It’s debatable whether they have improved, so making the playoffs is going to require big contributions from players who are mostly unproven.
I think we have an idea of what we’ll get out of Zion, Ingram, and Jonas Valanciunas, three players who have established themselves in the NBA.
Josh Hart was pretty solid last season but does he have another level? Guys like Naji Marshall and Trey Murphy III have shown promise but need to prove they can do it in games that matter.
Same with Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes, two players with immense potential who have yet to put it all together.
That’s a whole lot of “ifs” and I think it would be foolish to expect all of them to work out favorably for the Pelicans.
That is why the success of their season may ultimately come down to production from one of their young veterans, Devonte’ Graham.
New Orleans Pelicans: Devonte’ Graham is the X-Factor next season
I do think that guys like NAW and Hayes are poised to have breakout seasons, but it is far from given that they will.
Most fans would agree that the Pelicans didn’t get nearly enough out of their backcourt of Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe last season, so for them to improve, the backcourt has to be better.
Since NAW is still a work in progress, this really leaves Graham, who is 26-years-old and needs to provide more than either Ball or Bledsoe did last season.
The numbers indicate that he might, as Graham shot 42.3 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-point shots last season after being moved to an off-the-ball role when the Hornets drafted LaMelo Ball.
Zion’s usage rate will be even higher next season, to Graham is likely to get even more attempts on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, which should help raise his scoring average.
If Graham can get closer to the 18.2 points per game he averaged in 2019-20 than the 14.8 ppg he averaged last season, the Pelicans should have a dynamic offense that is going to be difficult to stop.
That, along with projected defensive improvement on the wings should be enough to get the Pels a few more wins and hopefully a shot at the playoffs.
If Graham and NAW don’t give the Pels more than Lonzo and Bledsoe did, then I expect the New Orleans Pelicans will be watching the playoffs from home once again.