Pelicans shootaround update: Willy Hernangomez providing lift to NOLA bench
There were many overjoyed reactions from teammates Wednesday when Willy Hernangomez drained a rare three-pointer against Washington, but as Hernangomez released the shot, Brandon Ingram was mostly fearful. A smiling Ingram joked after the 127-102 win that Hernangomez’s decision to fire risked Hernangomez finding an immediate seat on the bench from head coach Willie Green. Fortunately the native of Spain’s trey was accurate, highlighting his 13-point, seven-rebound performance. That came two nights after he went for a season-best 19 points and 11 boards in just 22 minutes vs. Minnesota. It was an impressive two-game stretch for a reserve center who’d barely played in the season’s first 18 contests.
“I was scared for him,” Ingram said of Hernangomez launching from distance. “I knew after that shot, either he was going to make it and everybody was going to clap, or if he missed he was going to come out of the game. I was scared for him but in the end I was happy for him (that it was a make).”
“I was surprised and excited that he hit that three,” Green said, grinning and seeming to indicate that Hernangomez deep balls are not a central part of the team’s offensive plan of attack. “When you’re having the game he (had), you can take one three at least.”
For a second straight season, the 27-year-old Hernangomez has shrugged off a stretch of inactivity by immediately contributing when moved into the rotation. He’s helped the New Orleans bench immensely this week, a unit that needed more production and scoring punch.
“He’s a great teammate, he works extremely hard,” Green said. “Guys like him deserve to play.”
Utah starting forward Royce O’Neale (ankle, foot) is listed as questionable to play Friday. … Friday’s game is the first of a back-to-back for New Orleans at Utah, the last time the Pelicans will play a “baseball series” this season. They split two games at Minnesota in October. New Orleans also has consecutive games next week against Dallas, but Wednesday’s matchup is in Louisiana, followed by a Friday tilt in Texas.
UTAH SCOUTING REPORT
Offensive efficiency rank: 1 (114.2)
Defensive efficiency rank: 8 (105.3)
Net rating: 2 (+9.0)
Pace: 20 (98.31)
Streak: Won 1
Go-to guy: Donovan Mitchell has produced several of the best regular season games of his NBA career against New Orleans, including his first outing of 40-plus points as a rookie in December 2017. Over 14 total games vs. the Pelicans, he’s averaging 26.0 points, which is his third-most while facing any opponent (Washington 29.3, Sacramento 27.9). The Louisville product is a 36 percent career three-point shooter, but ups that to 41 percent when meeting the Crescent City franchise. Mitchell already has three games of 30-plus points this season, topped by 37 at Miami on Nov. 6.
On the rise: A familiar name to New Orleans hoops fans based on his Southwest Division experience (he played seven seasons for Memphis, four for San Antonio), 35-year-old veteran forward Rudy Gay has been excellent over the last four games for Utah. Since making his season debut Nov. 18 following heel surgery, Gay is averaging 10.0 points off the bench, shooting 54 percent from the field and 56 percent on threes.
PREVIOUS GAME STARTING LINEUPS
NEW ORLEANS (4-16)
Wednesday win vs. Washington
Devonte’ Graham, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, Jonas Valanciunas
Notes: This group is 1-0 and was the seventh different starting lineup used by the Pelicans this season. Much of that shuffling has been due to injuries to Graham (sidelined for games Nov. 19-22) and Ingram (out Oct. 30-Nov. 12) over separate timeframes. … Valanciunas leads New Orleans in total minutes (642) and is the only Pelican to start all 20 games. Nickeil Alexander-Walker is second in total minutes (596).
Wednesday win at Oklahoma City
Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert
Notes: This group is 11-4 and was also Utah’s primary starting lineup last season, when it combined to go 29-12. … The Jazz have only used three different starting lineups this season, largely due to excellent health by key players. The entire starting frontcourt of O’Neale, Bogdanovic and Gobert has appeared in all 18 games, as have reserves Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Hassan Whiteside. ... Conley has not been playing in back-to-backs. Utah is 0-2 without him this season, with losses at Chicago and at Orlando.
FANDUEL KEYS TO THE GAME
New Orleans won’t be at full strength until All-Star forward Zion Williamson makes his 2021-22 debut, but in the meantime, it’s very helpful to have all three of its current leading scorers in uniform together. That hasn’t happened much lately, but the trio of Ingram (21.8 ppg), Valanciunas (19.2) and Graham (15.1) has displayed its potential in dominant recent wins over Memphis and Washington.
A big factor in Wednesday’s blowout win over Washington was New Orleans’ aggressive, hustling defense picking up 13 steals, part of a 19-turnover game by the Wizards. The Pelicans will need to be similarly disruptive out on the floor against the Jazz, who rank fourth in the NBA in three-pointers made per game.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
New Orleans recently was ranked last in the NBA in defensive efficiency, but stingy nights vs. the Clippers and Washington helped bump the Pelicans up a bit to 26th. On paper, Friday is the biggest challenge of the season for NOLA’s defense, because Utah possesses the NBA’s most efficient offense.