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Pelicans shootaround update: Josh Hart looking to build upon career-best start to 2021-22

When Josh Hart was sidelined from game action by left knee soreness a week ago, the injury was disappointing in at least two major ways. One, New Orleans had begun to play its best basketball of 2021-22, relying on a starting lineup that won three of four games with Hart at shooting guard. Two, Hart was in the midst of one of his better stretches as a pro, leading to career highs in scoring (11.1 ppg), assists (3.8 apg) and shooting percentage (48.8).

The fifth-year pro hopes to pick up from where he left off soon, possibly even Wednesday vs. Denver. Hart was listed as questionable Tuesday and said after this morning’s shootaround that he’s a game-time decision to play against the Nuggets. He’s missed three straight games.

“It feels solid,” Hart said of his left knee. “I went through shootaround today. Tonight I’m going to go in (to the Smoothie King Center) a little early, do my shooting, then let (the team) know (of his status). It’s kind of a game-time decision.”

Asked about his positive start individually to the regular season, Hart credited Pelicans first-year head coach Willie Green for putting him in position to succeed.

“I think a big part of that is Willie, just letting me go out and play basketball how I want to play,” the Villanova product said. “Just giving me the green light to go playmake, shoot, score, do whatever I feel like I have to do that day. For me, that varies game by game.

“He’s given me the freedom to go out there and just play my game the way I’ve been playing it for I don’t know how many years. For me, that’s the biggest thing, that I’m not just sitting in the corner and just hoping and praying to touch the ball.”

Other notes from shootaround:

Hart on Brandon Ingram’s red-hot recent stretch, featuring consecutive games of 27, 29, 24 and 40 points, as well as a career-best 12-assist game at Dallas: “We know he’s someone who has the ability to score and playmake. Playing at a fast pace, it makes it tough to defend him. Because obviously he’s lethal from three-point and mid-range. When he’s able to go fast and make the defense commit, find guys for open shots, that’s the best thing. He’s a heck of a playmaker and a heck of a player. We’re going to give him the ball all the time to make decisions.” …

Recent Pelicans signee and G League call-up Gary Clark met with the local media for the first time Wednesday. The 6-foot-6 forward describing what he brings to a team: “I can stretch the floor with my shooting ability. My defense, I’m a really good team defender, off the ball… I bring a lot of energy, offensive rebounds, deflections.” Now in his fourth NBA season, Clark was a two-time AAC Defensive Player of the Year in college at Cincinnati. Two seasons ago, he dropped in 15 points in a Game 1 upset by Orlando over Milwaukee during the first round of the 2020 playoffs.

DENVER SCOUTING REPORT

Offensive efficiency rank: 18 (107.9)

Defensive efficiency rank: 16 (108.4)

Net rating: 19 (-0.5)

Pace: 29 (96.11)

Streak: Lost 1

Go-to guy: Reigning league MVP Nikola Jokic is one of a whopping seven players on Denver’s injury report, but the center is probable to play Wednesday with a right forearm contusion. The three-time All-Star is having a very similar season statistically compared to his banner 2020-21, averaging 25.6 points, 13.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists, all team highs. Exceptionally durable throughout his seven-year NBA career, he went through a rare recent stretch of being sidelined for four straight games (Denver went 0-4, part of a six-game losing streak).

On the rise: Second-year Nuggets backup big Zeke Nnaji is averaging 8.0 points in five appearances since Thanksgiving, highlighted by a 21-point breakout performance Saturday in Madison Square Garden. The University of Arizona product went 5/9 from three-point range against New York and has been red-hot overall from distance lately, sinking 11 of his last 18 attempts. In low volume this season, he’s shooting 61 percent on threes (17/28).

PREVIOUS GAME STARTING LINEUPS

DENVER (11-12)

Monday loss at Chicago

Monte Morris, Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, Nikola Jokic

Notes: This group is 4-3, including going 2-2 over the past four games to begin a seven-game road trip that concludes Thursday and Saturday with consecutive contests at San Antonio. Denver’s most common lineup is 5-4 and includes Morris, Barton, Gordon, Jokic and Michael Porter Jr., but Porter will be sidelined for an extended period due to back surgery. … Eight different Nuggets have started at least once this season. Among players with no starts – and who are available to play Wednesday – point guard Facundo Campazzo averages the most minutes (18.8).

NEW ORLEANS (7-19)

Sunday loss at Houston

Devonte’ Graham, Garrett Temple, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, Jonas Valanciunas

Notes: This group is 1-2, starting the past three games after Hart was sidelined. … New Orleans has used eight different starting lineups, which is actually three more than Denver's total this season, despite the Nuggets’ numerous key injuries. … Since a Nov. 19 victory over the Clippers, the Pelicans have split their four home games and split their six road games. … Eight different Pelicans have started at least once this season. Among players with no starts, Trey Murphy III is averaging the most minutes (14.9), slightly ahead of Kira Lewis Jr. (14.4) and Willy Hernangomez (14.0).

FANDUEL KEYS TO THE GAME

GET BACK TO BALL MOVEMENT

Assists have been a barometer for New Orleans’ success as a team lately. The Pelicans notched 30 in beating Dallas on Friday, then dished out just 19 in a Sunday loss at streaking Houston.

NUGGETS SECOND SCORER

Denver playing without two of its three biggest scorers, Jamal Murray and Porter, raises the importance of Nuggets like Barton and Gordon, who must supply greater offensive help than what was initially needed to Jokic.

MATCHUP TO WATCH

In a meeting of international players at center, Jokic squares off against Valanciunas, who is continually expanding his game, now among the NBA’s leaders in three-point percentage.