Christian Wood proving he belongs on the Pelicans’ roster

Christian Wood New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Christian Wood New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

The New Orleans Pelicans added another number to the loss column Tuesday night against the Atlanta Hawks, but it was not all bad. G-Leaguer Christian Wood, who recently got signed by the Pelicans, put up his best performance in an NBA uniform thus far.

The 2015 NBA Draft provided sixty college athletes the opportunity of seeing their dreams become a reality. Current New Orleans Pelicans big-man Christian Wood was among that group that waited for Draft Day in anticipation. He had a very respectable sophomore season at UNLV, averaging 15.7 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game on 50% shooting.

Those numbers—impressive as they may be—were all for naught in his quest to be drafted by an NBA team. He watched as sixty others approached the podium to shake hands with Adam Silver, while he and many others were left heartbroken and lost.

Although he did not see his dream into fruition, he would not quit in his pursuit to make it to the NBA. Taking the road less traveled through the NBA’s Developmental League, he began to make a name for himself. In fact, he would rise as one of the prominent players in the G-League in the last couple seasons. Wood put up a career-high 29.3 points, 14.1 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, and 1.1 steals on an efficient 56% from the field in the 28 games he played this year for the Wisconsin Herd.

His play did not go unnoticed as he got multiple cracks at the NBA over the years, but failed to find a home that would provide him a real opportunity. But he stuck with it. And now, after signing with the New Orleans Pelicans and running into some luck (mainly team injuries), he finally got that opportunity he’s sought for years.

The Good

Wood played 8 minutes in his debut against the Houston Rockets on Sunday and managed to knock down an open 3 off a collapsed play—his first field goal attempt with the team—whilst limiting his mistakes and giving Alvin Gentry confidence in his abilities.

That level of confidence in the 23-year-old skyrocketed Tuesday night against the Atlanta Hawks. Getting his first taste of action in the 2nd quarter, Wood made sure to provide a sample size that would result in more time on the court.

Immediately upon entering the game, Wood would make his presence felt. He scored up over-the-top on John Collins. Then, on the ensuing defensive possession, he locked Collins up for a jump ball. That’s where the freakish athleticism of Christian Wood entered the fray. Going up against a Slam Dunk Contest participant, Wood rather easily won the jump ball, tipping the ball to his teammate.

Moments later, he took advantage of an open look from the right corner and knocked down the long ball. That aggression was prevalent all quarter. He took what the defense gave him, not settling, yet never forcing.  Wood often put the ball on the floor and attacked the rim, resulting in baskets or a trip to the free throw line.  If that was not enough, he was active on the offensive glass as well. Christian’s solid play in the second quarter was topped off by a massive block on an Alex Len dunk attempt.

The Really Good

With efforts like that, it is plausible that your head coach will take notice and give you more minutes as the game progresses. That was exactly what Alvin Gentry did, and Christian Wood would continue his high level of play in the second half, despite the tough matchup he had. John Collins is a really good NBA player, proven by his 19.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game this season.

But he was no match for Wood in this contest. That’s not saying Wood is a better player. He just happened to have a better game, while also giving Collins fits. After blocking John Collins when the two were matched one-on-one in the low block, frustration took over for the Hawks’ star. Committing his 6th and final foul moments after the block, he was removed from the basketball game.

It was not just Collins that could not figure out the ex-developmental league standout, but the entire team. Active on both ends of the court, Wood was timing offensive plays correctly (like when Wood saw Darius Miller driving and saw an Atlanta big commit and went for the perfectly executed backdoor cut), or timing one of his 6 blocks or 3 steals appropriately on the defensive end. Wood finished the game with an impressive stat sheet of 23 points, 9 rebounds, 6 blocks, and 3 steals while shooting 78% from the field, including 1/3 from distance.

Physically, the man is a specimen. He’s long, he’s got size and strength, and he’s got speed for someone his size. Likewise, he is skilled. He can knock down open looks (well, so far), and can take you off the dribble while still being very active defensively.

What Needs Work

Unfortunately, even though it is exciting to see a player who has worked this hard finally see the fruits of his labor—he is not a finished project. Wood did just finish his second game with the team. He has yet to start an NBA game. There are certain aspects of his game that will need attention this offseason.

When he got switched on Trae Young, he struggled. Yes, he did get a steal on the rookie sensation, but he also got burnt multiple times. Young hit him with multiple up fakes that either got him in the air and defenseless or caused enough separation, which Young took advantage of. In fact, that very steal he got on Trae Young led to a forced turnover that was preventable. Leading the ball the other way, he took too long to make a decision and got caught in the air with the basketball and tried to force a pass that was stolen.

This next issue will mend with time: Positioning is a bit of an issue for Wood as well as miscommunication with teammates. Elfrid Payton wanted him to cut to the hoop for a potential easy basket in the third quarter, but he deferred to sag off to the perimeter, resulting in a turnover. On a free throw, he failed to secure an easy rebound after having communication issues with a teammate.

Another issue is his efficiency at the charity stripe, but this one could be just nerves. Awarded two technical free throws and two flagrant free throws, Wood managed to shoot just 1/4 on those attempts. Overall, he was just 8/14 from the line. Don’t expect this to be a continued trend, as he shot 76% from the line in the G-League this season and has a good looking stroke.

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Again, there are issues that can be solved and prevented as he further adapts to not only his teammates, but the NBA in general. Everywhere he has gone, success has followed Christian Wood. He’s going to get more opportunities down the stretch as the coaching staff evaluates what they have in the former G-Leaguer. But if he keeps up this level of player, there’s no doubt that he will have a permanent spot in the association, and possibly a nice rotational place in the New Orleans Pelicans’ rebuild.