Pelicans start preseason with loss in Chicago

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After a summer of accusations (Boogie is really sticking to his story), acquisitions, agent changes and anticipation, it is finally time for basketball.

Though scores mean little right now, the New Orleans Pelicans lost their preseason opener 128-116 to the Chicago Bulls.

Jrue Holiday and much-hyped rookie Frank Jackson led four Pelicans in double figures with 16 points each. Julius Randle scored 15 in his debut and Anthony Davis finished with 13 points in 15 minutes of action.

The Bulls got 21 points each from Zach LaVine, Bobby Portis, and former LSU Tiger Antonio Blakeney.

The identity and style of play that Alvin Gentry’s team finally realized last season were still present against the Bulls, but it’s evident that some fine tuning is needed before the regular season tips off October 17th in Houston against the Rockets.

“There were a lot of pluses tonight,” said Gentry. “There also is a lot we need to improve on. I thought we played with good pace, but we need better ball movement. We had 23 assists, but need to get that up more to 30 or more. I liked the fact that we pushed the basketball, but we were not consistent tonight.”

Gentry re-emphasized pace during training camp, suggesting the Pelicans would try to run even more than they did last season, when they led the NBA with 100.5 possessions per 48 minutes.

Getting shots up wasn’t a problem, as New Orleans hoisted 97 field goal attempts, but the Pelicans were outshot by the Bulls in nearly every area.

Chicago converted nearly 50 percent of its shots and did plenty of damage in the paint, outscoring the Pels 72-54 there. The Bulls also made it to the free throw line with regularity, and knocked down 26-of-27 at the charity stripe.

The Pelicans also trailed in fast break and bench points.

But that is the story of preseason game number one from a distance. A much closer look is needed to put this performance into some perspective.

New Orleans played without forwards Niko Mirotić and Darius Miller, who both missed the game with minor injuries. Of the 14 players who saw action, eight were wearing a Pelicans jersey for the first time. Combinations and rotations were experimental at times.

“You have to remember with the lineups out there tonight, we had a lot of guys playing out of position,” Gentry added. “Obviously we are a better team with Nikola (Mirotic) out there as well. Overall, I thought our shot selection was good and we went to the basketball well. I just don’t want to give up 100 points like that. We need to get our offense running consistently.”

Davis, Holiday, E’Twaun Moore and Mirotić are known commodities, so any evaluation of their contributions at this stage seems unnecessary.

All of the attention over the next 17 days will be on the newcomers, particularly Elfrid Payton, Julius Randle, Jahlil Okafor and Frank Jackson.

There should also be some heavy competition for the final regular season roster spots.

Randle was just as advertised. He showed power down low and the ability to initiate offense for himself and others. His stat line of 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and one blocked shot gives a good indication of the versatility that he brings to the table on both ends.

Okafor impressed as well. The former third overall pick scored eight points to go along with seven rebounds (three offensive) and two blocks. The offensive skill set that made him so highly coveted coming out of Duke is still there, and his abilities on the glass should be a big asset for a team that struggled to rebound effectively at times last season.

“I felt good about the way I took control of my energy,” said Okafor. “I got in for a while and played as hard as I could for as long as I could. That was my mindset going into the game.”

Unfortunately, Okafor suffered an ankle injury in the game’s final seconds and left the arena with crutches. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports Okafor requires a MRI and x-rays.

Frank Jackson couldn’t have had a better start. On his very first possession he grabbed an offensive rebound and then nailed a three-pointer, one of four makes from deep. But Jackson was also very inconsistent, needing 14 shots to score his 16 points and dishing out only one assist.

For a young man who missed more than a year’s worth of meaningful basketball and who played just one season of college ball, it was still an enticing look at someone with all of the requisite talent needed to be a solid pro. Now that his opening night jitters are out of the way, I’d expect a better performance from Jackson in game two.

The biggest question mark among the newcomers was and is Elfrid Payton. He didn’t take any steps towards answering those questions against the Bulls. Payton looked very much like the same player who struggled with Orlando and Phoenix. One one possession he would convert a layup or drop off a perfect pass; on the next he would miss an open jumper or turn the ball over.

A 2-for-10 shooting night and three turnovers with just four assists in 25 minutes of action, was not the night any Pelican partisan was hoping for.

“I thought Payton did a good job overall,” Gentry added. He was a little too tentative tonight, but he is going to be fine.”

Hopefully so. Payton is vital to the team’s hopes of bettering last season’s success and he has to be ready to seize control of the point guard spot by opening night.

Troy Williams and Garlon Green gave the Pelicans coaching staff reason to consider them for more playing time. The pair played active and intelligent basketball and displayed intriguing athleticism.

Cheick Diallo still seems to be on the cusp of being on the cusp, with true relevancy as a player just beyond his reach. Entering his third season, he still provides little outside of activity on the court.

The Pelicans don’t have much time to think about this game. They face the Hawks on the campus of Georgia Tech Monday night. At least now they have a baseline, and that means they have room for improvement.

“This is the first game of playing someone else,” Okafor said. “We’ve been up and down, and the good thing about playing so many games is you get to work on things and come right back. We will watch the film and see what we need to work to.”

Undoubtedly, with the leadership of this team having tasted success and wanting more and hungry newcomers looking to eat as well, the Pelicans will put in the work. We’ll see the results in about seven months.

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David Grubb

Sports 1280am host/CCS reporter

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David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…

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