Pelicans’ local talent has fueled defensive change | pelicans
Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis coincided in New Orleans for six seasons. In that stretch, the Pelicans finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency once.
In 2016-17, the Pelicans ranked ninth in points allowed per 100 possessions. Their rankings in that category the other five Holiday and Davis seasons were together: 27, 22, 26, 14 and 22. Pairing one of the NBA’s best perimeter stoppers with one of its best rim protectors didn’t result in defensive success.
New Orleans, in its 20 years as a franchise, has never fielded a top-five defensive team. This season, the Pelicans have a chance to end that streak.
About a third of the way through, coach Willie Green’s group is allowing 109.1 points per 100 possessions, fourth-best in the NBA.
How do you build a team around offensive players like Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum defending so well? A lot of it has to do with the defensive-minded players the Pelicans have recruited and developed over the last three years.
Naji Marshall, Jose Alvarado, Herb Jones and Dyson Daniels are all key contributors to New Orleans’ fourth ranked defense. The Pelicans’ homegrown talent is playing a big role in a defensive turnaround few saw coming.
The undrafted boys
In 2020, the Pelicans signed Marshall, an undrafted free agent, in a two-way deal. A year later, the Pelicans signed Alvarado in the same fashion. Marshall and Alvarado produced enough in their early years, they became guaranteed roster spots.
The 6-foot-7, 220-pound Marshall leaves minimal airspace between himself and the player he’s guarding. On the offensive end, Marshall loves to dribble through defenses. That flair is why Williamson called Marshall a “Swiss Army Knife” Sunday. Green had a slightly different description: “a knife.”
“I feel like I’m stronger than everyone in the world,” said Marshall, who had four steals in Thursday’s loss to the Utah Jazz. “That is what it is”.
Marshall and Alvarado have a credible claim as the toughest player on the Pelicans. In the Pelicans’ first-round playoff series against the Suns in April, Alvarado was able to rile Chris Paul with his bullying on-the-ball defense. At times, Paul had trouble getting the ball past half court against Alvarado. New Orleans’ 5-10 backup point guard forced Paul into two 8-second violations.
“That was me,” Alvarado said. “It’s the reason I’m in the NBA. It’s the reason I’m staying here. When they mention my name, I want them to say, ‘He’s going to play defense.'”
Marshall and Alvarado are important cogs in one of the best bench units in the NBA. His mental toughness has helped alter the identity of a team not known for making saves.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been a near impossible task for defenders this season. The Oklahoma City Thunder guard is averaging 31 points on 50.6% shooting. His ability to change speed, control the basketball like it’s on a string, and his size are all reasons why a prominent NBA writer recently compared defending him from “trying to catch a fish with your bare hands.”
Jones is one of the few players to have pulled the fish out of the river. In November, Jones forced Gilgeous-Alexander into an ineffective 7-for-21 shooting performance. According to nba.comGilgeous-Alexander scored six points, shot 2-of-9 from the field and committed four turnovers when Jones was on him.
Here are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s numbers last night when Herb Jones was his main defender (per NBA dot com):
3 Blocked Shots (All by Herb)
0-3 3 points
SGA also drew 9 fouls last night. Only 2 of them were against Herb.
— Will Guillory (@WillGuillory) November 29, 2022
Ask any player on the Pelicans’ roster who is the best defender on the team and they’ll answer Jones. As a rookie, Jones ranked third in the NBA in steals and fourth in deflections. He hasn’t made as much of an impact in his second season, partly due to injuries, but the Pelicans are a much-improved defensive team overall.
“It’s five guys,” Jones said. “The team defense is never one person protecting five people. I think that’s why we’re taking that leap. Everyone is bought on the defensive end. Everyone is competing on the defensive end. As long as we are doing those things, we will stay high in the rankings.”
Last season, the Pelicans relied heavily on Jones to wreak defensive havoc. This season they are doing it by committee. They rank second in the NBA in deflections per game. They have four players averaging at least two per contest: Jones (2.9), Williamson (2.4), Alvarado (2.4) and Larry Nance Jr. (2.2). Marshall (1.9) is not far from belonging to that club.
On draft night in June, the Pelicans weren’t sure if Daniels would still be available at No. 8. The Portland Trail Blazers had the No. 7 pick. 6-foot-8 guard with strong defensive instincts, alongside his franchise player, Damian Lillard. When it was announced that the Trail Blazers would be drafting Kentucky wing Shaedon Sharpe, there was euphoria within the Pelicans’ war room.
“Griff (executive vice president David Griffin) was going up and down the steps,” said Swin Cash, the Pelicans’ vice president of basketball operations.
Daniels is a 19-year-old who plays like he’s 29. He makes quick decisions and makes smart passes. Defensively, he has a chance to be special. Daniels has already been paired with elite creators like the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic and the Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker. Daniels has been able to hold his own. Last week, Booker shot 1-for-7 with Daniels on him.
Devin Booker shot 1-for-7 from the field when Dyson was guarding him, according to NBA tracking data pic.twitter.com/nRSsxGEkaL
—Christian Clark (@cclark_13) December 10, 2022
Daniels’ size is a major asset. He is also disciplined have come through an NBA Global Academy in Australia. He is not fooled by fakes and answers shots well without fouling.
“It’s unbelievable,” Alvarado said. “He’s been a pro probably since he was 10 years old. You know how those guys are abroad. He is taking a step forward. He wants to play defense.”
Daniels was still a fan at 10 years old, but he agreed with Alvarado’s other point.
“Defense has always been my main strength; which I am proud of,” Daniels said. “I feel like that’s what keeps me on the court. Getting steals. Creating offense that way. It’s definitely something I’m proud of.”
Notable defensive numbers
- The Pelicans are generating 17.6 deflections per game, the second most in the NBA.
- The Pelicans are forcing their opponents to turn over 16.3 turnovers per game, which is fourth-best in the NBA.
- New Orleans is creating this chaos while limiting opponents to 21.1 free throws per game, the fourth fewest of any team.
- The Pelicans allow a lot of 3-point attempts, but their opponents aren’t making them. The 37.8 3-pointers the Pelicans allow are the fourth-most of any team. 33.7% of opponents shoot from distance is the third best mark in the league.