Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram have led a New Orleans Pelicans team that has been one of the more compelling non-playoff teams in recent memory. What will it take for them to finally crack the playoffs next season? That would be one of their young guards becoming a prominent scorer.
There are three prime candidates in the Pelicans’ backcourt rotation to grow into a much-needed, consistent third source of offense: Devonte’ Graham, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr.
Option #1 – Devonte’ Graham
Graham presumably replaces Lonzo Ball at point guard, bringing a smooth offensive skill set to the table. The 26-year-old is an efficient outside shooter who’s adept finding his teammates for clean looks in the paint and out on the perimeter. Graham averaged 16.6 points and 6.5 assists per game while shooting 37.4 percent from beyond the arc in his last two seasons with the Charlotte Hornets.
Already a proven commodity, Graham enters an offense where he’s not the primary or even secondary source of offense. Open looks from the perimeter should come with frequency for him, as well as assists to the likes of proven scorers like Williamson and Ingram.
Option #2 – Nickeil Alexander-Walker
Alexander-Walker is coming off a highly encouraging sophomore season. He showcased an ability to score efficiently while making an impact in the scoring department both off the bench and in the starting five. Alexander-Walker averaged 11.0 points per game last season.
Starting in-between Graham and Ingram, Alexander-Walker can benefit from the attention the players adjacent to him attract while ambushing teams with his ability to get to the rim. An improved and more productive Alexander-Walker would be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Option #3 – Kira Lewis Jr.
Lewis held down a reserve role in his rookie season with the Pelicans, making it difficult to get a gauge on his NBA future. That said, he’s a speedster who showcased an ability to get inside with said speed and serve as a facilitator in his two seasons at Alabama. It’s feasible to think Lewis gradually improves and maintains a consistent role in the Pelicans’ rotation moving forward.
At least one of these guards making a substantial jump in both production and impact does wonders for new head coach Willie Green’s offense.
Williamson and Ingram are bonafide and arguably top-tier scorers. They each score efficiently and can drop 30 points on any given night. Imagine if there was someone else alongside them who at least posed that same threat?
The Pelicans have a boatload of scorers. Outside of their esteemed frontcourt duo, they also have a multifaceted scoring center in Jonas Valanciunas, who can have his way in the paint while forcing big men to come out to the perimeter via his shooting ability. Meanwhile, rookie Trey Murphy III is a deadeye shooter while Josh Hart is a gritty scorer and an elite rebounding guard (he averaged eight rebounds per game last season).
This roster has players in their prime and a bevy of individuals with upside, many of which come in an aspect of the Pelicans’ rotation that needs bolstering. Yes, the Pelicans are already a renowned offensive team. At the same time, teams can win by being an extremity in some element of the game, if you will. In this case, that would be the Pelicans evolving into an overwhelming offensive unit.
New Orleans needs a distinct and intimidating identity because there’s zero margin for error when it comes to them making the playoffs. The Western Conference simply doesn’t enable mediocrity.
Sure, there are some injuries and teams that continually come up short in the conference at the moment. On the other hand, there are a handful of young teams that have sustained more success than the Pelicans. The Phoenix Suns won the West while the Memphis Grizzlies made the playoffs last season. Furthermore, the Golden State Warriors are healthier and deeper.
All the while, the Pelicans haven’t done anything from a record standpoint over the last two years to prove that they’re more advanced or likely to make the playoffs than the San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings. If the Pelicans breathe, they lose pace with the pack.
In all likelihood, the Pelicans’ road to the playoffs comes through the NBA Play-in Tournament. There are simply too many proven teams in the West to say with certainty that the Pelicans can be a top six team in the standings. They have a new head coach and a lot of young players, meaning they’ll gradually pick up steam as the season progresses.
The 2021-22 NBA season is a pivotal period of time for the Pelicans. They need to break through with this core, which entails having a winning season. The requisite for them doing as such comes from a player who teams aren’t focusing their defensive attention on emerging as a legitimate scoring option.