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Ten Reasons the Pelicans Are the NBA’s Biggest Wild Card

New Orleans might have the brightest future in the NBA, but the present is pretty promising, too. Says Zion Williamson: “We can have a journey that can be very special. I don’t know where it will take us but I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The New Orleans Pelicans suffered their toughest loss of the season on Wednesday, coughing up a three-point lead with 1.6 seconds left and the ball in their possession. The defeat hurt double. Not only did they go on to lose in overtime, but they lost to the Lakers of all teams, who owe the Pelicans their 2023 first-round draft pick. Even at this early stage in the season, every win and loss counts, whether you’re trying to make the playoffs or make a run at Victor Wembanyama.

Brandon Ingram and Herb Jones didn’t play in the loss, and yet it felt like a game New Orleans should have won, which speaks to the amount of talent the Pelicans have collected in the three years since they dealt a disgruntled Anthony Davis to the Lakers.

Ingram is a cornerstone. Zion Williamson is the face of the franchise. And CJ McCollum is an offensive force. They’re supported by one of the deepest rosters in the league, with a mix of young defensive aces like Jones, veteran bruisers like Jonas Valanciunas, and cult heroes like Jose Alvarado. The Pelicans are unproven but they’re no longer a pity story. In fact, when healthy they could be a true threat in the Western Conference for years to come, and maybe even this season.

As a result of the AD and Jrue Holiday deals, the Pelicans have 13 future first-round picks over the next seven drafts, meaning they have the ammo to make virtually any trade they want to further bolster their roster. Factoring in potential for player development and personnel upgrades, the current Pelicans could be nowhere near their ceiling.

“We can have a journey that can be very special. I don’t know where it will take us but I’m excited to be part of it,” Zion tells The Ringer. “I’ve always been more of a show-you guy. So if I want that title, I have to show the league.”

Williamson is already the brightest star on the Pelicans, but he also has the most room to improve. The way he develops this season and beyond will dictate whether he can ever win MVP or bring a championship to New Orleans.

While the Pelicans were in Los Angeles last week, I spoke one-on-one with Williamson, McCollum, head coach Willie Green, and others to get the lowdown on one of the NBA’s most intriguing teams. Here are 10 thoughts and observations about their promising present and potentially bright future:

1. Zion Is Just Scratching the Surface

Zion has the upside to be a top-five player in the league, if not the league’s best player overall. He’s a 6-foot-6, 284-pound steamroller with pogo-stick ankles who can get to the rim with ease and make his teammates better as a playmaker. He’s only 22 years old and already one of the 15 to 20 best players in the league. What holds him back is he’s a timid shooter and a passive defender who has also faced conditioning and injury issues. He’s missed 143 of 235 possible games in his career.

At a practice in Los Angeles, I caught a glimpse of what he could be during his prime years.

Zion was at a basket in the middle of the gym doing one-on-one drills with Pelicans player development coach Corey Brewer, who’s still just 36 years old and was an energetic defender during his 13-year NBA career. After scoring on consecutive power moves, Zion posted up on the right block. Once receiving the ball from assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon, he instantly took a hard dribble, bumping his shoulder into Brewer’s chest. But rather than battering his way to the rim, Zion pivoted the other way and rose up for a fadeaway jumper that swished through the net. He made shots like this time and time again during his intense, sweat-inducing reps against Brewer, and then again at Tuesday’s practice against teammates.

Going into Wednesday’s game, Zion had yet to take a single shot outside of eight feet this season. Against the Lakers he took four, including one fadeaway jumper out of the post that looked like a shot he’s been nailing in drills:

“It’s a mental thing for me,” Williamson says. “I can shoot the faders, I can shoot the middies, I can shoot the 3s. But in the game, I’m such a perfectionist. I’m so locked in that mindset that the best shot is the closest shot to the basket. I feel like when I get to the basket at will, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Zion can hurl himself toward the left side of the rim to bulldoze through defenders, just like he always has, since he’s been bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone. But he’s been a tick less efficient than he was when he averaged 27 points per game during the 2020-21 season because of the way he’s now being officiated and defended. Defenses know what to expect. On drives, he goes left. In the post, he’s going for a hook shot.

Despite the scouting report being out, Zion is still a handful to contain. But his free throw attempts have nearly been halved. He missed all of last season with a foot injury, and while he was out the league tweaked the way fouls are called on drives to the rim. Now, referees limit how often they blow the whistle when the offensive player initiates contact.

