Our long national nightmare is over, as Anthony Davis was traded last weekend to the Los Angeles Lakers from the New Orleans Pelicans, finally making something happen that had been in the works for months.
Now, you might be saying, “this is a TCU blog. Why should I care about this NBA trade?”
Well, friends, you might be aware, there is a very important connection to the Horned Frogs in New Orleans, former TCU Basketball player Kenrich Williams - who spent his first season in the NBA playing for the Pels. Williams went from an undrafted player to a two way contract to a regular starter in New Orleans, earning himself a nice paycheck and the adoration of fans as they came to see why he earned the nickname “Kenny Hustle”. But, now, the roster he earned the right to be a part of looks a lot different, and the second year player is sure to be impacted.
In his rookie campaign, Williams averaged 6.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, making 29 starts across 46 appearances. He shot just over 38% from the field and 33% from three, but those numbers are a bit down due to a very slow start. Defensively, he was very good with half a block and a full steal per contest; and he showed himself to be a decent playmaker with the ball in his hands by dropping nearly two dimes a night. Williams was better than decent in his first season of pro ball, and can be classified as a legitimate steal considering his lack of hype heading into the season. He wasn’t a scrub playing for a tanking team - he was a contributor on a unit that fought hard despite not winning a lot of games (and lost enough to secure the number one pick in last night’s NBA Draft).
In that draft, the Pelicans drafted Zion Williamson, as expected; a player with just one season of collegiate ball and otherworldly athletic ability that will almost certainly translate to the professional game. Williamson averaged 22.6 points and nearly nine rebounds per game for the Duke Blue Devils in 33 games, earning a PER of 40.8 while shooting 68% from the field and nearly 34% from three. The native of Spartanburg, SC was not the most heralded of Duke’s three top ten draft picks coming into the year, but it didn’t take long for him to become a needle-moving mega star thanks to moments like this, this, and this.
As a pro, Zion won’t be able to out-physical most of the players that matched up against him like he did in college, but he will still be a load for defenders to deal with in the post at 6’7”, 285 - the 285 pounds making him one of the heaviest players in the league as a rookie. He shoots it well enough to be respected behind the arc, and his first step is guard-quick, making him a plus attacker. Of course, he can finish at the rim as well as anyone we have seen in recent memory. Zion is the day-one starter at power forward and the ready-made face of the franchise. New Orleans will tell you that its Jrue Holiday’s team, but the axis of everything is Zion.
Though the former Dukie is the big-name, he’s not the only player drafted by the Pels last night. New Orleans did some clever wheeling and dealing to move from four to eight, where they snagged rim-runner extraordinaire Jaxson Hayes. Frog fans ought to be familiar with the one-and-done player who spent his lone collegiate season at Texas, where the 6’11”, 220 pounder center 10 points and five rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 72% from the field. Hayes underperformed for his talent level with the Longhorns, but may be better suited for the NBA game. That said, he needs to become a much better defender at the rim and show that his skinny frame can hold up physically to bigger centers. Hayes running alongside Williamson should make for some fun, uptempo basketball though.
With their final pick of the draft, and the 17th pick of the first round, took a chance on Nickeil Alexander-Walker, an interesting prospect out of Virginia Tech. The 6’5” guard had a strong sophomore season for the Hokies, averaging 16.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. His three point percentage dropped slightly, to 37.4%, and he shot just 47.4% from the field. Playing mostly out of position due to injuries late in the season, Alexander-Walker developed into a more than capable ball-handler and distributor. He is better off the ball and complimenting a good distributor at the point guard position, but can fall into being an ineffective volume shooter at times. Reports are mixed on his pro future, but in a backcourt featuring two elite defenders in Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball, his instant offense capability could be the perfect complement off the bench.
As currently constructed, the Pels’ roster is such (with free agency decisions pending):
C- Jahlil Okafor, Jaxson Hayes, Christian Wood
PF- Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Cheick Diallo (RFA)
SF- Kenrich Williams, Stanley Johnson (RFA)
SG- Jrue Holiday, Josh Hart, E’Twaun Moore, Dairis Bertan, Trevon Bluiett (RFA - TW)
PG- Lonzo Ball, Frank Jackson
Ball and Holiday are all but locked in as the starting backcourt if healthy, and Williamson is almost assured of being a day one starter as well. Okafor proved himself last season in averaging over eight points and nearly five rebounds per game - good enough to get the team to pick up his team option for 2019-2020. The only two small forwards on the roster, pending free agency, are Williams and Stanley Johnson - and Kenrich beat out the former already once for a starting role and significant minutes. New Orleans has money to go after a bit-time free agent, and a sweet shooting forward is likely on their shopping list. Williams is a good enough shooter from deep - and will likely make working on his outside shot a priority in his first professional off-season - to stay in the lineup, but with a contract that is not fully guaranteed for next season, well, anything could happen.
My best guess is that Hustle makes the team and plays a key role off of the bench for New Orleans next year. He is a solid complement to the force and power of Williamson, and as a young player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective, could eat up valuable minutes without a big drop-off. He’s a good enough shooter to play off of Ball and to help create space for Zion, and has the vision and passing ability to play in an uptempo offense featuring the number one overall draft pick and the end to end speed of Hayes. He’s also a plus defender that still has room to improve in that area - but is good enough now to make an impact on that end of the floor. The Pels liked what they saw out of Hustle in year one, there’s no reason to think they won’t want to keep him on the payroll for a longer look on this new-look team in year two.