As the 2022 NBA season draws ever closer, there is a rare feeling in the city of New Orleans: anticipation.
After years of middling rosters and lottery picks, the New Orleans Pelicans have plenty of reason for optimism this season. After trading away franchise cornerstone Anthony Davis a few seasons ago, the Pelicans have been engaged in a rebuild that they hoped would help them shed their franchise’s perception of mediocrity. And with their most talented roster in years, that hope has never felt so real.
For many franchises in New Orleans’ position, their dreams of championship contention ride upon the back of a single star player. The Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks will go as far as stars Luka Doncic and Trae Young, respectively, can take them. But for the Pelicans, the show is more of an ensemble, with multiple players upon whom they can rely over the course of a season.
By many accounts, the lead variable in the Pelicans’ season is a player whose success will be determined not by his performance, but by his availability. 2019 No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson has been dominant on the court throughout his young NBA career– when he has been on the court at all. After a promising yet injury-riddled rookie campaign, Williamson took the league by storm in year two, averaging 27 points per game on a ludicrous 64.9 TS%. But that came in a season that New Orleans missed the playoffs, and after missing all of last season with a foot injury, one question looms for the young All-Star: can Williamson stay healthy long enough to help the Pelicans reach their ceiling?
It was an extremely successful season for New Orleans in 2021, even with their rim-running wrecking ball on the bench. But in order for the team to achieve their ultimate goal, Williamson will need to be a part of the equation. There is zero doubt surrounding his prowess. His nose for the basket and ridiculous finishing ability make him one of the league’s most disruptive forces. But if the Pelicans want to rise above the franchise standard, they will need their golden goose to lay more eggs.
At this year’s media day, Williamson was noticeably leaner than he was a year ago. With any luck, this slimmer figure will lead to a clean bill of health.
But of course, there are plenty of other players for the Pelicans to be optimistic about. One such player is guard CJ McCollum, who, like the Pelicans, is attempting to rewrite his story.
When the Pelicans dealt for McCollum at last season’s trade deadline, he had long been considered one of the league’s best sidekicks. As a member of the Portland Trailblazers, McCollum formed a prolific backout duo alongside Damian Lillard, and together, they drove the team to consistent Western Conference contention. But one thing remained crystal clear throughout the pair’s time together: Lillard was top dog, and McCollum was secondary.
Now, in New Orleans, regardless of where he stands on the hierarchy of the team’s best players, McCollum has the chance to make his mark as a leading man. On a roster where he is the second-oldest player, and the only projected starter over the age of 30, McCollum serves as a veteran presence for an otherwise inexperienced group of budding stars.
The Pelicans improved significantly once they acquired McCollum (whom they recently extended). They were 23-33 without him, and 13-13 with him in the fold. And after helping New Orleans push the top-seeded Phoenix Suns to 6 games, there is reason to believe McCollum’s career will not be wholly defined by his role as a Robin.
And yet, there is a very real possibility that neither Williamson nor McCollum is New Orleans’ most impactful player. After showing flashes of superstar-level play for several seasons now, forward Brandon Ingram appears ready to take the fabled next step. His performance against the Suns, a series in which he averaged 27 PPG, was nothing short of electric, and has generated an aura of excitement heading into his 7th NBA season.
Often called a “hooper’s hooper,” Ingram has long been regarded as one of the most skilled players in basketball. Despite a down three-point shooting year in 2022, he remains an efficient volume scorer, and is effective from nearly everywhere on the court.
The biggest key to Ingram’s success as he enters his prime will be consistency. On certain nights, he looks like a tattooed Kevin Durant. On others, he can disappear entirely. If the former version of Ingram can appear more often, he may finally elevate to the next tier of NBA stardom.
While their trio of potential All-Stars are the flashy new wheels on the Pelicans hype train, the engine consists of a cast of role players that any contending team would kill for. Sophomore Herb Jones is already one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and should have made the All-Rookie First Team last season. Jonas Valanciunas, Jaxson Hayes, Larry Nance Jr., and Willy Hernangomez form a useful and versatile group of bigs that can compliment any style the team chooses to employ.
The team also features a host of young guards with either elite utility or encouraging potential. These include pest and agitator Jose Alvarado, rookie Dyson Daniels, and score-first point guard Devonte’ Graham, who recently garnered praise from Ingram’s tattoo-less counterpart, Durant.
These are all legitimate NBA players, whose contributions will make a big difference throughout the season. A successful team is one that gets quality play up and down the roster, which is something the Pelicans should be able to count on.
Since their inception as a franchise in 2002, the Pelicans (formerly known as the New Orleans Hornets) have made the second round of the playoffs just twice, and lost on both occasions. And while the Western Conference will pose its usual share of formidable threats, a return to the conference semifinals is not completely out of the question for this New Orleans group.
But the true importance of this season is greater than where the team finishes in the standings. The Pelicans are hoping this is the first in a string of successful campaigns, a streak that would wash away the franchise’s past shortcomings.
That hope is justified. As New Orleans opens the season with a team of unfamiliar caliber, it appears better days are on the horizon.