“Honestly, he’s fouled almost every possession he’s got the ball. They need to call some of them,” Green tells The Ringer. “You can’t penalize him for being his size with his strength. But he has a ton else in his arsenal that he can use on the basketball floor. So he’s growing, getting better and better.”

When he misses shots during practice, he tends to get mad at himself. At a gym on the UCLA campus on Tuesday, Zion was in disbelief after bricking a jumper off the far left side of the glass. He screamed and jogged away from the basket, slamming an open hand against the side of his thigh in frustration. The Pelicans want him to work through it in practices, so eventually he can implement it in games.

“Spoon and Brewer help me break that mental block,” Zion says. “It’s just a matter of shooting it and being OK with it if I miss it.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo eventually added an in-between game because with the established threat of a shot, driving lanes widened, and because it’s less taxing on the body to take a jumper every once in a while. Williamson also has MVP potential, he just isn’t quite ready to take the next step with regularity.

Over his career, he’s attempted just 18 dribble-jumpers but made eight of them, or 44.4 percent. A small but good sample. He should take more. But we’re witnessing the battle between Williamson being able to do things his own way and Williamson realizing there’s so much more that he needs to add to his game—adding a midrange game, practicing like a professional, and putting greater effort into his defense. Zion is already one of the best young players in the NBA, but he is capable of infinitely more.

2. The CJ McCollum Bet Is Paying Off

The Pelicans tried to convince Davis to stay when they landed the first pick in the 2019 draft and thus the right to pick Williamson. They wanted AD to lead an elite defense with Holiday. Zion could provide a new dimension to the team’s offense. Additions at the wing would allow them to match up with anyone as a long, versatile team built to play big or small, fast or slow, inside or out.

But Davis is long gone, and you can’t blame him for the decision, since he immediately won a title with the Lakers in 2020. But the long-term plan is starting to become clearer in New Orleans. Unlike AD, McCollum did see the vision. When he was acquired at the trade deadline in February from the Blazers, executive vice president David Griffin and Green pitched him on building a team in the image of the city of New Orleans. Hard-working. Tough. Resilient. And from a basketball standpoint, McCollum would have the opportunity to handle the ball more than he ever did playing alongside Damian Lillard.

“I wasn’t put in the position to run point, and when I was I don’t know if I was necessarily ready earlier in my career,” McCollum says of his eight-plus seasons in Portland. “Now, this is my basketball potential being unlocked to the fullest.”

McCollum isn’t a pure point who orchestrates the offense like a throwback such as John Stockton, but he’s averaging more points and almost twice as many assists as he did in Portland—and that’s despite him nursing a middle finger injury on his shooting hand that has limited his play. On a team with so many players who can handle the ball, it makes sense to have a guard like McCollum who can excel whether he’s running the show or sprinting around screens. But on most nights, his primary role now is to set up his teammates.

McCollum uses the same type of hesitations and change-of-pace moves that have long been his bread-and-butter, but now he’s drawing the attention of multiple defenders to free up others for skip passes across the court, or interior passes to a rolling big.

“My assist-to-turnover ratio will be off the chain. Before the season’s over it’ll be top five in the NBA,” says McCollum, who currently ranks eighth (3.5) among players averaging at least 30 minutes. His previous career high is 2.5, which was set last season. “I’ll average close to 10 assists a game for the season because I’ve worked on this stuff,” he continues. “It’s not like I didn’t just go out here experimenting. I know how to run a team, and I’m learning how to think the game.”

McCollum is thinking pass first more than he ever has and he’s surrounded by scorers. Zion batters opponents on his way to the basket, and Ingram uses his tall, lanky frame to slither inside or pull up from anywhere. When one of them has a mismatch, McCollum will often remain active away from the ball and let them go to work.

“The beauty of CJ is he can play multiple roles,” Green says. “Those three guys, any given time on the floor, they can attack you offensively and go for 30 points, or they can also just continue to make the right play and dominate you with their playmaking.”

3. Brandon Ingram’s Arrival

It’s not a hot take to say that Ingram is actually the best player on the Pelicans. He’s a versatile scorer with the ability to shoot off the catch, pull up from anywhere off the dribble, and feast around the basket. At 6-foot-8, he’s also a savvy passer and a far superior defender to Zion or CJ.

