The New Orleans Pelicans (31-22) have won four of their last five games and are in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. The team is still not firing on all cylinders, however. Their wayward free-throw shooting and a waning defensive focus were on full display during a recent three-game losing streak.

The locker room's most lethal sharpshooter has been off-target as well. Trey Murphy has been balancing a return from a recent injury along with future NBA All-Star-level expectations a few months before being eligible to sign a contract extension.

A future All-Star appearance is not out of the question for Murphy, but better defense and consistent ball handling on closeouts are a necessity. The Pelicans are a top-10 contender needing the best out of their sixth man to make any postseason noise. Murphy's play in the 93-84 road win over the Portland Trail Blazers was an encouraging sign things are starting to turn for the good.

Third-year head coach Willie Green was critical of Murphy's defense after a 139-122 loss versus the Los Angeles Lakers in the first game of a back-to-back set. Green sounded a bit more satisfied with the Pelicans in Portland.

“Mentally tough,” Green stated. “Proud of our guys. They fought. This is a tough win to come into this building on a back-to-back and play against a young, hungry team that is scrappy. Credit to all of our guys in that locker room. We did what we needed to do to come out with that win.”

Murphy seizes opportunity, starts for Pelicans

Trey Murphy III, New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans were cautious with two-time All-Star Zion Williamson, who missed the game due to a foot contusion. Murphy stepped up with an All-Star performance, pouring in 24 points (7-10 FG, 5-8 3Pt, 5-6 FT), grabbing five rebounds, blocking two shots, and snatching one steal in 30 minutes of action. It was Murphy's first 20-point game since December 21 and a sign of what he can do when given the opportunity. New Orleans expects nothing less from 2021's 17th overall pick.

“He looked like himself tonight. His energy was good,” shared Green. “He was sound defensively, contesting shots, and rebounding the ball. It was good to see Trey make shots and that's what he is capable of doing. When he hits shots, he makes it extremely difficult on any opponent.”

Murphy's usage rate is up to 18.5% but his minutes, points, and three-point shooting percentages are all down. Murphy's free-throw success rate is under 80% after years of flirting with a 90% mark from the charity stripe. The Pelicans are leaning in on long-range shots so hopefully Murphy can get back on track after the All-Star break.

The Virginia alum is at 32% from three-point range over the last 15 games. Murphy knows it has not been pretty to watch, but he feels better days are ahead. The performance in a win over Portland was just the beginning of a return to form.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Murphy said. “I’ve been struggling a little bit. I know that. I’ve been trying to be better. Hopefully, it’s the start of something new.”