Power Ranking Every Key New Orleans Pelicans Player Before Season's End

Kyle Neubeck@@KyleNeubeckContributor IIMarch 23, 2014

Power Ranking Every Key New Orleans Pelicans Player Before Season's End

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    Their first season under a new moniker wasn't the rousing success many thought it would be, but the New Orleans Pelicans have learned plenty about their roster this season that will inform their decision-making going forward.

    Injuries have grounded the Pelicans, keeping their playoff goal slightly out of reach for the time being. Having one key contributor go down is one thing, but losing multiple pieces like Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday would be a tough blow for any team to overcome.

    In the absence of those players and several others, we've learned a lot about the guys who survived the injury plague, and how they stack up against the creme of the Pelicans crop. Head coach Monty Williams has remained adamant that even as things change, they still stay the same. Per John Reid of The Times-Picayune:

    We have to stay the course and teach the same things. When you win games, you don’t change. When you lose games you have to stay along that path, but there are little tweaks here and there like lineup changes. But we’re still the same team with the same philosophy.

    So who has thrived under the philosophy of Williams and Co.? Has recent play helped those who have remained healthy jump past the injured in our ranks? 

10. Jason Smith

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    A nominal starter in the beginning of the year, Jason Smith's extended absence due to injury is enough to drop him to the bottom of the rankings.

    He was productive enough during his time on the court—Smith averaged 13.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per-36 minutes in 31 games—but he simply didn't play enough this season to have a significant impact on the team's fortunes.

    In fact, his biggest impact is due to not playing. With him and Ryan Anderson gone, the Pelicans have had to turn to less-experienced, less-talented players in order to fill the void, the team suffering as a result. Alexis Ajinca, Jeff Withey and Greg Stiemsma have done their best, but it hasn't been enough.

    Smith will be a free agent in the offseason, and with his knee injury likely decreasing his value on the open market, the Pelicans would be smart to bring him back on a team-friendly deal.   

9. Austin Rivers

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    Maligned as the worst player in the NBA for long stretches of last season, Austin Rivers has used extra playing time to shed the more extreme labels attached to him.

    The team's falling fortunes have been a good thing for Rivers, who has more opportunities to get playing time without the burden of expectations affecting his play. With playoffs out of the picture and other guards nursing injuries, the leash has loosened a little bit on last season's lottery pick.

    Post All-Star break, Rivers has averaged 9.1 points and 2.5 assists on 43.5 percent shooting for New Orleans. Those sound like paltry totals, but they're all significant improvements on his career numbers of 6.5 points, two assists and 38.4 percent shooting.

    Even his father, Clippers coach Doc Rivers, has taken notice. Per Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune:

    I just think he is attacking more, he's more comfortable now. I don't think he is worried about making mistakes. I watched him early and he was playing like 'If I make a mistake....' He doesn't do that anymore. It looks like he decided, 'I'm going to go play. If I play, I play.'

    He may not ever live up to his status as a lottery pick, but Rivers is coming around, and that's a positive sign for his future. 

8. Brian Roberts

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    Edging out young Rivers is thorn-in-his-side Brian Roberts, his main competition for minutes in the rotation.

    Playing Rivers more might be the better long-term strategy, but Roberts is simply more productive right now. His season averages are roughly the same as Rivers' post All-Star break surge, and with an increase in minutes as of late, Roberts has seen a surge in production of his own.

    The area that separates the two is assist-to-turnover ratio, where Roberts holds a slight edge over his younger teammate. His figure of 2.46 (3.2 assists, 1.3 turnovers) is just high enough to top Rivers' 1.9 (1.9 assists, one turnover) average for the season.

    That can't have gone unnoticed by Coach Williams, who stresses taking care of the basketball. His Pelicans rank sixth in turnovers, indicative of the style preferred by his coach.

    He might not be a part of the team's future, but Roberts is here for now.

7. Anthony Morrow

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    If the Pelicans had made a push for the playoffs this season, Anthony Morrow would have been roundly praised as one of the steals of the offseason.

    Instead, he's simply enjoying a career resurgence. Morrow was buried on the bench for multiple franchises over the last few seasons, including the Nets, Hawks and Mavericks, but a need for outside shooting has thrust him into a mid-sized role on the Pelicans.

    He's reminded teams around the league that it's unwise to leave him free on the perimeter, shooting 43.6 percent from downtown on the season. That's good for seventh-best in the NBA, and a big reason why the Pelicans rank inside the top 10 for three-point field goal percentage.

    Every team needs a guy who can come off the bench and knock down open looks, and the Pelicans appear to have found theirs. 

6. Al-Farouq Aminu

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    Al-Farouq Aminu has played the most games of any member of the Pelicans this season, which is probably a good indicator of why they've struggled to field a competitive team.

    Four seasons into his NBA career, Aminu seems to be aware of what his areas of strength are. He crashes the boards (6.2 per game), uses his length to bother opposing players (1.1 steals per game) and is shooting a career high 48.3 percent from the field.

