2023 NBA Draft Lottery Team Preview: New Orleans Pelicans
With the 2023 NBA Draft fast approaching, we're taking a look at what each lottery team needs to target with their draft selections, starting with the New Orleans Pelicans!
Nathan: The New Orleans Pelicans remain in an intriguing position heading into the 2023 NBA Draft.
This team is built around the premise that Zion Williamson can stay on the court and play at an MVP level. Next to him, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum offer plenty of support as secondary offensive weapons that can also generate their own shots, particularly from the perimeter.
Past those core foundational pieces, New Orleans has stacked depth in a number of areas, particularly at the forward spots with Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III being the standout names. Jose Alvarado is a great backup point guard that can offer a change of pace while changing the game with his defensive energy and takeaway ability.
With Jonas Valanciunas on the books for one more season, along with some young studs hoping to become rotational mainstays in Dyson Daniels, Kira Lewis, and Naji Marshall, there are reasons to be optimistic up and down the roster.
That being said, there are still ways this roster could stand to improve. For starters, there’s still a need for a long-term option at center. Shooting is still a needed addition around the star talents, and I wouldn’t rule out the addition of a stretch forward that can help guys like Murphy and Jones defend a few positions.
Some of those answers could be addressed in free agency, except the Pelicans are operating with projected negative cap space heading into the summer. Without some drastic changes, this team needs to improve from the draft. And having a back-end lottery selection is great for New Orleans to have in order to do so.
Maxwell, we know the direction in which this team WANTS to head next year, but without a healthy Williamson to count on, along with McCollum aging, there isn’t exactly a clean path forward to the playoff race. What are your thoughts on the roster, and what types of talent should the Pelicans target to add next to its key pieces?
Maxwell: So, the one thing that the Pelicans have going for them is that they undoubtedly have a large number of legitimate NBA players on their roster. They might not be the best fits together, but there isn’t a shortage of talent or depth.
The biggest fit issue is the lack of shooting on this roster. Even though Zion, who doesn’t like to take threes (and he shouldn’t! He’s hyper-efficient inside!) only played in 29 games, the Pelicans still took the 29th-most threes in the league. So many games are ultimately determined by who hit the most threes that by failing to take a large number of them, teams can do themselves a disservice.
The second major concern I have with this roster is their lack of rim protection. They allowed opponents to shoot 66.3% at the rim this past season, per Synergy, which was the worst mark in the league. While they keep opponents out of the paint well thanks to their bevy of perimeter defenders, when players DO get inside, it’s too easy for them.
It would be great if they could address one or both of those concerns! Ultimately, though, I think they need to “aim high” in terms of the prospect’s ceiling. Counting on Zion’s health is a scary proposition. If he’s not there, how far is Brandon Ingram carrying your team? How much does CJ McCollum have left in the tank? Does Trey Murphy have another leap in him? I’m still bullish on what Dyson Daniels can become. That said, I would be more inclined to cast for a big fish here than going after a more conservative player that strictly projects to be a role player here. Would you go big game hunting, or would you play it safer? And who do you have in mind in either direction?
Nathan: In terms of whether I would swing for the fences or play it safe, I’m not sure the position the Pelicans are in dictates that either way definitively. What I mean by that is that this team needs to add the best talent in any way that it can.
I’m not convinced this team is at the point where it can safely build around the margins. If it were, I’d be more inclined to throw some more experienced prospects into the mix who may not have as high of projected ceilings but could provide more immediate value in competing for a rotation spot in the short term.
So I do agree about needing legitimate rim protection, as even if New Orleans brings back Jaxson Hayes, he’s not the stalwart this team needs down low. And every team needs more shooting, so if there is a combo guard or wing available who can provide that in spades, I’m all for throwing them into the mix.
To start with Lively, as he would be my preferred choice for this team, his pre-draft workouts may have put him in a tier of prospect slightly higher than where the Pelicans are selecting. Given that he was showing not only his athletic ability in drills but also the improvements being made to his spot-up shooting, it’s only a matter of time on draft night till he hears his name called in the lottery. But if teams ahead of New Orleans are more perimeter inclined, he could be available in this spot and solidify one of those glaring weaknesses you pointed out on the front line. After all, he posted a ridiculous 12.7 block percentage, he averaged over 10 rebounds per 40 minutes, and his offensive/defensive rating splits were 133.9 and 91.1 respectively. Even though the box score didn’t quite reflect how well Lively played in February and on, his stock was trending in the right direction for a while and is clearly continuing upward. If he does figure out the jump shot, he’s a plus version of Hayes that better complements the other players on the roster including Williamson.
Moving to Coulibaly, this is the definition of a swing for sure. Even though he’s one of my top-rated prospects in the draft in terms of actually receiving a lottery grade, there’s plenty of unknown still with his game, particularly on offense. For a team that needs higher quality spacing like you suggested, Coulibaly has struggled on pull-up jumpers, so even though his spot-up shot is improving, he’s still a mixed bag when run off the line and defenses rotate to help at the basket leaving him in no man’s land. Throw in that his passing still needs some time to develop, particularly on the ball, and there are some real questions in terms of how he can fit in playoff basketball in his rookie season. BUT... give Coulibaly the time and resources to develop, and he should be able to slide right in off the ball while developing his skills out of pick-and-roll. He’s shown flashes of improved navigation and decision-making out of those sets in the playoffs for Metropolitans 92, and he has been a release valve of sorts for that team cutting to the rim, hunting for offensive rebounds, and leaking out in transition for easy finishes. Not to mention his perimeter defense is arguably some of the best in the class when it comes to on-ball and screen navigation. If a team like New Orleans is patient with Coulibaly, he has complementary star upside to unlock as a slashing creator who defends multiple positions.
