The New Orleans Pelicans signaled a change in their roster identity with a trade deadline move for defensive stalwarts James Johnson and Wes Iwundu. In the hopes of becoming an elite defensive team (not this season, but next), the shift of mindset was apparent and understood.
A roster with two budding offensive superstars in Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson needs to surround them with players capable of absorbing the toughest matchups to alleviate the stress of being the best on both ends.
While Johnson and Iwundu won minutes early on, injuries to Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker created a glaring hole. Up stepped Naji Marshall.
New Orleans Pelicans: Who is Naji Marshall?
Marshall, a two-way wing from Xavier University, went undrafted in the 2020 NBA Draft after three seasons with the Musketeers. In the three seasons, Marshall grew from strength to strength, culminating in his junior year in which he averaged 16.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. His all-around season, culminating in First-Team All-Big East honors, was unsurprising.
There was some optimism around Marshall’s potential as a late second-round pick, but his glaring shooting woes resulted in him going undrafted. Looking back, the intangibles were overlooked. Marshall hustled on both ends, diving for loose balls and making winning plays.
Along with his tenacious attitude, Marshall’s vision and defense were underrated. Marshall constantly highlighted the understanding to make defense splitting passes, yet the highlight play came at a fault as he regularly racked up careless turnovers.
Defensively, Marshall’s bulldog mentality and athleticism created nightmare matchups. His ability to defend all positions in the college system worked wonders for the team as he was employed in various schemes.
The upside was clear to New Orleans staff, and Marshall inked a two-way deal in early December.
New Orleans Pelicans: Naji Marshall’s role with the Pels
Early on, minutes were tough to come by. A backlog of capable players, as well as Stan Van Gundy’s reluctance to play rookies, did not work in Marshall’s favor. Finally, after only playing roughly twenty-two minutes in forty-seven games, Van Gundy called Marshall’s number.
Despite a blowout loss to Atlanta, Marshall logged an incredible thirty minutes, playing disruptive defense. Since then, Marshall’s role has increased drastically. Injuries to Hart and Alexander-Walker played a factor, but Marshall won minutes over Iwundu and now shows his skillset beyond defense.
An adept passer and slasher, Marshall’s game mimics one of his teammate Johnson. The long frame and swiss army knife mentality are highlighted through their play. Since being thrust into the rotation, Marshall is posting modest numbers of decent efficiency.
His 7.2 points-per-game on 38.3 percent shooting is a work in progress. However, Marshall’s three-point percentage (37.2 percent) stands out above all. Marshall seemingly has gravitated to the left corner three and above the break three, where his percentages are a surprising 46.7 and 40.7 percent. Other than that, Marshall is woeful everywhere else.
To continue improving and further creating a role in the rotation, Marshall’s efficiency in the paint needs to increase. A mediocre 52.2 percent from the restricted area will not cut it for a player with his athleticism and size.
Defensively, Marshall’s excellent defensive awareness and understanding places him in the best lineups that are not Pelicans starters. The four-person lineup consisting of Williamson, Hayes, Lewis Jr., and Marshall is +20 since April. The number doesn’t change when you swap the three out with Bledsoe, Johnson, and Hernangomez.
Marshall’s ability to play with bigs highlights the importance he has to this franchise. Ideally, Marshall will feature as a forward, but his ball-handling and understanding of the game on both ends.