“Brandon is one of the league’s best basketball players. Any time you run up against guys like that, they can beat you in multiple ways,” Green says. “You take something away from him, he can do something else.”

Green utilizes the 25-year-old in every imaginable action. He’ll run pick-and-rolls. He’ll post up. He’ll come off screens to get inside the arc, which is typically where he likes to settle in. Last season, 59 percent of his shots came from midrange, which is one of the highest marks in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. And he makes those shots at one of the league’s most efficient clips.

The peak of Ingram’s powers were on display in the Zion-less Pelicans’ first-round series loss to the Suns last postseason. While playing heavy minutes, Ingram averaged 27 points on elite efficiency with 6.2 assists and only 3.8 turnovers per game. Whether he was battling against a longer defender like Mikal Bridges or a stronger one like Jae Crowder, he found ways to generate space for himself and for his teammates by digging into his deep bag of shot-creation moves.

“Opposing teams can’t send two,” Ingram tells The Ringer. “We’re gonna have a lot of mismatches on the basketball floor.”

Staying healthy is the main concern. Ingram has appeared in more than 75 percent of his games only three times in six seasons. If Ingram, McCollum, and Williamson are all able to make it to the 2023 playoffs healthy, they’ll have a three-headed monster that’ll be a challenge for any team to contain with their ability to both score and pass.

“No one’s afraid to let someone else shine,” Williamson says. “We all support each other when we’re shining.”

4. A Sneaky Deep Bench

One of the most common refrains you hear talking to NBA coaching staffs is the importance of building a second unit that pushes so hard that the first unit is guilted into playing even harder. The Pelicans are taking that concept a step further. Their third unit is pushing their second unit to be better, and the second unit is pushing the starters to do the same.

“Our practices are tougher than the games,” reserve big man Larry Nance Jr. says.

The Pelicans have the luxury of utilizing different lineup combos depending on what the matchup demands. Against the Mavs, the Pelicans were missing Williamson, Ingram, and Jones. They still won, though, because of the team’s depth.

Second-year forward Trey Murphy III is already one of the best shooters in the league, but he spent all offseason working on his handle so he could get better at attacking closeouts, like in the clip above. Backup guard Jose Alvarado got the play started by sneaking in on defense to steal the ball, something he’s already earning a reputation for as one of the best undrafted finds in recent league history.

The pieces are interchangeable in New Orleans, so Green is able to plug and play personnel, and still expect them to execute the game plan. Even Naji Marshall, who went undrafted in 2020, has managed to carve out a 3-and-D role early this season and excelled starting in place of Ingram.

“We’ve got a bunch of long guys on our team. We can play a lot of different lineups,” Murphy tells The Ringer. “And so it’s hard to really match up against us, unless you have a really physical team as well, because we’re going to punish a lot of teams.”

5. Could Too Much Depth Be a Problem?

With several notable absences already this season, almost everyone on the roster has been able to play. But minutes will tighten when the roster is healthy, and in important games Green could shorten his rotation.

Already, backup center Willy Hernangómez has liked tweets remarking about his lack of minutes. He could be up for a new contract next summer, and so could former lottery pick Jaxson Hayes, who hasn’t received regular minutes, either.

The Pelicans’ 2022 lottery pick, Dyson Daniels, has excelled with every opportunity he receives—aside from his two missed free throws at the end of the Lakers game—yet he has barely touched the court. Daniels used his length to give Luka Doncic problems in their matchup, and he’s a passing savant who looks to have improved his previously shaky jumper after working with assistant coach Fred Vinson, who has previously aided Ingram, Jones, and other former Pelicans like Lonzo Ball.

“On most teams, Dyson would be playing,” Nance says. “But it says something about the guys that are playing ahead of him. I don’t know if there’s another team in the league, maybe other than [the] Clippers, that could really have that kind of production from guys you just wouldn’t really expect it from.”

Right now, depth doesn’t seem to be detrimental to team chemistry. But Green and his coaching staff will need to manage egos if and when that time arrives, and the front office should be ready to make trades to consolidate talent in ways that enhance the playoff rotation.

On the court and in the locker room, the Pelicans hope to develop a spirit of accountability that limits the possibility of things going sour. They have veterans, a respected head coach, and experienced personnel who played the game, like Green, Brewer, and Weatherspoon.

