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5 Questions with The Bird Writes

I hear from the enemy ahead of tonight’s game.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies and the New Orleans Pelicans have split the season series thus far, with the Grizz getting the most recent victory 121-109. The Grizzlies are 2-6 against the Pels the last three years and the teams will be intertwined for decades because of the 2019 draft.

The division rivals traded in the offseason in a deal that benefitted both teams. Steven Adams and Ziaire Williams have been great additions and are perfect for the style of play the Grizz have succeeded with this season. New Orleans received Jonas Valančiūnas, an automatic double-double who at times has carried the team’s offense.

To preview this game, I spoke with Oleh Kosel, the Editor-and-chief of The Bird Writes — SB Nation’s New Orleans Pelicans blog — to discuss this year’s third matchup of this budding rivalry.

1) The Pelicans started 1-12 and were 16-28 in mid-January. They have the tenth-best record since February 1, including wins over the Nuggets, Suns and Jazz. What, other than the addition of CJ McCollum, has been different in this recent stretch?

Continuity has been the biggest difference-maker. The Pelicans simply needed to accrue time together on the court, both for the players to learn each other’s tendencies as well as the system and for the new coaching staff to identify how best to assemble and utilize the roster. The rotations and player roles have never been more in sync than they are now.

One thing that can’t be overlooked: the full amount of buy-in from players has existed from day one. It never wavered through the disappointing start, unlike in past years. That allowed for the franchise to weather the early storm and soon begin to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Since Nov. 26. the Pelicans have a 23-21 record and have hit another level since the start of last month.

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

2) Speaking of CJ McCollum – what has he brought to the Pelicans, both on the court and off?

McCollum checks so many boxes for New Orleans. On the court, he’s another star alongside Brandon Ingram. They’ve quickly demonstrated to be a dynamic duo, forcing opponents to pick their poison.

Prior to McCollum’s arrival, BI was always the focus of opposing defenses. He always drew multiple sets of eyes. Unless you’re as physically gifted as LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo or one of the best shooters who’s ever lived like Stephen Curry, it’s close to impossible to carry a team alone.

Perhaps more importantly, McCollum’s intangibles off the court may prove the bigger benefactor in the long run. There’s a reason why the New Orleans front office hotly pursued Kyle Lowry last offseason — the Pelicans have needed a strong leader for some time.

McCollum not only brings veteran experience, he’s lived through a lot of important wars in Portland with Damian Lillard. CJ’s one of the most respected players in the game today. Possessing the knowledge of how to be a consummate professional while understanding every strategy that’s witnessed in the league is going to be enormous for the developmental curves of Ingram and Zion Williamson.

3) Who is a player you would like to see more from in the Pelicans’ last 16 games?

Jaxson Hayes. The third-year pro is now in the starting lineup, and he’s flashed numerous glimpses of his jaw-dropping potential, but consistency is sometimes an issue. Especially on the defensive end. However, unlike in previous times in his career, one is confident in continued growth.

He recently told local media, for example, that he’s working hard behind the scenes to improve his PnR defense. Hayes entered the NBA lacking proper fundamentals and a basic understanding of the game. And for the longest, it was difficult to spot improvements. That’s changing, but everyone wants to see more tangible evidence.

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

4) What matchup are you looking forward to tonight?

Why watching Herb Jones hound Ja Morant all over the floor of course! They’re not only two of my favorite players in the league, it’ll be the ultimate matchup between rising stars on offense and defense!

Herb isn’t on Tony Allen’s level yet, simply for the fact that he hasn’t been in the league long enough to learn every nuance, but the effort is never to blame. Jones’ defense has been so good that he’s widely considered one of the five best rookies from the last draft class.

Where the discussion of season-end awards becomes interesting, though, there’s a lot of noise about Herb’s name getting included on one of the NBA All-Defensive teams. If you’ve watched most of his games, it’s hard to disagree.

5) The New Orleans Pelicans currently sit at 10th in the Western Conference, 1.5 games back from the Los Angeles Lakers and 1.5 games up on the Portland Trailblazers. Can the Pelicans make any noise in the play-in tournament?

Yes. The Pelicans have been trending upwards all season, and they posted a historic stretch out of the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the teams around them in the standings either are very mediocre or downright floundering.

This New Orleans Pelicans roster is easily the most complete team of the short David Griffin era, boasting several stars with a lot of good, well-fitting depth around them.

Thank you, Oleh, for participating in this game’s “5 Questions.” Follow him (@OlehKosel) and The Bird Writes (@thebirdwrites) for the best Pelicans coverage.

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