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The Pelicans X Factor For 2021-22 NBA Season, And It’s Not Zion Williamson

Pelicans training camp, nba Jaxson Hayes

The New Orleans Pelicans completed another disappointing season, failing to reach the Playoffs for the third year in a row and the fifth time in six years. However, there is hope in Louisiana, as forward Zion Williamson finally played an extended number of minutes, without any major restrictions. Going forward, the Pelicans will need to learn from their experiences with past stars, such as Chris Paul and Anthony Davis, and really try to surround Williamson with proper talent.

Pelicans X Factor

In the Anthony Davis trade, they received forward Brandon Ingram and untapped his potential to the maximum. Ingram jumped from 18.3 to 23.8 points per game, earning his first All-Star selection in his first season in New Orleans. While he kept the numbers on a consistent level, he was unable to repeat the All-Star nod in the second year. However, he has shown that he can be counted on as a second option.

Rather than look out for Ingram and Williamson, whose level of play is now expected from them, the true deciding components for this Pelicans roster could be their additions during the summer. They lost guard Lonzo Ball to the Chicago Bulls in free agency and lost Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe through a trade earlier in the summer. To replace them, the Pelicans sign-and-traded for Devonte’ Graham and acquired Jonas Valanciunas in the Adams and Bledsoe trade. Overall, a busy summer for New Orleans, as they will definitely look to use the potential on their roster for something more than a fight for the postseason.

In terms of which players might be the difference, it is clear that the Lithuanian center Valanciunas is highly regarded by the front office, since major addition of last summer Steven Adams was given up in a trade for him. Other than Valanciunas, another X-Factor could be a resigned player, rather than one that was brought in. The player is Josh Hart, and if he has a major breakthrough year, he might be a major factor in the success of the Pels.

Starting with the big man from Europe, Valanciunas is an underrated player. Standing at six foot 11, the Lithuanian is a presence in the paint, even if his numbers do not suggest so. A soft shooting hand, shown by a sweet stroke at the line and high efficiency around the basket, he can absolutely fill it up from a position where, in the modern NBA, the teams would not expect it. While he tasted the best collective success in Toronto, his numbers skyrocketed for the Memphis Grizzlies, after a mid-season trade in 2019. He averaged 19.9 points and 10.7 rebounds in the 19 games for Memphis, and while he did drop off in 19/20, he bounced back in a major way in the season afterward, averaging a career-high for a full season – 17.1 points and 12.5 rebounds.

It will be an interesting fit, however, with Williamson, who is also a presence in the paint. Valanciunas is not a willing outside shooter and, while he can stretch the floor to a degree, it is not enough to completely clear the lane for Williamson. What he could do, of course, is expand his range fully and leave the paint, similar to the evolution of Brook Lopez in the Milwaukee Bucks. Lopez still remains an intimidating body in the middle of the Bucks defense, and on offense, he draws out rim protectors with his threat of a sweet shooting stroke.

Again, Valanciunas is an interesting fit with the overall theme of the Pelicans. However, his skills and potential to expand his range and game overall, even at 29 and going into his tenth year in the league, are reasons enough why his development is a key factor for this team.

On the other hand, Josh Hart is bang in the middle of his NBA career. The 26-year-old will start his prime in a couple of years and the Pelicans were a great opportunity to impose himself as a key member of the squad. Unfortunately for him, after a great first year where he did just that, he stagnated in his second year, not showing much improvement. It is unclear whether Hart is a forward or a guard, since Luke Walton used him as a guard in LA, while Stan Van Gundy used him as a forward. Now that JJ Redick is gone, however, Hart should have more minutes at the two-guard position, something is more suited for with his 6 foot 5, 215 pounds frame.

His game is also interesting, as he should be somewhat of an offensive spark off the bench. However, his 32.6% shooting from behind the arc does not instill a ton of confidence, and this is the area where the aforementioned Graham will not be enough. Hart needs to step up to the plate and take responsibility to lead the second line-up against opposing benches, and completely take over these parts of the upcoming games. If he does that, he has the potential to even contend for the Sixth Man of the Year award, which would be great for Hart’s confidence.

The Pelicans were always a very frustrating team to follow, especially for their fans. Two generational talents in Chris Paul and Anthony Davis were not properly surrounded with talent and it seems like the current GM, David Griffin, does not plan to do the same with current generational talent, Zion Williamson. It is only a question of fit, health, and appropriate progress of the supporting cast, that will ultimately determine their faith.

However, the clock is running on the Pelicans, as reports came earlier this year that Williamson and his family are not happy in New Orleans.  The team does hold all the strings contractually, as Williamson has one more guaranteed year and then two that are team options that the Pelicans will take without any questions. But, their past experiences might instill some urgency in the front office to keep the young forward happy. The fans of the franchise, after everything they went through, would not be eager to forgive them, should another star leave the city.