No one is exempt from criticism, and even the stars call themselves out. If McCollum dribbles the air out of the ball, he’ll be the first one to point out his own mistakes if someone else doesn’t. But at the same time, he won’t hesitate to shout at Alvarado for not taking an open 3-pointer.

“I’m not here to be anybody’s father. I got my own kid,” McCollum says. “I’m here to win basketball games, show you what it’s like to be a professional, and hold guys accountable every step of the way because the ceiling is whatever we want it to be.”

6. The Pelicans Pack the Paint

As a team, the Pelicans rank dead last in 3-point attempts per game but eighth in 3-point percentage. “I don’t think we’re gonna be the team that shoots the most 3-point field goals in the NBA. But when we do shoot, we wanna be efficient,” says Green.

I would argue they should shoot far more of them. Murphy is the best shooter on the team at 39.6 percent in his career, but few plays are ever called for him. Second Spectrum says the Pelicans are 27th in the NBA in off-ball screens leading to 3-point attempts, but they’re the second-most efficient when they do it with McCollum, Murphy, and reserve guard Devonte’ Graham being the main beneficiaries. Why not mix it up a little more?

Instead, they focus on getting close to the rim with a mantra they call “paint to great.” So, basically follow Zion’s lead by attacking closeouts or driving the rim off a handoff or weave action. They’re third in the NBA in shots attempted at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Getting into the paint often means using the post. The Pelicans rank first in post-ups per game, according to Second Spectrum, with Zion logging 7.4 per game and Valanciunas at 5.2. Though both players typically look to score first, often against a smaller defender on a mismatch following a switch, they both also frequently pass out of the post. That’s by design, with the Pelicans surrounding them with active cutters.

“I would say we’re a bit of a contrast from the current trend of the NBA,” Nance says of the team’s shooting habits.

7. Larry Nance Jr. Has Found His Ideal Role

Nance has been around the block in his eight seasons in the league, playing for four different franchises and eight head coaches. Along the way, he’s become a drastically different player than the one who was drafted no. 27 by the Lakers in 2015.

“I was just a highlight factory. I wouldn’t say there was too much nuance to my game,” says Nance of his time as a young player. “Over the years, I’ve developed quite the short-roll acumen. These guys put me in position to do that, so I’ve become a little bit more of a Swiss Army knife and utility guy.”

Nance came to the Pelicans in the McCollum deal earlier this year, and now is used all over the court. He gets a ton of touches around the free throw line as a result of his screening; he will set a pick for a ball handler and then “short roll” to the middle of the floor. There, he can dribble all the way to the basket for a dunk, toss up a floater, or pick apart a defense with a pass. And he’s shown in the past he can step out and shoot 3s.

“There’s different levels to my game that I feel I’m really getting to actually exploit on this team,” says Nance, who is the only player on the team that has made the NBA Finals (in 2018 with the Cavaliers, who were swept by the Warriors). Though Nance showed flashes with Cleveland, Green has finally untapped his potential as a versatile piece behind a traditional center in the 6-foot-11 Valanciunas, who can pound undersized frontcourts (or pick-and-pop for 3s) while the 6-foot-7 Nance can sprinkle in some playmaking and the ability to switch one through five.

8. Their Defense, Albeit Flawed, Has Real Potential

The Pelicans prefer to switch screens when defending the pick-and-roll. And when they do, they’re one of the best at getting stops. Second Spectrum says they allow the second-fewest points per switch.

“Switching one through five, if you look at the playoffs, that’s literally all it was,” Murphy says. “Everybody just switches everything, it’s going to take you out of your actions. At the end of the day, you’re going to have the best one-on-one player.”

Usually if teams switch, a slower-footed player is defending a quicker guard, or it might mean a smaller player is on the backline in a help position. But the Pelicans’ only rotation regulars under 6-foot-6 are McCollum, Alvarado, and Graham. Zion is his own entity. Everyone else in the rotation is between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-11.

“I’m our second-string center and some of our wings are bigger than me,” says Nance. “Trey Murphy gets in the elevator and I try to stay away from him.”

Smaller players can be covered up by longer ones, though. Guys like Herb Jones make everyone’s life easier. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan, he has an insatiable hunger for getting stops and a computer brain that can diagnose offensive actions.

“The beginning of all plays may seem complex, but if you look at it, the majority of ’em end in pick-and-roll or isolations. The fluff that they call it, I just try not to get backdoored or lose sight of my man,” Jones tells The Ringer. “It seems super complex. But it’s kinda simple.”

