Excitement for pro basketball at all-time high
Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football. Price also authors the Friday Sports Column at BizNewOrleans.com.
What a difference 10 months can make in the life of a professional basketball team.
In January, Anthony Davis, the face of the New Orleans Pelicans franchise, announced he no longer wanted to play in the Crescent City and requested a midseason trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. The fallout from the demand wrecked both teams’ seasons and, with former NBA cities like Seattle currently without a franchise, caused many to question whether or not New Orleans was a viable NBA city.
Pelicans owner Gayle Benson made it clear that she was willing to do whatever necessary to make the team competitive. She hired David Griffin to serve as executive vice president of basketball operations and Trajan Langdon as the team’s general manager, to direct a makeover of the team.
Then, a fortuitous bounce of the (ping-pong) ball caused questions about the team’s future in NOLA to vanish immediately when the Pelicans won the top choice in draft lottery and the right to select superstar prospect Zion Williamson. The team agreed to trade Davis to the Lakers in return for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks.
The Pels’ roster was seemingly remade overnight. With the trade, free-agent signings of Derrick Favors and J.J. Redick, and the addition of draft picks Williamson, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Pelicans became one of the youngest teams by average age in the league.
Since then, the team’s outlook has gone from desperation to elation. It is expected the starting five will feature Ball at point guard, Jrue Holiday as shooting guard, Ingram at small forward, Williamson at power forward and Derrick Favors at center.
Pelicans brass is looking to Holiday to assume leadership of the team as the youngsters adjust to the rigors of playing in the NBA. With Ball playing point guard, Holiday, who had a career year last season averaging 21.2 points a game and who won his second consecutive All-Defensive team honors, is expected to shift to shooting guard. Effective at both ends of the court, NBA players, in an anonymous poll conducted by The Athletic, said Holiday the most underrated player in the league.
“This is Jrue Holiday’s team,” Griffin said this summer. “Zion is going to be learning how to win at a really high level. At some point, if there is a time that the baton gets passed in terms of who is expected to carry us to win games, it will. That is not now.”
While Holiday’s stock is rising, the majority of attention will surely be on Williamson, a generational talent who has been called the most exciting player to enter the league since LeBron James. Since being drafted, Zion fever has hit the city. His name and likeness have become ubiquitous in New Orleans and across the country. Twenty of the team’s games this season will be broadcast nationally on ABC, ESPN and TNT (the team’s previous high was 13 on those networks) and an additional 10 will be aired on NBA TV.
One major difference in this team and previous incarnations is the depth on the bench. Sharp-shooter J.J. Redick and team vet E’Twaun Moore will see a lot of playing time
While excitement is flying high, expectations for the Pelicans remain a bit grounded. New Orleans made the postseason just twice in Anthony Davis’ time in the Big Easy, and the road to a championship remains difficult. The Western Conference is stacked with talented teams, and New Orleans will have to have several things go right just to make the playoffs.
So far, the Pelicans have won the offseason. Tickets and merchandise have sold at a rapid clip. Fan and media interest are at an all-time high. Anticipation for tipoff is growing daily, (the first preseason game is Oct. 7 and the season opener is Oct. 22). It’s an exciting time for the franchise. Now all they have to do is put it together on the court.