Pelicans’ attempt to develop champions isn’t as simple as it might seem

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Jaxson Hayes, Brandon Ingram
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

Anthony Davis wasn’t in uniform in the Smoothie King Center on Tuesday night.

Neither was LeBron James.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ superstars were sidelined by injury as the New Orleans Pelicans embarrassed the defending NBA champions 128-111.

Still, these two teams are inexorably linked for the duration of Davis’ and James’ tenure in Los Angeles because of the Pelicans’ trade of Davis a year and a half ago, which shaped the future of both franchises.

It’s fair to say the trade has been a success for the Lakers because their goal was short-term – to pair Davis with James in the final few seasons of James’ career to maximize the storied franchise’s championship opportunity. L.A. won its 17th title last season and appeared a strong favorite to repeat before the injuries hit.

The Lakers’ seeding for the Western Conference playoffs figures to drop considerably with the two stars sidelined, but if James and Davis are healthy for the playoffs this team is capable of making a strong post-season run from any position.

As for the Pelicans, a post-season appearance this season is unlikely, though not unattainable. They entered play Tuesday just three games out of the final play-in spot, though they would have to pass two teams (Oklahoma City and Memphis) to get there.

The Pelicans’ post-season prospects for this season – just getting in and advancing if they do – are very limited.

But that’s where things get interesting.

Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin put this roster together to comprise a competitive team in the short term while a group of young potential stars mature into the leaders of a potential championship contender once they’re joined by the next generation that will arrive via a series of high draft picks.

The balancing act for Griffin, his staff, coach Stan Van Gundy and his staff is to try and win as many games as possible while accelerating the development of youngsters such as Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes and Kira Lewis Jr.

Whenever the Pelicans’ erratic – and occasionally discouraging – play has made a playoff berth seem especially unlikely, a popular school of thought has said the Pelicans should give the youngsters more minutes at the expense of older players such as JJ Redick, Eric Bledsoe, Willy Hernangomez and perhaps even Steven Adams to a lesser degree in order to speed up the youngsters’ development.

But that’s not as simple as it sounds.

Player development goes beyond shooting, scoring, passing, rebounding and defending. As important as each of those skills are, they are merely elements of the ultimate development goal – becoming winners and champions.

In a recent interview on ESPN 100.3 FM, Griffin said he took “exception to” the notion that a team that is losing should automatically start playing young players more.

“The way you learn how to win in this league is to value winning,” Griffin said. “If what we’re going to do is play to win games and the young kids realize that their minutes are not a given, then they don’t take those minutes for granted. They attack them in a totally different way.

“You don’t learn how to win without coveting winning. You don’t just bestow minutes on kids.”

It’s hard to disagree with that rationale.

Alexander-Walker is 22 and is in his second NBA season. Hayes is 20 and in his second season. Lewis is a rookie who turns 20 on April 6. Even Williamson, whose minutes aren’t question because of what he has already proven, is 20.

Hayes, like Williamson, played one season in college. Alexander-Walker and Lewis played two.

They have a lot to learn.

Knee surgery cost Williamson much of his rookie season, which was shortened additionally by COVID. The rookie seasons of Hayes and Alexander-Walker also were truncated as was Lewis’ sophomore season at Alabama.

Expanding minutes might accelerate these players’ development of their individual skills, but handing them an opportunity primarily because of their youth and potential can reduce the degree of hunger that makes them work harder to earn opportunities that aren’t bestowed on them, to use Griffin’s spot-on term.

Hayes, Alexander-Walker and Lewis all received opportunities over the first several weeks of the season. Each of them demonstrated a degree of unreliability that is to be expected of players with their lack of experience.

They each saw their playing time reduced as Van Gundy leaned on more experienced players to try and keep the season from slipping away.

Hayes’ evolution is the best example of the youngsters’ journey this season and consistent with that of Alexander-Walker and Lewis.

When he was benched, Hayes didn’t pout. He didn’t complain on social media. He didn’t instruct his agent to demand more playing time or a trade or anything else.

He watched, he listened, he learned. He used his time productively as he awaited his next significant opportunity.

So did Alexander-Walker and Lewis.

Each of the three youngsters has been more productive, more confident and more reliable since seeing their playing time increase.

In the win against the reigning champions Tuesday, Alexander-Walker scored 18 points, Lewis had 16 and Hayes 15. They did other good stuff besides just scoring.

They didn’t see their playing time increase recently simply because they were young. They earned it through their reaction to their reduced playing time and Alexander-Walker and Lewis benefited from a heel injury that has sidelined Redick.

Would similar improvement have taken place if the Pelicans had given these players more playing time at the first sign of the won-lost record dipping?

Perhaps.

But given the juxtaposition of the loss of playing time and the improved play it seems more likely that Griffin’s theory was right – and wise.

Griffin added this: “It’s complicated.”

Trying to build a championship program always is.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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