Sure. Except Jones makes plays that really no one else does. Against the Suns in the playoffs, he was defending point guard Chris Paul, then got screened off by center Deandre Ayton but somehow had the awareness to rotate two passes away to a corner 3-point shooter and block his shot into the stands.

Zion says the best defensive play he’s seen Herb make came in preseason, when he was defending Doug McDermott then got screened but managed to shoot his arm straight up like a snake attacking its prey to block McDermott’s 3-pointer.

“I was like, what the hell?” Zion says. “He makes blocks like that, and he does it on the daily.”

Jones is one of the best defenders in the league. Alvarado is as pesty as it gets. Daniels, Marshall, and Nance are all good, too. Murphy is improving. The building blocks are there for a great defense, but they need total buy-in across the roster, especially from the stars, to be one of the league’s best.

9. Zion Knows His Defense Needs to Improve

Zion’s defensive intensity still occasionally toggles on and off. He falls asleep too often, allowing opponents to cut into the paint. He rotates to the perimeter to stop drives with the resistance of a piece of paper. But Williamson says undrafted players who earned their roles like Alvarado and Marshall inspire him with the intensity they bring.

“It reminds me of Tre Jones when I was in college, seeing him pick up full court. Your mental gets going, you sit down, you lock in on defense,” he says. “It’s very contagious. If somebody plays hard, it shows what kind of competitor and what kind of teammate you are, how you respond to it.”

So, how will he respond? Contractual incentives are in place to help him. If he makes All-NBA, or wins MVP or Defensive Player of the Year, his salary will bump from $194 million to $231 million over the next five years. Christian Clark reported on that if Zion’s weight and body fat percentage added together reach 295 or higher, his earnings can be reduced.

“I’ve been improving on my defense,” Zion says. “I’ve just been locking in on it more and just learning the game.”

Even if he has made marginal improvements, opposing teams view Zion as the weak link and attack him relentlessly. He has a long way to go, but the pieces around him are there to fit his style.

“We’re all skilled and have the interchangeability to play different positions. It makes the game easier,” Zion says. “Give Coach Green that credit, he just puts it in a position for all of us to thrive.”

10. There’s a Trade to Be Made

The Pelicans are posting a 122.6 offensive rating with a 96.2 defensive rating with Ingram, McCollum, and Williamson all on the floor this season. The problem is they’ve appeared in only five games and in 75 total minutes together.

I said in the preseason on my podcast The Mismatch that I think the Pelicans are Finals contenders if they can stay healthy. It would be crazy to think a team this young with durability issues will contend for a title this season, but it’s not absurd to believe that they can.

“Obviously I’m biased. Of course everybody on the roster’s going to be biased, but I don’t think you’re crazy at all,” says Nance. “Just like every season, it’s going to come down to who stays the healthiest.”

Teammates echo that sentiment. “We don’t think you’re crazy either. I promise you, we have the same mentality,” adds Murphy. “Our healthy team is one of the best teams in the league.”

The big X factor here is that the Pelicans have the assets and contracts to pretty much trade for whoever they want. Need a center? They could outbid the Lakers for Myles Turner or Mo Bamba. Kevin Durant or another superstar demands a trade? The Pelicans could top any offer if they wanted to, because they own their next seven first-round picks, plus the option to swap firsts with the Lakers in ’23 and with the Bucks in ’24 and ’26. They also outright own first-round picks from the Bucks in ’25 (if it lands between picks 5 and 30) and ’27, and from the Lakers in ’24 or ’25. Both the Jazz and Thunder have more future firsts, but they’re not looking to win now like the Pelicans.

Or maybe the Pelicans elect to keep most of their picks. As a small-market team, they’re faced with unique financial challenges. They likely will never go into the repeater tax like the Warriors. At some point, this roster will become incredibly expensive and they’ll need to choose between some of their successful draft picks. It’ll be important to retain some picks so they have a constant influx of young, affordable talent. But even if they were to give up a handful of young players, they’d have a bunch left over.

“Sky’s the limit,” McCollum says. “Hopefully the Lakers keep losing so we can get that pick and continue to build.”

The Pelicans didn’t take care of business against the Lakers this week, but they’re still ahead in the standings and set up for greater long-term success than most teams in the NBA—if not all. The loss is a reminder though that nothing is guaranteed, and that they’re only at the beginning of their journey.