5 Players with a Chance to Shine During New Orleans Pelicans' Stretch Run

Kyle Neubeck@@KyleNeubeckContributor IIMarch 2, 2014

5 Players with a Chance to Shine During New Orleans Pelicans' Stretch Run

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    The door is just about shut on the New Orleans Pelicans' playoff hopes. With franchise point guard Jrue Holiday out for the rest of the season and the team closer to the bottom of the conference than the eighth seed, it's time to focus on smaller individual goals rather than the lofty expectations that preceded the season. 

    That may seem like an admission of defeat, but it's more like an acceptance of reality. The team's depth has been destroyed by a series of injuries to several key players, with guys shuttling in and out of the lineup from Day 1.

    It's not all doom and gloom, though. The season's final stretch will be a showcase both for the team's remaining healthy studs and the backup players who have thrust into larger roles due to injury. There's something to be learned about the character of the roster with less to play for as a team down the stretch.

    Who can make a statement down the stretch? Read on to find out. 

Austin Rivers

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    It may be only his second season, but it's now or never for Austin Rivers to prove himself.

    A gaping hole in the backcourt is going to give him opportunity to show coach Monty Williams that he deserves a regular spot in the rotation. As of late, he's gotten ample time to show his worth: He played 30 minutes in back-to-back games against the Clippers and Suns on Feb. 28 and March 1, a promising sign going forward.

    He'll need to do more than just play to stick around. He is shooting 38.8 percent for the season, a pitiful number for someone who was labeled more of a combo guard coming out of Duke. If he can't shake the inefficiency that has plagued him early in his career, he could end up with a permanent spot on the bench.

    One thing is for sure: He has to get minutes over Brian Roberts in the season's final spurt. The Pelicans must figure out what they have before potentially cutting bait. 

Luke Babbitt

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    John Rhodes, Star-Telegram

    Recently rescued by the Pelicans from Russia, Babbitt has been serviceable at the small forward spot, injecting some much-needed shooting on the wings.

    A career 37 percent shooter from beyond the arc, he is shooting almost 42 percent from downtown since returning stateside. That's an enormous step up from the anemic stroke of Al-Farouq Aminu, who makes it easy for teams to collapse into the paint and protect the rim.

    Babbitt is going to have to clean up his defense to stick around as a rotation player, but that can be said for the majority of the roster. The Pelicans have been a disgrace on defense for long stretches throughout the year, and so having a player who can hit threes and at least play passable defense would be a boon.

Alexis Ajinca

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    A dearth in the Pelicans frontcourt has given little-used big man Alexis Ajinca an opportunity to get some minutes, and based on recent trends, he should get a chance to play more with the season winding down. 

    Over his last five games, he is averaging 11.4 points and 8.2 rebounds on 55 percent shooting. Those are respectable numbers, especially considering the short time frame he's amassing them in (24.6 minutes).

    Based on those contributions, it would appear to be a done deal that he could solidify himself down the stretch, but as Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune writes, his inability to stay out of foul trouble is holding him back

    Against the Bucks, Ajinca was perfect from the field, 7 for 7, and had 16 points, nine rebounds and three assists. He's obviously a talented player, but often commits fouls in rapid succession.

    If he gets past that, and the Pelicans can further incorporate him into their system, it'll be a win-win for all concerned.

    That's easier said than done, but it's a simple thing to ask of a player.

Eric Gordon

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    Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

    Raise your hand if you thought Eric Gordon would appear in the second highest total of games for the Pelicans this season. If you just raised your hand, you're probably a big, fat liar.

    After playing just 51 games over the last two seasons combined, Gordon's appearance in 55 contests this season is a welcome change from his injury-riddled years of the past. The Pelicans have invested a lot of money hoping that he'd be a 20-point scorer for them, but he has yet to return to the form that made him such a coveted asset to begin with.

    Finally healthy for the majority of a season, now is the time for him to prove he still has plenty left in the tank after having his seasons cut short in back-to-back years. It's fair to wonder whether he doesn't have the juice in his legs to go a full 82 games after a couple of tumultuous seasons, so stay tuned on that front.

    Ultimately though, the stretch run is all about one player.  

Anthony Davis

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Who else but Anthony Davis could lead the charge down the stretch? He has been nothing short of spectacular in his sophomore season, and he's the clear-cut No. 1 option for the Pelicans now and in the future. 

    He has been as good as advertised defensively, leading the league in blocks per game by almost one-half block over Serge Ibaka. Davis is also in the top 20 in steals per game, a solid indicator of the havoc he causes with his pterodactyl-like wingspan. 

    Offensively is where he's been the most impressive, because no one thought he would be this good, this soon. He's pouring in 20.2 points per game on a wide array of moves, scoring on hooks, fadeaway jumpers and dunks—you name it, and he has done it.

    He is only scratching the surface of his potential, yet there are still times when he looks virtually unstoppable. 

    Keep an eye on him not just down the stretch, but for years to come. Future MVP sounds like a stretch now, but it'll be within reach of those elastic arms before you know it.