

After Williams logged inconsistent minutes during the team’s 1-7 start to the regular season, the Pelicans are 4-2 since moving him to the first string. During the latter timeframe, the 24-year-old has emerged as the ultimate glue guy, adept at filling in the gaps and providing whatever a frequently-changing starting lineup needs from night to night.

“He makes winning plays, and that’s why we have to have him on the court,” said fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry, who’s used Williams for 30-plus minutes in five straight games. “So we inserted him back into the lineup. I never even look at his stat line, because he just helps you win basketball games.”

“He plays hard, hustles, gets rebounds, always doing the little stuff that doesn’t show up in stats,” center Derrick Favors said. “He’s a big part of this team and should get a lot of credit for the stuff he does.”

One reason Williams may not immediately stand out to the casual NBA fan: He rarely focuses on scoring, averaging 6.1 points in his 60 career games, despite starting 35 times. The TCU product doesn’t possess a ton of flash in his game; off the court, he’s quiet and soft-spoken in interviews. Partly as a result, other Pelicans players seem to be taking up the cause of making sure Williams receives appropriate accolades and recognition for what he contributes.

“He’s one of the most valuable guys on the team,” guard JJ Redick said. “I sit next to him on the (team) plane, so I’m trying to be his hype man a little bit. I think he’s more skilled than (just his nickname indicates of) ‘Kenny Hustle.’ He’s got a nice game, too. He’s very versatile and brings a lot of things to the table. He can guard a bunch of different positions, he can play different ways offensively. Keeping plays alive and finding open guys, he has such a high basketball IQ.”

“Charges, (offensive) rebounds,” Hayes lists of what Williams brings. “Kenrich does everything. Always getting extra possessions on offense. He’s playing defense, locking everybody up, making the right move. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for that, but he’s the heart and soul of this team.”

Williams will perhaps never be a coveted name in fantasy basketball leagues due to his various stat-less strengths, but one box-score category in which he’s excelled lately has been rebounding. He’s averaging 9.0 rebounds (2.7 on offensive end) as a starter, helping New Orleans turn around its effectiveness as a team. The Pelicans had more rebounds than their opponent only twice times in their first eight games, but are 4-2 with Williams as a starter, matching their win-loss record. Defensively, New Orleans ranked No. 29 in efficiency (114.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, via NBA.com) in its first eight games. Since Williams became a starter Nov. 9 at Charlotte, the Pelicans are 16th (108.6 points allowed per 100 possessions).

On Tuesday, he was matched up on defense vs. 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony and more than held his own, helping to limit the forward to 4/14 shooting and 10 points, in Anthony’s first game since November ’18.

“That’s someone growing up I always looked up to,” Williams said. “It’s kind of surreal getting to play him. But reality sets in and you have to go out and do your job.”

“He can sit down and guard you, no matter who it is, (positions) 1 through 5,” said Holiday, himself a two-time All-Defense selection, of Williams’ defensive prowess and versatility. “He knows I’m always about that.”

Williams has also been about stepping in front of dribblers to draw offensive fouls, a sometimes-thankless task that also can literally be quite painful. He led New Orleans in charges drawn in ’18-19, even though he ranked just eighth on the squad in total minutes played. He was disappointed by how few he’s recorded early this season, but then rang up three in 34 minutes vs. the Trail Blazers.

“I think it’s just anticipation, sacrificing your body,” Williams said of his timing and knack for stepping in the way for charges. “Not too many guys are willing to lay out and take a charge. I try to do the little things to help the team and get us going.”

So far with Williams in the starting five, that’s helped get the Pelicans more defensive stops, more rebounds and most importantly, more wins.