Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis matched up in New Orleans for six seasons. In that stretch, the Pelicans finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency once.
In 2016-17, the Pelicans ranked ninth in points allowed per 100 possessions. Their rankings in that category over the remaining five seasons of Holiday and Davis were a combined 27th, 22nd, 26th, 14th and 22nd. Pairing one of the NBA’s best perimeter stoppers with one of its best rim protectors hasn’t led to defensive success.
New Orleans, in its 20 years as a franchise, has never fielded a top-five defensive team. The Pelicans have a chance to end that streak this season.
About a third, coach Willie Green’s squad is allowing 109.1 points per 100 possessions, fourth-best in the NBA.
How does a team built around offensive-minded players like Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum do so well defensively? A lot has to do with the defensive-minded players the Pelicans have drafted and developed over the past three years.
Naji Marshall, Jose Alvarado, Herb Jones and Dyson Daniels are all key contributors to New Orleans’ fourth-ranked defense. The Pelicans’ talent is a big part of a defensive turnaround that hasn’t seen much going forward.
The undrafted guys
In 2020, the Pelicans signed Marshall, an undrafted free agent, to a two-way deal. A year later, the Pelicans similarly brought Alvarado on board. Marshall and Alvarado have produced enough in their first years that they’ve turned into guaranteed roster spots.
The 6-foot-7, 220-pound Marshall leaves minimal air space between himself and the player he’s guarding. On the offensive end, Marshall likes to cut defenses off the dribble. That style is why Williamson called Marshall a “Swiss Army Knife” on Sunday. Green had a slightly different description: “knife.”
“I just feel like I’m tougher than anybody in the world,” said Marshall, who had four rebounds in Thursday’s loss to the Utah Jazz. “That’s what it is.”
Marshall and Alvarado both have credible claims as the Pelicans’ toughest players. In the Pelicans’ first-round playoff game against the Suns in April, Alvarado was able to rank Chris Paul with his pesky on-ball defense. At times, Paul struggled to push the ball forward against Alvarado from midfield. New Orleans’ 5-10 backup guard forced Paul into two fouls in an 8-second span.
“That was me,” Alvarado said. “That’s why I’m in the NBA. That’s why I’m going to stay here. When they call my name, I want them to say he’s going to play defense.”
Marshall and Alvarado are important pieces on one of the best benches in the NBA. Their tough mentality has helped change the identity of a team not known for stoppages.
Shai Gilges-Alexander has been an almost impossible task for defenders this season. The Oklahoma City Thunder guard is averaging 31 points on 50.6% shooting. His ability to change speeds, control the basketball on the wire and his size are all reasons why a popular NBA writer recently compared guarding him to “trying to catch a fish.”
Jones is one of the few players who has pulled the fish out of the river. Jones held Gilgeous-Alexander to an ineffective 7-for-21 performance in November. According to NBA.com, Gilges-Alexander scored six points, shot 2-of-9 from the field and committed four turnovers when Jones was on him.
Here are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s numbers last night with Herb Jones as his primary defender (per NBA dot com):
3 blocked shots (All by grass)
SGA also had 9 fouls last night. Only 2 of them were against Herb.
— Will Guillory (@WillGuillory) November 29, 2022
Ask any player on the Pelicans’ roster who the team’s best defender is, and they’ll answer Jones. As a rookie, Jones finished third in the NBA in steals and fourth in deflections. He hasn’t been as impactful in his second season, in part due to injuries, but the Pelicans are a much-improved defensive team overall.
“There’s five guys in there,” Jones said. “Team defense is never about one person guarding five people. I think that is why we are making that flight. Everyone goes on the defensive. Everyone competes on the defensive end. As long as we do those things, we’ll stay high in the rankings.”
Last season, the Pelicans relied heavily on Jones to wreak havoc defensively. This season they do it by committee. They rank second in the NBA in turnovers per game. They have four players averaging at least two steals per contest: Jones (2.9), Williamson (2.4), Alvarado (2.4) and Larry Nance Jr. (2.2). Marshall (1.9) is not far from belonging to that club.
On draft night in June, the Pelicans weren’t sure Daniels would still be available at No. 8. The Pelicans believed the Trail Blazers might try to pair Daniels, a 6-foot-8 guard with strong defensive instincts, next to their franchise player Damian Lillard. When it was announced that the Trail Blazers were going to select Kentucky winger Shaydon Sharp instead, the Pelicans’ war room was euphoric.
“Griff (executive vice president David Griffin) was running the stairs,” said Swin Cash, Pelicans vice president of basketball operations.
Daniels is a 19-year-old who plays like he’s 29. He is a quick decision maker who makes smart passes. Defensively, he has the potential to be special. Daniels has already matched up with elite draftees such as Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns. Daniels was able to hold his own. Booker went 1-of-7 on Daniels last week.
Devin Booker shot 1-of-7 from the field with Dyson guarding him, according to NBA tracking data. pic.twitter.com/nRSsxGEkaL
— Christian Clark (@cclark_13) December 10, 2022
Daniels’ size is a big plus. He is also a disciplinarian who went through the NBA Global Academy in Australia. He doesn’t like fakes and he’s good at hitting shots without fouling.
“It’s amazing,” Alvarado said. “He’s been a pro since he was probably 10 years old. You know how those foreign guys are. He rises. He wants to play defense.”
Daniels was still an amateur at age 10, but he agreed with Alvarado’s other point.
“Defense has always been my main strength. something I’m proud of,” Daniels said. “I feel like that’s what keeps me grounded. Receiving theft. Creating offense that way. It’s definitely something I’m proud of.”
Notable defensive numbers
- The Pelicans commit 17.6 turnovers per game, second in the NBA.
- The Pelicans are forcing their opponents into 16.3 turnovers per game, fourth best in the NBA.
- New Orleans creates this chaos while limiting opponents to 21.1 free throws per game, fourth-most of any team.
- The Pelicans are allowing a lot of 3-pointers, but opponents aren’t. The 37.8 3s the Pelicans allow is fourth-most of any team. 33.7% of opponents are making long shots, third best in the league.