Under-the-radar pickup Norris Cole making early difference for Pelicans

by Jim Eichenhofer

There were more well-known names who changed teams during last week’s frenzied, NBA trade-deadline scramble. There were bigger contracts and flashier, headline-grabbing transactions. Yet as the dust has begun to settle from what was a wild Feb. 19 around the league, one under-the-radar acquisition making an ultra-early impact has been reserve point guard Norris Cole with New Orleans.

Before the ink was dry on the paperwork of a trade between New Orleans and Miami that sent two-time NBA champion Cole to the Crescent City, a local columnist panned the subtle move as a “yawner.” But after two games in a Pelicans uniform, the four-year NBA veteran hasn’t brought Zzzzzs with him to the Big Easy; he’s helped bring a pair of Ws.

Despite New Orleans being undermanned due to key injuries to Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans (29-27 overall) spoiled Goran Dragic’s debut with the Heat on Saturday, then rallied from an 18-point hole to knock off the Raptors, currently No. 2 in the Eastern Conference. Cole is averaging 13.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in his two appearances, while playing 27 minutes per game off the bench. He’s also been an efficient 11-for-18 shooting from the field.

During Monday’s stirring victory over Toronto, Cole displayed some of his pressure-tested game by erupting for 13 fourth-quarter points, after he’d scored two points in the first three periods. New Orleans was plus-9 with him on the floor against the Raptors, but minus-6 when he wasn’t in the game.

“He’s been huge,” said Pelicans forward Luke Babbitt, also a big factor in the two wins by shooting 10-for-14 from the field. “He’s bringing the energy. His defense, he’s moving the ball, hitting shots, that’s all you can ask for. To do that in his second game is pretty impressive.”

“I was just being aggressive,” Cole said of his fourth-quarter scoring barrage. “Winning time, that’s when you want to be at your best. In the fourth we did a good job of getting timely stops, getting tough rebounds and then executing down the stretch.”

Speaking of winning, the Cleveland State product earned a championship ring in each of his first two seasons. He reached the NBA Finals a third time in 2014, but Miami’s reign atop the league was ended by San Antonio in five games. Cole has appeared in a total of 60 playoff games, far more than anyone else on New Orleans’ current roster. As a franchise dating back to 2002-03, the Pelicans have played 36 postseason contests.

“Norris is similar to myself. We’ve won so much, especially early in our careers,” said Pelicans forward Quincy Pondexter, who’s seeking his fifth consecutive trip to the playoffs. “That’s all we know is winning basketball. He plays with a tenacity about him that is great to see and is a breath of fresh air. He’s a winner. I loved adding him to the team.”

While Cole has been a positive offensively so far with the Pelicans, his on-ball defense and all-out hustle were just as important in NOLA’s decision to acquire him, while trading forward John Salmons. During Saturday’s win in Miami, Cole was often spotted diving on the floor and beating his former teammates to loose balls. It was the type of extra effort New Orleans will need to remain in playoff contention amid the absence of Davis, Anderson and Holiday, who are averaging a combined 53.7 points in 2014-15.

“I play hard. I go after every ball that I can get,” Cole said when asked about his approach. “Gaining possession is the most important thing in this game. Whether it be on offense or defense. That’s what I try to do, give my team as many opportunities to score. It’s part of my makeup, being a defender and a competitor, taking on the challenge. It’s part of my DNA. I want to bring that to this team. I feel like if our defensive numbers improve, we have a good chance to try to sneak into that eighth seed.”

“He’s a young player, but he has a ton of experience, being in the Finals and winning championships,” Babbitt said. “That’s a huge deal. He’s bringing that energy. You can tell he’s a great teammate who’s been in a great locker room in Miami. You can tell he learned a lot from those guys and is bringing that here.”