For the second time in this short season, the Toronto Raptors meet the youthful New Orleans Pelicans to open their five-game Western Conference roadtrip. To be fair, the word ‘youthful’ might not even do the Bayou Boys (did I just start a nickname?) justice. Of the 13 active players on their current roster, nine (9) are 24 years-old or younger. That excludes NBA poster boy, Zion Williamson, who just turned 19 years-old a few months ago.
The Pelicans have turned the page (and then some) since trading superstar Anthony Davis. Although their disappointing 1-6 record may not show it, Alvin Gentry has established his identity on this team — finally being able to implement his turbo, high pace-and-space system. The transition should be smooth once the face of franchise — Zion Williamson — returns from a minor knee operation. Bryan Kalbrosky from Hoopshype went into a comprehensive writeup on the fundamental goals Gentry has set with this roster.
The primary talking point of the Pelicans season has been the MIP-worthy eruption from Pels swingman, Brandon Ingram. For the first time in his career, Ingram looks to be fulfilling his draft position with improvements across the board. He has current averages of 25.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.9 apg with roughly one steal and block per game. Couple that with ridiculous splits of .552/.486/.743 and an incredible PER (player efficiency rating) of 26.7. For comparison’s sake, the PER league average is 15.00. Minimum 160 minutes played, the top three Toronto Raptors in PER sit at 22.8 (Siakam), 20.5 (Lowry), 18.5 (Ibaka). ‘Baby KD’ is coming off a 40-point, five rebound, five assist performance in Brooklyn. After the never-ending debates of whether or not his potential was fully achieved, Brandon Ingram has silenced all doubters — quickly becoming a legitimate star in the NBA.
Now, I’d like to welcome Mason Ginsberg, writer from ESPN TrueHoop Network’s Bourbon Street Shots.
First off, it’s a pleasure to have you join us, Mason. Let’s get into these five deep-dive questions on this Raptors-Pelicans game. For the sake of this format, I’ll be SA, you’re MG.
Let’s get started.
SA: At one point or another, you’ll hear fans claim “you are what your record says you are”. It’s early, but the New Orleans Pelicans sit at 1-6 going into this game Friday night. They’ve undergone major roster turnover, are missing a key rotational piece in Darius Miller and the ever-so-obvious omission of unicorn Zion Williamson. Despite their record, are you encouraged with what you’ve seen from the Pels thus far? This leads me to my next question.
MG: I wouldn’t say encouraged, but I’m certainly not saying that the sky is falling either. The reality is that, while this Pelicans team has not been good, they’re also not as bad as their record. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Pelicans have been the second “unluckiest” team in the league, with an expected win total of 2.7 (vs. their actual total of 1) based on their scoring margin in non-garbage time minutes. Given all of the injuries (in addition to Zion, Jrue has missed a couple, and Favors hasn’t been 100% all year) and the roster turnover you mentioned, the Pelicans aren’t really that far off from where I would have expected.
SA: I’ll get straight to the point. Is Alvin Gentry the correct man to lead this dynamic team forward?
MG: I don’t really know the answer to this question, but I’m not concerned about that in the slightest. We’re seven games into a season with a brand new Pelicans team still learning to play together. I think the way Gentry wants to play offensively fits the athleticism and skill sets of this roster pretty well. The defense has been a disaster, but that’s a combination of a bunch of things – Mike Prada did a good job of breaking it down this week for SB Nation. On a personal level, there are few coaches more liked than Alvin, and connecting with your team is a big part of the job as far as getting buy in is concerned, particularly when you’re asking your guys to play at the fastest pace in the league. Get back to me later this season and I’ll have a more concrete answer for you.
SA: Most would say Ingram-Siakam, but there’s interesting clashes all around. What player matchup are you most looking forward to?
MG: While I’m a huge Siakam fan, I’m somehow more concerned about the Raptors’ back court in this one. In the season opener, Lowry and VanVleet combined for 56 points and 19 trips to the free throw line. For a Pelicans team that was supposed to have one of the best defensive back courts in the league between Holiday and Ball, they have to be better. Granted, that wasn’t all their faults given that the rim protection was also a mess, but you can be sure they’ll be thinking about what happened a couple weeks ago when this game tips off.
SA: The whole world has taken notice of Brandon Ingram’s explosion this season. What’s Ingram doing differently this season?
MG: A whole heck of a lot. From a statistical perspective (all volume stats via basketball-reference on a per-100 possession basis), he has increased his 3P%, defensive rebounds, assists, and points by 50% over his prior career averages, which is absurd. He has also nearly doubled his points and blocks, and *tripled* his 3-point attempts. He is due for some regression from a shooting perspective (his current eFG% of 62% is prime Steph Curry level), but even when that comes, his improvements elsewhere have made him a very dangerous player, and the main bright spot in an otherwise disappointing Pels season so far.
SA: The Pelicans gave the defending champions a run for their money in the NBA season opener, barely losing in overtime. What’s the key to New Orleans toppling Toronto this time around?
MG: It’s kind of obvious, but the defense simply has to be better, and that includes defensive rebounding, an area where the Pelicans have struggled all year. With a full 3 days off since their last game in Brooklyn on Monday night, there won’t be any excuses – particularly if Favors is back in the starting lineup, which is the hope. If the Pelicans can defend the point of attack a bit better and force a few more inefficient shots than last time around, they should have a decent chance to come away with their second win of the year.
Thanks Mason. For any of our RR community that are interested in a great basketball follow — you can find Mason Ginsberg on Twitter here.
Tipoff: 8:00 pm EST | TV: TSN4 | Radio: TSN 1050
Projected Raptors Lineup
PG: Kyle Lowry, Terence Davis II
SG: Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Matt Thomas
SF: OG Anunoby, Stanley Johnson, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Dewan Hernandez
OUT: Patrick McCaw (knee)
Projected Pelicans Lineup
PG: Lonzo Ball, Frank Jackson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker
SG: Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, E’Twaun Moore
SF: Josh Hart, Kenrich Williams
PF: Brandon Ingram, Nicolo Melli
C: Derrick Favors, Jahlil Okafor, Jaxson Hayes
PROBABLE: Lonzo Ball (leg)
OUT: Zion Williamson (knee)