3 Key players toward a New Orleans Pelicans playoff push

Feb 14, 2024; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA;  New Orleans Pelicans forward Matt Ryan (37) claps for
Feb 14, 2024; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Matt Ryan (37) claps for / Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Now that NBA players are returning to their respective cities from Cabo and Indianapolis, all focus league-wide turns to either the draft or the playoffs. Thankfully for the Pelicans, their eyes are on the latter. The team sits tied for fifth in the Western Conference with the Phoenix Suns, three games back of the reigning champion Denver Nuggets.

New Orleans has all the pieces to make a run toward the top of the standings and deep into the playoffs. With a roster as deep as the Pelicans tout, players will need to step up as the playoffs near. Here are the three Pelicans that will be key to a New Orleans playoff push.

1. Jonas Valanciunas

Not who you expected, right? The Lithuanian big man is the most important player in the Pelicans success this season.

Let me explain.

First, the team just plays better when he’s on the floor. 10 different 3-man Pelicans lineups have played more than 490 minutes together this season. Of those ten, meaning the team is two points better than their opponent per 100 possessions when those three are on the floor together. The single constant in those lineups? Jonas Valanciunas. The three-man lineup of Valanciunas, Brandon Ingram, and Herb Jones sports a net rating of 4.2, the highest of the bunch.

In the Western Conference, almost every contender has a big man that can take over games. Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Chet Holmgren, the list goes on. Valanciunas is the Pelicans’ best shot at containing opposing centers.

Nothing Valanciunas does on the floor is sexy (rocking his beard notwithstanding), but his consistency is admirable. He plays every night, he rebounds better than anyone on the team, and his field goal percentage rarely fluctuates.

Size is necessary in the modern NBA, and Valanciunas is a giant amongst men on the Pelicans roster, and his availability is vital for New Orleans’ future.

2. Herb Jones

In the Western Conference, almost every contender has a wing that can take over games. Anthony Edwards, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, the list goes on. Jones is the Pelicans’ best shot at containing opposing scorers.

Sound familiar? Jones is a capital ‘E’ Elite defender. He’s fourth on the squad in minutes, and it’s not because of his offensive contributions. Sure, Jones has developed a reliable jumper (40.7% on threes), but his bread is buttered on the defensive end.

In the Pelicans’ decisive win over the Clippers pre-All Star break, Jones and the New Orleans defense held the Los Angeles wing duo of Leonard and George that scores 46 points per game to 22 points combined.

To survive the gauntlet of the West, New Orleans needs to get stops on defense. Their sixth-ranked defense is the defining quality of the team, and Jones’ stopper chops on the perimeter are the skeleton key that unlocks their success.

3. Zion Williamson

Zion Williamson is to the offense as Herb Jones is to the defense. The former number-one overall pick is a bit of a one-trick pony on offense as it stands, but his ability to take over games on that end matters significantly.

Zion struggles to score outside of the painted area, but his bowling ball offensive game grants him the ability to get buckets when things slow down come crunch time. Put the ball in his hands and watch him go.

CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram get buckets in more appealing ways, and their ability to catch fire from outside the paint will be important to spreading the floor around Zion, but that’s exactly the point here.

When Zion was drafted in 2019, he was hailed as a franchise-changing prospect. This season, the cards are on the table for him to do what he was drafted to do. Be the leading man in the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2018.