Finally, Bufkin has skyrocketed up my board as I’ve had more time to do some deep dives on prospects looking to make the cut near the top of my rankings. Bufkin helped himself at the combine measuring in at his listed height WITHOUT SHOES! A 6’5” measurement in shoes helps his case as a true combo guard who can play with or without the rock. His craft in the pick-and-roll is undeniable, given how he paces himself and dictates the possession in terms of hitting guys with timed and accurate passes with either hand or pulling up in the mid-range as well as scoring in the paint. His floater touch, rim finishing, and shooting metrics are all average-above average already, with plenty of room to improve and grow given his age as a sophomore (essentially an older freshman in terms of peer comparison). His comfort level hitting shots from all areas on the floor, as well as how he defends on the perimeter when he’s locked in gives me security I just don’t have with other guard spots in his range currently. Getting to operate alongside any of McCollum, Daniels, or Alvarado is something he can do because of his switchability between both backcourt spots.
Who are the players you’re looking to target if you’re New Orleans?
Maxwell: Let’s go one by one here.
I’m all in on Dereck Lively II, and recently bumped him up to the #10 spot on my board. I loved him pre-season, especially after I saw him in person at the McDonald’s All-American Game. He was so fluid and bouncy. Everything he did during pre-game warmups looked both unreal and effortless. His length and mobility are an outrageous pairing. He’ll need to fill out his frame a little bit, but he’s young, and that’s going to come in time. As he matures, though, I think it’s pretty clear that he’ll be able to solve their rim protection issues. You mentioned Lively’s block rate, but he forced misses at the rim, too—opponents only shot 39.5% against him in the halfcourt. He’s not just a rim protector, either. Because he’s so limber, he’ll be able to switch onto perimeter players and hold his own. Right now, they don’t have a big who can provide that scheme versatility at a high level. Lively’s knack for grabbing offensive rebounds (12.4 OREB%, 2.1/game) paired with his savvy passing game helps him find open shooters for high-percentage looks after he cleans the glass. Trey Murphy is going to be his best friend. Plus, he fits my “home run swing” concept, as if the jumper gets there, good gravy, that’s a potential All-Star. It’s trending like he’ll be off the board by this pick, though. Sorry, Pels fans.
I’m in on Coulibaly, too. He’s got heaps of upside. When I watched his tape with the Met92 Espoirs (21-and-under) club, he was comically dominant. He’d fly all over the court making plays on both ends. He was a live wire. When he started to get more minutes with their top team, he looked like a totally different guy, and I mean that in the best way possible. There was a refinement to his game. He knows how to position himself open the perimeter, when to cut to the basket, and when it makes sense to gamble defensively. That chaotic, up-tempo, high-upside player is still in there given his physical tools, but even if Coulibaly doesn’t hit his ceiling and is confined to a role, he’ll be able to do that. His downhill wiggle, projectable jump shot, and physicality give him a chance to be a tremendous, playoff-level difference-maker if it all clicks. He’d give them another high-upside wing, and the duo of him and Trey Murphy could be a devastating and overwhelming wing duo for opponents in the long run.
I get where you’re coming from with Kobe Bufkin. He’s great, he’s only 19 years old, and could potentially be their long-term solution at the guard spot. However, another guard has been on the opposite trajectory as Bufkin, slowly sliding down boards instead up of them—Cason Wallace.
ESPN currently ranks him 14th on their board, meaning he’s a possible get for the Pelicans. Though Bufkin had a slightly higher three-point percentage, Wallace is a more willing shooter, and prior to his back injury, he was hitting 41.9% from deep. He’s not the highlight reel that Bufkin is, but he’s a steadier playmaker who has room to grow on that end as he continues to develop. Wallace gets to the rim consistently, and once he starts leveraging that more to hit open shooters, he’ll be even more dangerous. Defensively, he’s one of the few guards in this class who can match Bufkin’s playmaking metrics, and he did it while hobbled. His in-between game is more polished and he’ll be more ready for NBA physicality out of the gate thanks to his bulky frame. Wallace could give the Pelicans more now while getting to fill out the rest of his game against NBA competition. He’s good with .5s, too, so he’s also going to bring line-up versatility and be able to play alongside McCollum, Daniels, and Alvarado as you mentioned. The key difference is that I think he’ll bring more defensive versatility out of the gate, too, given that he’ll be more prepared to guard up out of the gate.
For my last target, I want to throw out another big upside swing that could also help with their shooting woes—Brice Sensabaugh! His scoring efficiency and production were simply outrageous. Despite a mammoth 34% usage rate, he still ended the year with a 58.7 TS% and 48.0/40.5/83 shooting splits. Have you seen the guy lately, too? The man is looking chiseled on the Gram! As he continues to get into better shape, he’ll be able to better gain separation, making his super sweet shooting touch even more appealing. His passing got better as the year came along and getting into better shape should help him get all the way to the rim more often. Defensively, he has a lot of work to do. The same was true of AJ Griffin a year ago—I don’t get too hung up on defensive warts when a freshman has either a high usage rate or is a super-efficient scorer, and Sensabaugh fits both of those criteria. It’ll take time, but I don’t see him being a long-term tire fire on that end of the floor given his size and strength.