Young players stepping forward for Pelicans

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Jahlil Okafor
Jahlil Okafor has had good moments during the season for New Orleans.

Yes, the New Orleans Pelicans fell to the Milwaukee Bucks 130-113 Tuesday night, but the wins and losses really don’t matter at this point. New Orleans is 30-40 and with 12 games remaining the Pelicans and their fans are more interested in lottery position than victories.

It has been stated plainly and clearly, the goal for the Pelicans for the remainder of the season is to be competitive every night.

With the Anthony Davis fiasco, and now the injuries to Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore, the action on the basketball court only serve as auditions for the remaining members of the roster; either to remain with the Pelicans next season, or for their next team.

Elfrid Payton

Elfrid Payton posted his second consecutive triple-double with 14 points, 11 assists, and a career-high 15 rebounds. In doing so he joined Chris Paul as the only players in franchise history to accomplish the feat. He also became only the third Pelicans player to produce at least three triple-doubles for New Orleans (Paul, DeMarcus Cousins).

Over his last 10 contests Payton is averaging 10.5 points, 7.6 assists, and 8.8 rebounds, and is playing his best basketball of the season. This level of production couldn’t come at a better time for the 25 year old who has been limited to 30 games so far this season. Earning $3 million this season, Payton is making an argument for a return engagement with his hometown team.

It’s something that Payton has thought about. “Honestly, I would love to be here,” he said after last night’s game. “This is home for me. I would love to come back next year. But I can’t get caught up in that. There’s a lot of unanswered questions…I just go out there and control what I can control; go out there and compete every night and give my all for my teammates.”

Frank Jackson

Another one of those teammates, Frank Jackson has also stepped his game up as of late. While he, like the rest of the Pelicans, had an off shooting night against Milwaukee, Jackson did score 14 points for the Pels. He’s reached double figures in six of his last 10 games and besting his season averages with 12.3 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting nearly 47 percent during that stretch.

Jackson is still more potential than production, but he’s improved his consistency. He’s played in 32 consecutive games, his longest stretch of the season, and has topped 15 minutes in all but six of those contests.

While he has yet to make an impact as a defender or distributor, Jackson continues to show athleticism in the open court and little hesitancy when it comes to taking a shot. A fan favorite, Jackson has potential as a second unit scoring threat if he can tighten his ball handling and improve his decision making.

Cheick Diallo

In what has seemingly become an annual tradition, Cheick Diallo is firmly planted in his spring surge.

In 22 games since the All-Star break, Diallo is averaging 10.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting 65.8 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the free throw line. He ranks fifth in the NBA in field goal percentage, trailing a quartet that relies primarily on dunks: Boban Marjanovic, Jarrett Allen, Mitchell Robinson, and JaVale McGee.

Cheick’s five double-doubles since the break also have him tied for 12th in the NBA and are more than Clint Capela, DeAndre Jordan, Boogie Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, and Jarrett Allen.

His energy is infectious whenever he touches the court, and for the first time it seems that Diallo’s instincts are starting to catch up with his level of activity.

Diallo’s hustle stats are impressive. He leads the Pelicans in screen assists (2.2), and ranks second in percentage of loose balls recovered on offense (66.7), and contested two-point shots (5.3), and he’s doing it in under 18 minutes per game.

While he isn’t a true rim defender, his contributions to the Pelicans’ defense can’t be overlooked either. Again, since the break New Orleans’ defensive rating rises from 102.6 to 112.6 (-10.0) with Diallo off the floor. Of the Pels’ regulars, Darius Miller is next best at -5.4.

Cheick will also be a free agent this offseason, and with Davis’ impending trade the Pelicans have to retain some front court depth. New Orleans knew Diallo was a project when he was drafted. Their faith in him may finally pay off, if the Pelicans aren’t outbid by another suitor.

Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor seemed to be a failed reclamation project for most of the season, appearing in only 13 of the Pelicans’ first 31 games.

With injuries mounting, Okafor was thrust into the rotation and he has responded. Though his production has trailed off in March as he has dealt with an ankle injury (4.6 points, 2.4 rebounds), the former No. 3 overall pick is still averaging 9.6 points and 5.9 points with five double-doubles since Jan. 1.

Okafor still has soft hands and quick feet in the post, and has been a mismatch for opposing bigs who rarely face someone with his skills around the paint. His touch around the basket has led to a 59.6 shooting percentage over his last 27 games.

At just over $1.7 million next season, and still only 23 years of age, Okafor provides a tremendous bargain. Though the Pelicans will probably be looking to add athleticism and the ability to stretch the floor as they fill out the front line this offseason, Jahlil Okafor has earned minutes next season.

Kenrich Williams

As an undrafted rookie, “Kenny Hustle” didn’t really become a part of the rotation until late January. In the 22 games since then Williams has made 17 starts at small forward, playing nearly 30 minutes per game.

Kenrich has had his struggles offensively, shooting below 50 percent in 15 games and below 40 percent in 10. He has shown a fairly decent stroke from three point range where he has converted 34 of 102 attempts (33 percent), but more than half of his field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc.

Williams came out of college with a reputation as an aggressive defender and effective defensive rebounder. That has held true over these 22 games.

With a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 0.03, he ranks ahead of Kawhi Leonard (-0.32), Tobias Harris (-0.41), Brandon Ingram (-0.74), and Luka Doncic (-1.10). Williams is also 10th among rookies in rebounds per 36 minutes at 7.6 per game.

Kenrich Williams isn’t the solution to the Pelicans’ hole at the three, but he can be another strong contributor for the second unit next season.

Inexpensive depth creates flexibility, and New Orleans has had precious little of that over the last nine years. If Solomon Hill is moved in the offseason, Williams has the potential to be everything Hill was supposed to be at a fraction of the cost.

If anything good has come from another injury-plagued season without a postseason appearance, it is the development of these young role players. With an average age of nearly 23 years old, this quartet has yet to reach its full potential; but the glimpses they’ve shown over the past several weeks should be encouraging for a franchise that hasn’t prioritized player development.

Hopefully, that commitment carries over under the new regime to come. Young, cheap talent is the lifeblood of the so-called “small market” franchises, and the Pelicans have been in need of a transfusion for some time.

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David Grubb

Featured Columnist

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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