At the start of the fourth quarter in Sunday’s critical game vs. San Antonio, New Orleans rookies Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker were on the court, with the Spurs clinging to a four-point lead. It was the kind of invaluable, situational experience that the pair of first-round picks were not assured of getting in 2019-20, particularly on a team featuring proven NBA veterans like Jrue Holiday, first-time All-Star Brandon Ingram, JJ Redick and Derrick Favors.
Although the stakes won’t be quite as high Tuesday, when New Orleans (30-40) faces Sacramento (29-41), it’s likely the 20-year-old Hayes and the 21-year-old Alexander-Walker will gain additional, important opportunities to play. The Pelicans announced Monday afternoon that Holiday, Ingram and Zion Williamson – the squad’s three leading scorers this season – will be sidelined against Sacramento, for precautionary reasons. The two Western Conference clubs were mathematically eliminated from play-in round contention Sunday.
“I think it’s good (for them) to be involved in meaningful minutes,” fifth-year coach Alvin Gentry said after Monday’s practice of larger roles for the depth of his roster. “That’s important, to give the young guys an opportunity to play and get some extended minutes.”
Youngsters Hayes (12.6 minutes per game in the bubble), Alexander-Walker (7.4) and Frank Jackson (13.3) have each made varying contributions for the Pelicans over their six games at Disney, but there’s a reasonable chance that some or all of them see a significant bump in duty against the Kings. Holiday and Ingram have both averaged 30-plus minutes on the NBA campus.
“We have to keep a good spirit about us in every game we play,” Gentry said of NOLA’s remaining two games. “This is going to be an opportunity for the young guys to get some extended time. Because of that, they are going to play in meaningful situations, and they’re going to have to be able to execute and do some things defensively, rotating-wise. So I think it’s good.”
After one college season at Texas, Hayes began ’19-20 out of the rotation, but went on to play in 62 of the team’s next 67 games, including making 12 starts. Second-year pro Jackson notched sporadic DNPs during the campaign, but has now appeared in 12 consecutive games, dating back to February. Like Jackson, Alexander-Walker at times found it difficult to crack a deep Pelicans backcourt rotation, but the Virginia Tech product played in four of the last five games, after appearing in 41 of the first 65.
Asked after Monday’s practice about the season overall and the development of New Orleans’ array of young pros, Favors noted that it’s been rewarding to watch their improvement. As the Pelicans start to look ahead to the ’20-21 season, progress from them will be a key aspect of this relatively brief offseason.
“I continue to see them grow,” Favors said. “Not just (Ingram, Williamson and Lonzo Ball), but Jaxson, Nickeil, all the young guys and rookies. All of them. They all got better throughout the year. Even in the bubble, they were playing good basketball. Hopefully they can continue to learn, continue to grow, and it can translate on to next season.”