METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Pelicans enter this offseason holding an opt-out for their entire worldview. With Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson -- pillars of the post-Chris Paul era -- set to hit free agency, and Anthony Davis locked in for at least the next four years, the Pelicans have an opportunity to take a step back from the win-now strategy that has dominated their personnel moves over the past three seasons and prioritize for the future.
When they were finally on the clock at No. 6 overall in the 2016 NBA draft, the crossroads moment became particularly pronounced.
With Kris Dunn, a favorite of evaluators around the league, selected one spot before them, the Pelicans, in desperate need of help on the wing in Alvin Gentry's 3-pointer-happy offense, had their choice of the draft’s top shooters: Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray. A 22-year-old college star who could conceivably contribute sooner and a 19-year-old with a higher ceiling but time needed to reach it. The type of player that the Pelicans have prioritized in the Davis era versus the kind they have left on the table.
In the end, they stayed the course.
“We targeted Buddy. He’s the guy we wanted here,” general manager Dell Demps said. “We wanted Buddy in a Pelican uniform. He’s one of the guys when we came into the draft we were hoping to walk out with.”
So much so that Demps said he was excited when he saw other players coming off the board.
“I’m usually pretty even-keeled, but I started to get excited,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one. Demps said Pelicans player development coach Jamelle McMillan raved about Hield’s performance at Adidas Nation camp last summer.
“Every chance [Jamelle] could, he just talked about him,” Demps said. “The work ethic, the intensity, showing up for the big moments. That’s something we’re excited to have. But I also have to say he’s going to be a rookie. Rookies have a learning curve. He’s gonna have to take some steps. But we’re excited about the possibilities.”
Hield was a bona fide star for Oklahoma -- a résumé bullet not to be overlooked by a franchise searching for notoriety both nationally and locally -- en route to winning this year’s Wooden Award given to the top college player. His scorching 46 percent from beyond the shorter 3-point arc last season should slide in nicely as the Pelicans look to space around a quality Davis-Jrue Holiday pick-and-roll.
His suspect defense joining the NBA’s 28th-ranked unit? Not as great of a fit. But in a class lacking potential All-Stars, filling a clear need, for just under $3 million this season, is a victory to start off what figures to be a long summer.
The concerns start to creep in when you pull back to the long view. Hield ranked 28th on Kevin Pelton’s stats-only draft board because of his lack of production early in his college career, which tends to be a more accurate forecast of a player's pro potential. Hield shot just 23.8 percent from 3 and 38.8 percent from the floor as a freshman; Murray, whose low steal rate also elicits questions on defense, shot 41 percent and 45 percent in his lone season at Kentucky, and thus checks in at No. 15. Factor in scouting assessments from Chad Ford’s board, and you’re left with about a one-point disparity in projected WARP in favor of the youngin’.
“A lot of times in the draft process, it’s ready versus risk projections,” Demps said. “All of that came into play. The thing about [Hield] is he keeps getting better every year. It was big improvements. He could have come out last season, [but] elected to come back and work on his game. Oklahoma definitely benefited from it, and now the Pelicans can, too.”
In the second round, New Orleans went the opposite route, packaging Nos. 39 and 40 and moving up to 33 in order to select Cheick Diallo, a fiery, raw 19-year-old with just 27 college games to his name (as a result of eligibility concerns at Kansas) but lots of room to grow.
“We like what he’s gonna bring, and his attitude and his energy,” Demps said. “When you talk to so many people about him, and everybody says the same thing: ‘Is he a good kid? No, no, he’s not a good kid, he’s a great kid, he’s a phenomenal kid.’ In our interview process with him, when he walked out the room, we’re all sitting there like, ‘Wow!’ We just listened to this guy. You root for him. You really do.”
After a disappointing 2015-16 season, such hope, no matter what form it comes in, is a worthwhile acquisition.