Kira Lewis drops off a pass to Jaxson Hayes

Three recent Pelicans first-round picks shine in road trip opener vs. Clippers

by Jim Eichenhofer

Even at 19 or 20 years of age, highly-drafted NBA players normally face little resistance in their pursuit of playing time, with the teams that chose them eager to get young talent on the court as quickly as possible. However, that isn’t the case for the New Orleans Pelicans. Even if a prospect is picked in the lottery or first round, the team’s youngsters are forced to earn minutes.

For players like Nickeil Alexander-Walker, 22, Jaxson Hayes, 20, and 19-year-old rookie Kira Lewis Jr., that means some of their biggest opportunities early in 2020-21 have come in practice gyms, not NBA arenas. None entered this season guaranteed a large role in Stan Van Gundy’s rotation.

After all three players made major contributions Wednesday in a narrow 111-106 loss to the Clippers – highlighted by Alexander-Walker’s career-best 37-point outburst – the No. 17 pick of the 2019 draft noted that preparation in practice is paying off for the trio. With starting guards Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe sidelined by injury, Lewis went from four DNPs during a four-game Pelicans homestand to tallying 10 points and a block in 16 minutes in Los Angeles. Hayes grabbed a season-high 10 rebounds in 19 minutes, as New Orleans’ frontcourt tried to fill the void of Zion Williamson (out due to NBA health and safety protocols). Lewis was drafted 13th overall in November, while Hayes went No. 8 in 2019.

“Our competitiveness in practice is what allows us to be ready in the games,” said Alexander-Walker, who indicated that the young players sometimes play on the same units there. “Chance favors the well prepared, and our team was well prepared.”

A breakdown of the encouraging signs by each player in Wednesday’s ESPN game:

Nickeil Alexander-Walker

The Virginia Tech product said his 37 points were the most he’s scored since a 50-point game in high school. The Toronto native was in a zone from the get-go Wednesday, scoring in a variety of ways and approaching heat-check territory on a few second-half jumpers that went in. Alexander-Walker was extremely aggressive, yet still shot efficiently at 15/23 from the field and 5/8 on threes. For good measure, he pulled down a career-high eight rebounds.

“Nickeil did a great job attacking in pick-and-rolls and scoring,” Van Gundy said. “He was fabulous offensively tonight.”

“He played great,” Lewis said. “He attacked the basket, played good defense. That’s pretty much what he does in practice all the time. His confidence never wavers. He’s always going to come at you. (On the sideline) we were encouraging him to keep shooting. When you’ve got a hot hand like that, keep being aggressive. That’s what he did. He played a great game.”

Alexander-Walker credited teammates for his big night, including Pelicans All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, who was the center of the Clippers’ defensive attention.

“With most of our starters out, (the Clippers) knew B.I. was our All-Star, the head of the snake,” Alexander-Walker said. “That’s also what made it easier (for me), playing with him. Him being unselfish, not trying to force the issue, helped everyone tonight.”

Jaxson Hayes

The inexperienced second-year center is a work in progress in some areas, but he’s shown clear improvement in the rebounding department, which may have been the most important category for him to make strides this season. The University of Texas product’s 10 rebounds featured five at each end of the floor, with that offensive board haul tying his career high.

“He brought a lot of energy,” Ingram said. “He was in the right spots on the offensive and defensive end, rebounding and (scoring). He just did his job. That’s what we’re going to need for the rest of this road trip.”

Kira Lewis Jr.

For the first time in 2020-21, Lewis got a chance to play in the heart of a competitive game (his two previous regular season appearances were in a 25-point loss at Phoenix and a 33-point win at Oklahoma City). The University of Alabama product passed his first real test, connecting twice from three-point range and sinking a mid-range shot from near the foul line. At a position where grace under pressure is vital, he also received complimentary words from his veteran head coach.

“There’s no fear there,” Van Gundy said of Lewis’ composure. “I think he’s got a lot to build on: His quickness is great, he can shoot the ball, he will shoot the ball when he’s open. It’s all good. He’s got to get a little bit more vocal in terms of directing our offense. We had two or three possessions where I don’t think we knew what we were in, but that’ll come. This guy is 19 years old and playing the point in our league. In his first shot doing it, he’s playing against the Clippers, with guys like Pat Beverley. I think it’s a damn good first (rotation appearance). Was it perfect? No. If he were an eight-year veteran starter in the league, I might start nitpicking a little. It still wouldn’t be a bad game, but 19 years old? It’s hard to quibble with what he did tonight.”

Asked whether he had some nerves Wednesday knowing that he’d part of the New Orleans rotation, Lewis acknowledged that he did, but it didn’t take long to get rid of them.

“Just a little, knowing that I’m going to get in, on national TV, against a really good team,” he said. “But once I ran up and down the court a couple times, the butterflies went away. I was doing what I’ve done my whole life playing basketball.”

“The one thing about Kira, he’s not going to get flustered,” Van Gundy said. “He’s just not. Even if things don’t go well, he’s got a great demeanor about him. He’s very even-keeled and focused. Nobody is going to screw him up mentally, not any defender, not me. He’s a tough-minded guy. He’s got a lot to work with there. I was proud of the way he played tonight.”

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