Devonte' Graham drives vs. Seth Curry of Philadelphia

Pelicans starting backcourt produces big night in opener vs. 76ers

by Jim Eichenhofer

NBA analysts seemed to have multiple questions this offseason while trying to evaluate New Orleans’ backcourt, with the most prominent being very simple: So who exactly are going to be the two starters? Pelicans first-year head coach Willie Green didn’t want to tip his hand throughout training camp and preseason, but it wasn’t a huge surprise Wednesday when the combination of Devonte’ Graham and Nickeil Alexander-Walker filled the roles vs. Philadelphia.

Despite the fact that Wednesday’s game was their first as an NBA starting backcourt, the pair played like they’ve been together for a few years. In just the 14th start of his three-year career, Alexander-Walker dropped in 23 points (4/8 three-point shooting), while Graham’s New Orleans debut featured 18 points (4/6 on treys). It wasn’t enough to lift the Pelicans to a victory in a 117-97 defeat to the 76ers, but it was an encouraging sign for an offense that needs everyone to contribute during the injury absence of Zion Williamson (team-high 27.0 ppg last season).

“(Alexander-Walker) can handle (the ball). I can handle it,” Graham said of the combination. “We can both shoot the ball. He’s definitely aggressive getting to the rim and making plays. We’ve definitely got good chemistry.”

“Devonte’ shot the ball well,” Green said. “(As did) Nickeil and Brandon (Ingram, who scored 25 points).”

Ingram was asked postgame Wednesday if he feels pressure to score more with Williamson sidelined, but the 2020 NBA All-Star shouldn’t need to up his production considerably if New Orleans’ guards are productive and efficient. Ingram took advantage of some wide driving lanes by getting all the way to the rim for a few of his 12 buckets.

“I feel like I’m around some shooters,” Ingram responded. “Nickeil, Devonte’, Josh Hart can make some shots. (Jonas) Valanciunas can step out and make some shots… It felt good to get downhill and get to the rim, get to some of the spots I need to.”

Alexander-Walker and Graham started working out immediately after Graham was traded by Charlotte to New Orleans in August, getting on the floor together while attending summer league in Las Vegas. It wasn’t a given they’d both be starters in 2021-22, but the guards got a bit of a head start by spending extra time practicing. It’s only one game, but the initial results are promising, including 15/25 combined shooting vs. the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed from last season.

“I mean, I love playing with Te’,” Alexander-Walker said. “Great player, confident player. Sees the game well, very unselfish. He’s a true point guard and wants to get (teammates) going (offensively). He can shoot the ball and is a scoring threat. I didn’t see anything I didn’t expect, because that’s the type of player I know he is and I know he can provide for us on any given night.”

“We are both aggressive guards, scoring guards,” said Graham, who also handed out five assists Wednesday. “But we also can facilitate at the same time. It’s a scary combination.”

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