Season outlook for the Pelicans’ diverse group of centers

New Orleans Pelicans center Jaxson Hayes (10) talks to Willy Hernangomez Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
New Orleans Pelicans center Jaxson Hayes (10) talks to Willy Hernangomez Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports /

The New Orleans Pelicans have a group of centers with diverse skillsets that should allow them to play a lot of different types of lineups depending on the opponent.

All of their guys can play down low or stretch the floor and they’ll get the chance to show it with Zion Williamson back in the lineup and taking a lot of the attention.

We’ve already made some predictions about the guards and the forwards, so here is our season outlook for the New Orleans Pelicans center rotation this season.

Jonas Valanciunas: Elite Rebounding and Shooting

When the Pelicans traded for Valanciunas last summer, they were looking for someone to replace the services of Stephen Adams. What they ended up getting was an upgrade and then some.

Valanciunas averaged a double-double last season with 17 points and 11 rebounds with two assists per game. Valanciunas also averaged the most 3-pointers attempted in his career while shooting 36 percent from long range, above average for a center.

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Expect Valenciunas’s points and rebounds per game to take a mild dip with Zion and CJ  back in the fold while his FG and 3-point percentage increase. His rebounding numbers will stay where they were last year, though he should be the beneficiary of some easy put backs with Zion taking attention from the other team’s bigs.

Jonas will become more of a stretch with Zion back, but he’ll still be a force down low and a guy the Pels can turn to for a bucket.

Jaxson Hayes: Rim Running Unpolished Big

Hayes’ first three years in the NBA were largely underwhelming. The Longhorn alumni averaged eight points and four rebounds over the course of three years while shooting 63.4 percent from the field and 36 percent from distance.

Hayes made a slight leap last season and was eventually inserted into the starting lineup, averaging the most minutes, points and rebounds of his career.

At his best this season, Hayes will average 10+ points off the bench for the Pels mostly being used in situations where the Pels want to play faster and utilize his greatest strength: setting screens and rolling to the basket for easy dunks. Realistically, expect Hayes to end up somewhere in the middle, showing flashes of his potential while still struggling to put it all together.

He looked good in limited preseason action but will likely miss the start of the season with an elbow injury.

Larry Nance Jr: The Glue Guy

Nance Jr. has a pretty clear role and skillset that will be easy to implement into Pelicans’ current system.

Nance Jr. averaged seven points and four rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the field in nine games for the Pelicans last season. While Nance’s peak may be behind him, he has valuable league experience that can prove to be beneficial for the younger players on the team. He brings elite tenacity and grit to this team, proving to do the dirty work on the court that brings teams together. His ability to defend centers will also although New Orleans to go small and have a lot of shooting on the floor.

Nance Jr. was a member of the 2016 NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers, spearheaded by LeBron James, a team on which he had a clear and established role. Don’t expect to see much of a difference in Nance’s counting stats this year, but he will prove to be an important leader and mentor for the team, play versatile defense and knock down some big 3-point shots.

Willy Hernangomez: Mr. Reliable

Willy Hernangomez is coming off a  2022 FIBA EuroBasket MVP and will look for an expanded role this season, especially early with Jaxson Hayes out. Willy and his Brother Juan led a talented Spain team to the EuroBasket championship, beating a deep France team led by NBA star Rudy Gobert. Willy proved to be reliable down the stretch for Spain during their championship run, acting as the leading force in their victory.

Hernangomez will bring back valuable championship pedigree after this summer, and he should come back confident in his skillset and ability to take on a bigger role within this team. We even saw Willy working on expanding his game to the 3-point line in preseason.

Expect Willy to battle with Hayes for the backup center role throughout this season, with Hernangomez eventually earning the backup center role because of his consistency and rebounding.

Hernangomez could average close to a double double this season in a bigger role after averaging 9.1 points and 6.8 rebounds last season.

The Pelicans have four guys with very different abilities, which should serve them well in the 2022-23 season and give coach Willie Green plenty of options.

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