Devonte' Graham blocks a shot by a Philadelphia player

Pelicans shootaround update: New Orleans defense preparing for big tests at home

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

After a couple rough defensive performances to open 2021-22, New Orleans was much better at that end of the floor during a two-game series at Minnesota, bumping the Pelicans up to 17th in the NBA in efficiency (107.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, via NBA.com). While that may not sound like reason to second line down Poydras Street, New Orleans (1-3) has been a bottom-10 defensive team in recent years, making it imperative that the Pelicans improve significantly in that category.

New Orleans’ defense is about to be tested in the Smoothie King Center over the next few days, hosting top-10 attacks in Atlanta (No. 10) and New York (fourth) on Wednesday and Saturday, respectively. On Friday, Sacramento (16th) pays a visit to Louisiana. The Pelicans, who have been playing without one of their top defenders, Josh Hart, hope to see the forward/guard return to action soon, but Hart indicated after Wednesday’s shootaround that it’s unlikely he’ll play against the Hawks.

“I’m going to see how it feels,” Hart said of the quad injury that has kept him out of the lineup. “I don’t want to push it too much. I’m taking it slowly, making sure I’m 100 percent. Because if I’m not, then I’m not helping myself or helping the team.”


Other notes from shootaround:

Hart on the Pelicans’ Monday win at Minnesota: “Our defense was great. We’re going to need that tonight against a team that was in the Eastern Conference finals, who had a really realistic chance to make the (NBA) Finals before Trae (Young’s) injury (in the series against Milwaukee).” …

Trey Murphy III on one adjustment he’s been forced to make from preseason to his rookie NBA regular season: “I mean, the scouting report is out. Everybody knows I can shoot the ball. I’m not getting many clean looks anymore. I just have to find ways to get my shot off, and also use my gravity to get other people shots.” …

During preseason, Murphy gave fellow Pelicans rookie Herbert Jones the nickname “Straitjacket” due to Jones’ airtight defense. Murphy on Jones’ contributions and the nickname: “He’s making my nickname look really good right now, because he’s definitely being a straitjacket. I expect that from Herb. He’s one of the best defenders I’ve ever seen. I’m really excited for him, that he’s able to get a lot of minutes and guard the best guys on the court.”


ATLANTA SCOUTING REPORT

Offensive efficiency rank: 10 (108.2)

Defensive efficiency rank: 2 (96.1)

Net rating: 3 (+12.1)

Pace: 13 (101.50)

Streak: Won 1

Go-to guy: Trae Young and Phoenix’s Devin Booker were arguably the two biggest breakout stars from the 2021 NBA postseason, with Young reprising the role of Madison Square Garden playoff villain, perfected by Reggie Miller a generation earlier. The deep-shooting and crafty Young is dangerous from 35 feet from the basket, but also gets into the paint frequently on drives and is an underrated passer (second in NBA at 10.0 assists per game, behind Chris Paul’s 11.7 average).

On the rise: Cam Reddish’s three-year NBA career has often been hampered by injuries, but late in the 2021 playoffs and early in 2021-22, he’s shown what he can do while healthy. The Duke product has thrown his name into ultra-early discussion for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, scoring 20, 19 and 17 points in games vs. Dallas, Cleveland and Detroit. Reddish has drained three three-pointers in all three contests, going 9/16 from the arc.

PREVIOUS GAME STARTING LINEUPS

ATLANTA (2-1)

Monday win vs. Detroit

Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, John Collins, Clint Capela

Notes: This starting five is 1-0, in place Monday because of a DNP-illness by De’Andre Hunter, who was replaced at small forward by Huerter. Hunter is probable to play Wednesday. Veteran scorers Lou Williams (ankle) and Danilo Gallinari (shoulder) are questionable. ... Unlike New Orleans’ draftees, Atlanta rookies Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper have been used sparingly so far, combining to play just 14 minutes.

NEW ORLEANS (1-3)

Monday win at Minnesota

Devonte’ Graham, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Herbert Jones, Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas

Notes: This group is 1-2, in place since Friday’s game at Chicago, after an injury to opening-night starter Hart (quad). … Jones is ninth among NBA rookies in minutes average (23.2), a number that is skewed downward by him only playing in mop-up time (3:15) in the opener vs. Philadelphia. Fellow rookie Murphy is averaging 21.0 minutes.

FANDUEL KEYS TO THE GAME

EASY BASKETS

New Orleans has four players averaging 17-plus points per game, but the Pelicans still have been held under 100 points twice in their four contests. They are ranked No. 28 in offense at this early stage of the regular season, while the Hawks are second in defense, trends that New Orleans must halt Wednesday to have a chance to defeat Atlanta.

PROTECT THE BALL

Some turnover problems may not have been completely unforeseen for a New Orleans team with a brand-new starting backcourt and several offseason roster additions filling major roles, but the Pelicans need to move out of the NBA’s basement in turnovers per game (20.3). By comparison, last season’s Oklahoma City rebuilding squad finished last in the league with a turnover average of 16.1.

MATCHUP TO WATCH

At point guard, Young and Graham are very familiar opponents, having matched up frequently over the previous three seasons while Graham played for Charlotte in the Southeast Division. Graham has produced a pair of 21-point games this season, with his scoring punch much needed by the Pelicans sans Zion Williamson. Young shot 14/36 from the field in Atlanta’s first two games, but was 13/21 at Minnesota on Monday, piling up 32 points in 32 minutes.

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