    His incremental improvement should be applauded, but his lacking outside shot is holding him back from becoming a better player. Aminu is shooting 29.3 percent from deep on just 0.6 attempts per game. To put that into perspective, Pau Gasol averaged 28.6 percent shooting on the same number of attempts last season.

    The Pelicans don't need him to become Ray Allen; he simply needs to become proficient enough that teams can't just let him wander without fear of repercussion. He's the only player equipped to deal with the elite wings the league has to offer, so offensive development is imperative to the team's success.   

5. Eric Gordon

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    If you would have told most Pelicans fans before the season that Eric Gordon would be second on the team in minutes come Spring, many would have laughed at you. After all, this is the same guy who has struggled to get on the court due to a variety of maladies the last couple years.

    But Gordon has (mostly) overcome his woes to turn in his first honest-to-goodness productive season as a member of the franchise. He hasn't been the 20-point scorer that the Pelicans thought they'd be getting when they acquired him in return for Chris Paul, though staying on the court at all is a sizable victory.

    Coach Williams has praised Gordon for being a fixture in his lineup this season, telling John Reid of The Times-Picayune, "He's done really well as far as being able to play in games. He does a really good job of taking care of his body."

    The production hasn't been bad either: Gordon is averaging 15.4 points and 3.2 assists while shooting 39.1 percent from deep, an encouraging return to form.

    Will he ever live up to his contract? Maybe not. But it's been refreshing to see Eric Gordon in a uniform instead of a suit. 

4. Tyreke Evans

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    Speaking of contracts, the Pelicans handed some serious dough to Tyreke Evans in the offseason, having to part with a couple valuable rotation pieces in the process.

    Evans struggled early this season, shooting 41.1 percent from the field and 14.9 percent from deep prior to the All-Star break, building a house of bricks that would make any contractor jealous. Injuries in the preseason set him back as far as adjusting to a new set of teammates.

    But with more playing time and more responsibility, Evans has shined. Since the All-Star break, he's averaging 16.3 points and 5.7 assists on 46.2 percent shooting, replicating some of the all-around game that led to him winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2010.

    Can he do it when he has to share the ball more on a healthier team? Time will tell. At the very least, his performance during the season's final stretch gives fans hope. 

3. Jrue Holiday

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    Anyone who thought Jrue Holiday's 2013 season was an aberration found out they were sorely mistaken. The Pelicans will have to hope his production has staying power, and not the injuries that ended his 2014 campaign.

    Holiday saw his scoring drop from 17.7 points to 14.3 after moving from Philadelphia to New Orleans, but that was to be expected playing with more talent on the Pelicans. More importantly, he was able to maintain his assists around eight per game while cutting down his turnovers, a crucial step in his development as a point guard.

    The sad disclaimer is that Holiday went down to injury in January, eventually leading to season-ending surgery at the end of February. With Holiday in the lineup, the Pelicans were 15-19, without him just 14-21.

    Despite the brevity of his season, Dell Demps saw enough to say that they are set at the position for the foreseeable future. He told John Reid of The Times-Picayune,

    I think he’s an elite point guard with size and strength. I think he’s going to be good for us for a long time. I wish he and Anthony would have played more games for us together. I think they were just starting to jell and figure each other out.

    His season was brief, but his brilliance was such that it can't be ignored.   

2. Ryan Anderson

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    Remember Ryan Anderson? You know, the guy who was casually shooting 40.9 percent from three on 7.5 attempts per game? 

    You read that correctly: A player who stands 6'10" was launching almost eight threes per game and hitting them at an elite percentage.

    To put into perspective how rare that is, only three players have ever done that over the course of a season and their heights average out to about 6'5". The names Ray Allen and Stephen Curry will probably ring a bell, and the final member of the club went by the nickname "3D".

    What kind of effect did that have on the Pelicans? They lit the world on fire offensively, scoring 1.25 points per possession with their "crunch time" lineup of Anderson, Holiday, Evans, Gordon and Anthony Davis. Having a big who can pull defenders away from the basket is an invaluable weapon.

    Anderson only had 22 games with which to prove his worth, but what a spectacular 22 games they were.

    Speaking of spectacular...

Anthony Davis

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    Who else but Anthony Davis could be the top dog for the New Orleans Pelicans? When he's not leading the Pelicans to victories over the Miami Heat, he's prompting discussions on Reddit about where he stands among the league's elite.

    Even before taking his game to the next level the last couple months, he was prompting Steve Kerr to make bold claims about his future on Bill Simmons' podcast The B.S. Report (14:00 mark):

    On the bright side for New Orleans, Anthony Davis is absolutely ridiculous. Over the next six to eight years, as LeBron fades, he might be the guy we're talking about in terms of being the best player in the league. He's got a Kevin Garnett type frame, but with a lot more offensive skill, and he's just scratching the surface.

    He's deserving of every bit of high praise that he's gotten. The NBA's leading shot blocker has made dramatic improvements on offense since his rookie year, shooting six percent better from 10-16 feet and 12 percent better from 16 feet to the three-point line.

    We were told that Anthony Davis is the future. It's scary for the rest of the league that the future is now.