If you’d have told a Pelicans fan 12 months ago that Anthony Davis would force his way out of the team, General Manager Dell Demps would be fired and they would miss out on the playoffs, there is absolutely no way they would expect to be one of the most exciting teams heading into the 2019-20 season.
New GM David Griffin stepped in to bring back an unbelievable package for Davis, including promising young players and a wealth of future picks. Add to that the most hyped rookie in recent history, Zion Williamson, and the Pelicans have become one of the most relevant and must-watch teams in the NBA.
Last season was one to forget for Pelicans fans. Before the season began, DeMarcus Cousins left during free agency on an astoundingly low $5.3 million deal, joining the Warriors instead of re-signing in New Orleans. The Anthony Davis saga began to unravel in January as the All-Star’s trade request was made public, followed by a frustrating end to the season, in which AD played only 15 of the final 36 games. During his final, sporadic appearances, Davis averaged only 16.6 points (for context, he averaged 25.9 for the season) and was accused of playing it safe to preserve his health and value ahead of a big summer trade.
Demps was sacked during the All-Star break and the Pelicans missed out on a playoff spot as a result of the chaos. All signs pointed to the summer being the ultimate demise of the Pelicans, inevitably losing their star man and any relevancy along with him.
They may not be competing for a top seed in the West, but the Pelicans have arguably had one of the greatest, drastic summers in the history of the NBA. Seemingly on the verge of falling away into the abyss, newly hired GM David Griffin stepped in to rejuvenate the franchise with an unprecedented (before the Paul George trade) haul of assets for the departing Anthony Davis. The Pelicans added Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart from the Lakers, as well as an abundance of future picks.
Unbelievably, New Orleans landed the number one pick, Zion Williamson, despite entering the draft lottery with only a 6 percent chance obtaining the spot. Zion is widely regarded as the most talented and eagerly anticipated prospect since his predecessor, Anthony Davis – possibly even eclipsing the level of talent that ‘The Brow’ had as a rookie. The coming season will tell.
The Pelicans also added center Jaxson Hayes and guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker during the draft, both of whom exceeded expectations early during Summer League. JJ Redick joined during free agency and two second-round picks were sent to Utah for big man Derrick Favors, who will add experience and toughness to their frontcourt.
This season, the Pelicans are set to be pure entertainment. If all of their pieces click early, it’s not crazy to think they could make a push for a seventh or eighth seed in the West. In truth, the pressure is off New Orleans for the upcoming season. Instead of making short-term moves to desperately try and appease Anthony Davis, the Pels will ensure the development of Zion and his supporting cast is their number one priority. They are set up for a sustainable and stardom-destined future, with their already-deep cast of young players, and a potential 14 draft picks (six first rounders with some swaps and eight second rounders) over the next four years.
The Ringer’s Danny Chau said there was no player comparison that suited number one pick Zion Williamson. Instead, he should be likened to a Boeing 747 because no one is quite sure how something so heavy and wide can take off with so much ease and explosiveness. Zion is a must-watch. His debut had the highest audience of any Summer League game ever (beating the previous total by around 33 percent) and he has played a huge role in increasing the number of televised Pelicans games from 18 (last season) to 30 (this year). Pelicans fans will be quick to forget Anthony Davis, thanks to their new star man taking the reins.
The Pelicans roster has an average age of 24.6 years old – one of the youngest in the league and lower than last year’s youngest team, the Nuggets (24.7). After Zion, they drafted Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who both shone during Summer League and made a case that they can contribute from the off. The new additions from the Lakers (Ball, Ingram and Hart) will also bolster their ranks and fans will hope to see their talents blossom in their new setting. Their youth and long-term upside makes New Orleans one of the most intriguing rosters in the association, whilst showing genuine potential to be competitive in the short term. Unless something goes drastically wrong, New Orleans should be set to hit the big time very soon.
Something that’s gone under the radar during the Pelicans’ radical transformation is how ferocious their new-look defense could be. That seems a ridiculous claim to make following the departure of defensive juggernaut Anthony Davis, however, Jrue Holiday remains on the team and will set the tone with the tenacious style of play that earned him a spot on the All-Defensive Second Team last season (and first team in 2018). Lonzo is widely considered a good defender at his position, with a size advantage over most of his counterparts (at 6’6). New addition Jaxson Hayes is a super athletic, raw center who provides rim protection alongside Derrick Favors, who will no doubt play a role in helping Hayes adapt to the NBA game. Ingram has so far disappointed defensively, but has upside with a staggering 7-3 wingspan. Zion was a force of nature during his college games, sending highlights of his hustle, steals and shot blocks viral. His toughness, energy and build (284 lbs at only 6’7) make him a fascinating defensive prospect. A potential five of Ball, Holiday, Ingram, Williamson, Hayes/Favors could be tough to break down.
One of the most highly-anticipated rookies of the 21st century, Zion brings a plethora of skills, energy and highlight plays on a nightly basis. A heavy ‘Rookie of the Year’ favourite.
Jrue Holiday | 21.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 7.7 apg
The 29-year-old guard can play on or off-ball and is an excellent two-way force, proving a trustworthy scorer and three-point shooter on offense, whilst being a defensive menace on the other end of the floor.
Brandon Ingram | 18.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.0 apg
Ingram is only 21-years-old and was enjoying a career year during his third season, before being sidelined due to a concerning diagnosis of deep venous thrombosis (a blood clot in his arm). His return and development could provide New Orleans with a lead-scorer, now out of LeBron’s shadow and given more freedom offensively.
Derrick Favors | 11.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.2 apg
The big man will be a veteran presence to help welcome Zion in to the league. For years, he has been battling for rebounds and position against an elite defender and rebounder on his own team – Rudy Gobert on the Utah Jazz. Now Favors could be the starting center on a team that will likely prefer a smaller line-up, so there should be plenty more rebounds available, and it could lead to an increase in scoring opportunities.
Lonzo Ball | 9.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.4 apg
Despite what his father thinks, Lonzo has performed reasonably well given his limited opportunity so far. He was forced into a fifth or sixth option on the Los Angeles Lakers last year after LeBron James arrived, but he’s also struggled with injuries since he joined the NBA. Despite this, he managed nearly 10, 5 and 5 last season on 40 percent shooting. He is also a good defender and is willing to keep the ball moving around the floor with passes that don’t always lead to points or assists. He should be useful on this team.