In last year’s NBA draft, the New Orleans Pelicans took two players from the South.
At No. 17, the Pelicans selected Trey Murphy, a native of Durham, North Carolina, who shot an impressive 40.1% from 3-point range across three seasons in college.
At No. 35, the Pelicans scooped up Herb Jones, a smart, defensive-minded wing who grew up in the two-stop town of Greensboro, Alabama.
Pelicans decision-makers felt confident that Murphy and Jones addressed major needs. Coming off a disappointing 11th-place finish in the Western Conference, the team badly needed outside shooting and perimeter defense.
But on-court fit wasn’t the only factor in the front office’s draft calculus.
“Both were very, very excited to be here, which was important,” general manager Trajan Langdon said. “We want players, people who want to be here in New Orleans, who want to be part of our organization that we can grow with as a team. And I think we have that with these two guys.”
New Orleans is a non-glamorous NBA market. It is not New York or Los Angeles. In many players’ minds, it is even a notch below Phoenix and Houston.
The Pelicans’ personnel people understand this reality. One of the ways they have tried to address it is by drafting players from the South or from overseas, who they feel are more likely to embrace America’s most interesting city.
David Griffin was hired in April 2019. A month later, Langdon came aboard. In that time, the Pelicans have taken seven players in the first or second round. Of those seven, six are either from the South or grew up outside the US
Alabama is well represented, and so are the Carolinas.
Jones and Kira Lewis Jr., the 13th pick in 2020, attended Alabama, where they were teammates for two seasons.
Murphy grew up in central North Carolina, and he finished his college career at Virginia.
Zion Williamson is from Spartanburg, South Carolina, and he went to Duke for his one and only college season.
The Pelicans’ front office also used picks on players who grew up in Canada and Brazil. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the No. 17 pick in 2019, is from Toronto. Didi Louzada, who went 35th in that same draft, is Brazilian and played professionally in Australia before making the jump to the NBA.
This year, there is a good chance the Pelicans select an international player once again with the No. 8 picks.
Dyson Daniels has fans in New Orleans’ front office. The 6-foot-8 Daniels is a big guard who began playing professionally as a teenager in his native Australia. Daniels spent last season with the G League Ignite and is expected to be taken somewhere in the middle of the lottery.
If Daniels is unavailable, the Pelicans could turn their attention to two players with multicultural backgrounds: Jeremy Sochan and Ousmane Dieng. Sochan’s mother is Polish, his father American. He spent the majority of his childhood in England before playing collegiately for one season at Baylor in Waco, Texas. Dieng is French and Senegalese, and he spent last season with the New Zealand Breakers in the National Basketball League.
The Pelicans’ current front office has been through several bumps while in charge — but to NBA players the perception of playing in New Orleans appears to be changing. One example: CJ McCollum, the president of the NBA Players Association, expressed a desire to make New Orleans his long-term home shortly after the team traded for him in February.
Hiring Willie Green was a major win for a front office that changed head coaches three times in three years. Green helped the Pelicans overcome a 1-12 start last season and make the playoffs, even though Williamson did not play a single minute. But throughout the season, Green maintained that the turnaround would not have been possible without the right types of players.
Jones, a second-round pick, was as responsible for New Orleans’ success as anyone. On a nightly basis, he defended the opposing teams’ best perimeter player. He also led the Pelicans in minutes and finished his rookie season ranked third in the NBA in steals.
In January, Jones had 11 points, four assists and three steals in the Pelicans’ win over the Knicks inside Madison Square Garden. Afterward, a member of the team’s front office asked him what it was like to play in the World’s Most Famous Arena for the first time as a pro.
Jones was nonchalant about it.
The best part about it, he said, was that the Pelicans won.