Pelicans enter NBA Draft needing to find their center of the future

At the end of the 2023-24 regular season, only one game separated the New Orleans Pelicans and the eventual Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks.

Yet there couldn’t be more distance between Dallas’ optimism heading into the offseason after reaching the NBA Finals compared to a New Orleans squad tasked with making some tough roster decisions following an ugly first-round sweep against the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder.

In each of the last two seasons, the Mavericks acquired crucial building blocks via midseason trades, adding Kyrie Irving, PJ Washington, and Daniel Gafford to a roster that desperately needed more firepower around Luka Dončić. But the move that will have the greatest impact on the Mavs’ long-term success will be their draft-day trade last summer to acquire Dereck Lively II in the first round of the 2023 NBA Draft as the young, rim-rolling center to complement Dončić and Irving.

At 20 years old, Lively played a pivotal role in the Mavs’ run through this year’s playoffs with his stout defense and high-flying dunks. His size and skill, combined with his rookie deal, will significantly influence how Dallas can build its roster going forward. Lively’s presence is not just a game-changer on the court but also on the salary sheet.

No team could use their version of a Lively draft pick this summer more than the Pelicans.

They’ve been immersed in trade rumors over the past month, as Brandon Ingram’s future becomes murkier by the day with the Pelicans’ reluctance to offer him a four-year, $208 million max extension this offseason, league sources told The Athletic.

Finding a resolution to the Ingram situation — whether through a trade or a new extension — is the main priority for New Orleans this summer. However, a close second has to be finding an answer at the center position that will satisfy the team’s needs in the short and long term.

Jonas Valančiūnas is entering unrestricted free agency this summer after starting at center for the Pelicans each of the last three seasons. As reliable as he’s been, the writing was on the wall for his eventual exit as his playing time saw a steep decline during the final two months of the regular season. As the Pelicans relied more upon Zion Williamson as the primary creator on offense, Valančiūnas’ inability to space the floor made him a tough fit. I’d be fairly surprised if he’s back in a Pelicans uniform next season.

This team desperately needs a shot of youth and athleticism at center. It needs someone who can play next to Williamson in the frontcourt for years to come. With so many dynamic centers in the West — Nikola Jokić, Chet Holmgren, Victor Wembanyama, Anthony Davis, etc. — the Pelicans need a more viable answer to run the floor and provide some level of defensive versatility.

Will the Pelicans use the 21st pick in Wednesday’s draft and strike gold like the Mavericks did last year? At the very least, getting a player of Lively’s caliber seems highly unlikely.

However, while this year’s draft class lacks big-name talent at the top of the board, it is very deep at the center position. There are a wide variety of candidates who may be available at 21.

One of the names attached to the Pelicans most recently by several scouts is Baylor’s Yves Missi, a 6-foot-11, 229-pounder with an NBA frame at 20 years old and raw athleticism that makes him a fascinating option next to Zion for the future. Missi is limited on the offensive end, but his agility and explosiveness are rare for a player his size. He has the traits necessary to be the versatile defensive presence the Pelicans have been missing at the 5. If he lasts until No. 21, he’d be a natural fit in New Orleans.

Another option that makes sense in the first round is Indiana center Kel’el Ware. While Ware also has excellent size — 7-0, 230 pounds — he’s more polished offensively as a post scorer and a 3-point shooter. Ware makes more sense as the floor-spacing 5 whom Zion has yet to play with in his career. While Ware’s offense makes him quite appealing, his foot speed isn’t at the level of Missi’s, and it’ll probably limit what he can do as a defender from day one. Some have compared Ware as more of a Brook Lopez-type big if he does work out. The shooting and rim protection Lopez brings make him an exciting comparison for Ware, but Lopez’s defensive limitations have made him a target at times in Milwaukee.

Another polarizing figure who could be available in the Pelicans’ range is Purdue’s Zach Edey, who is one of the largest men to ever enter the NBA Draft at 7-foot-4, 299 pounds. The sheer mass of an Edey-Williamson frontcourt would be daunting for many teams. Edey brings a lot of positives, but his obvious limitations in space make him a scary prospect for the Pels to target. He’d probably make more sense elsewhere.

Others, like Dayton’s DaRon Holmes II and Duke’s Kyle Filipowski, could also make sense, but like Missi, Ware and Edey, they bring other negatives that are to be expected for any player who slips into the 20s.

The Pelicans could also jump into the trade waters to address the center position. The front office has done it three times to find a starting center in the five years Zion has been a Pelican.

New Orleans traded for Derrick Favors in 2019, followed by a trade to get Steven Adams in 2020 before adding Valančiūnas in 2021. There will be a few options on the trade market that make sense for the Pelicans, but finding the right financial fit may complicate things for a few of their potential targets.

One player the Pelicans have been intrigued by in the past is Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. All signs point to the Nets wanting him back. Still, after Brooklyn agreed to deal Mikal Bridges to crosstown rival New York Knicks on Tuesday for a haul of picks, it’s almost guaranteed that a line of teams will be reaching out to see how much the Nets would like to get away from some of their veteran mainstays. Claxton will likely demand north of $20 million on the open market. Will the Pelicans be open to paying a player of his caliber that much, especially if acquiring him becomes difficult with the lack of salary cap space they’re working with?

Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen has been connected to the Pelicans regularly over the past few seasons, and while several people in the Pelicans front office respect Allen at a high level, much of the recent reporting out of Cleveland has indicated that Allen is likely to return with his former Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson, who was recently hired to take over in Cleveland.

Clint Capela is another option who makes sense. Atlanta and the Pelicans were already involved in talks centered around a potential Dejounte Murray deal leading into the trade deadline in February, so it makes sense to revisit the possibility of some deal framed around Ingram in exchange for Murray and Capela. The big question is how much Atlanta would be interested in a deal like that and the inevitable large payday the Hawks would have to give Ingram.

There are also some obvious questions about the fit with a potential lineup that features Murray-Herb Jones-Trey Murphy-Zion-Capela. Is Murray potent enough to be a reliable No. 2 option against other big-time teams in a Western Conference playoff series? Would the Pelicans shy away from Capela, knowing he’s on an expiring $22 million contract going into next season? That would suddenly pressure them to either give Capela a new deal or brace for another summer filled with questions about the center position a year from now.

Looking into younger bigs such as Utah’s Walker Kessler or Detroit’s Jalen Duren could also be an intriguing option if the Pelicans can craft an Ingram deal that makes sense with either of those teams. Detroit’s recent hiring of former Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon will make the Pistons an obvious choice among potential Ingram trade suitors. But considering the win-now pressure that’ll be on the front office and coaching staff if an Ingram deal ever becomes a reality, trading him for young guys and picks would probably feel more like a step in the wrong direction.

As much as getting the best player possible in return for Ingram is the preferred route, finding a suitable answer at the center position for the short- and long-term is certainly a factor that’ll come into play with anyone involved in Ingram trade talks. Trading Ingram just to get a trustworthy starting center certainly isn’t the path the Pelicans hope to take in the coming days. Whether through the draft or in the trade market, the Pelicans must find the right answer at the 5. If they can’t, competing with the best in the West will be too difficult, even if they do convince Ingram to stick around.

(Photo of Zion Williamson and Jonas Valančiūnas: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)

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