Pelicans’ draft keeps them pointed in the right direction

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Dyson Daniels

METAIRIE – The New Orleans Pelicans don’t have many job openings.

But they added more candidates for jobs on Thursday night.

The Pelicans entered the NBA Draft with 14 players under contract for next season, one fewer than the limit for the active roster.

Then they selected Australian-born G-League guard Dyson Daniels with the eighth pick, Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell with the 41st pick and forward/center Karlo Matkovic from Bosnia with the 52nd pick.

A talented, deep, and mostly youthful roster got more talented, deeper and even younger.

“We like our roster,” general manager Trajan Langdon said.

They should.

The roster they ended last season with overcame a 3-16 start to qualify for the Western Conference play-in tournament, won elimination games against the Spurs and Clippers and battled top-seeded Phoenix for six games in a first-round playoff series before the season finally ended.

Now forward Zion Williamson, who was the team’s best player before foot surgery sidelined him for all of last season, is healthy and gearing up for next season. And reserve guard Kira Lewis Jr., a No. 1 pick two years ago, is rehabbing after knee surgery that cost him most of last season.

So the roster that produced an unexpected payoff berth last season was already going to be upgraded significantly before the draft even started – not to mention the expectation that the young core, led by forward Brandon Ingram, should continue on an upward trajectory.

Then the Pelicans added Daniels, a 6-foot-9 tough-minded, selfless and confident 19-year-old.

“We knew we were going to get a guy we liked at eight,” Langdon said.

The opportunity to select Daniels came courtesy of the Los Angeles Lakers via the Anthony Davis trade three years ago.

Daniels seems a lot like last year’s No. 2 draft choice, Herbert Jones, who was a steal at No. 35. Jones was a defensive standout that wound up starting 69 games and was named to the All-Rookie second team.

Like Jones, Daniels is a lanky, tenacious and willing defender. He’s not as polished as Jones was after four seasons at Alabama, but he’s got time to get there. He’s already shown that he can guard forwards and guards.

“He has an innate feel for the game on both ends of the floor,” Langdon said. “He really wants to win and that was really attractive.”

Daniels expressed an affinity for trash talking, but did so in a manner that suggested a friendly competitiveness more than a counter-productive arrogance.

“Defense is my biggest strength,” Daniels said. “It allows me to stay on the floor when my offense isn’t going so well because I can disrupt things on the defensive end. I have the physical tools – the height, length and will to defend. I’m ready to step on the floor right away.”

He sounds like a player prepared to earn minutes, but it won’t be easy on a team that appears to be ascending within the Western Conference with a relatively young roster.

EJ Liddell

Liddell, a 6-7 power forward who played three seasons for the Buckeyes, appears to have an even greater challenge earning minutes, though many projections had him going in the first round.

Langdon said the Pelicans “didn’t think Liddell would be there at 41 at all.”

Matkovic is likely to stay in Europe for “the next year or two,” Langdon said, though the big man will play for New Orleans in the Las Vegas Summer League next month.

Daniels said he followed the NBA closely last season and was aware of the Pelicans’ surge.

“I’m very familiar with the Pelicans players,” Daniels said. “I studied the game a lot and I’ve watched their players and I’ve seen the strides they’ve made. They’re going in the right direction.”

Thursday’s developments seem to have kept them pointed in the right direction.

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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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