Welcome to our new offseason series “Immediate Impacts.” Most rookies don’t provide positive value to their teams right out of the gate. But as we saw last season with guys like Jalen Williams, Walker Kessler and Keegan Murray, some rookies can help their teams from Day 1. Over the next few months, we’ll break down ways that members of this incoming class can have that very effect.
The New Orleans Pelicans need a healthy Zion Williamson to be great.
That is indisputable. But even when he’s on the floor, their current roster still has one glaring weakness on that end of the court: shooting.
And on Dec. 19, 2022, this shortcoming was on full display as the visiting Milwaukee Bucks ventured into the Smoothie King Arena and used their bounty of size and length to pack the paint and stifle the Pelicans’ superstar. In total, they held Williamson to 18 points on 7-of-16 shooting. And more importantly, they left New Orleans with a 128-119 victory.
The reason they could afford to pack the paint on Williamson the way they did is that Pelicans regularly allocate playing time to a handful of non-shooters. Guys like Herbert Jones, Jonas Valanciunas, Jose Alvarado, Naji Marshall, Dyson Daniels and Willy Hernangomez all received significant minutes in the game (and throughout the season).
The Pelicans ended the 2022-23 campaign ranking 23rd in 3-pointers made (11.0) and 29th in 3-pointers attempted (29.1) – both strong indicators of their most damaging offensive problem.
During his second (and final) season at UConn, Jordan Hawkins, the Pelicans’ first-round draft choice, converted on 38.8% of the 7.6 3-point attempts he took per game. Even more impressive, his 88.7 free-throw percentage (free throws are a great context-independent measure of a player’s shooting ability) was the second-best mark in the Big East (and 20th in the entire NCAA).
Hawkins will undoubtedly improve the team’s overall shooting, which will serve to clean up the streets for Williamson to wreak havoc on the inside. But unlike their other prized sharpshooter, Trey Murphy III, Hawkins isn’t just a spot-up specialist.
Just as we’d call someone like Jaden McDaniels a versatile defender, Hawkins is a versatile shooter. He can drain standstill catch-and-shoot jumpers with the best of them. But he can also bury them while coming off screens, using side steps, relocating back to the perimeter, and in transition.
Hawkins’ ability to operate and shoot while moving around like that also makes him an asset in the dribble handoff game – a play type that played a pivotal role in the Sacramento Kings’ march to becoming the best offensive team in basketball. (They ranked first in our adjusted offensive ratings during the regular season.)
According to AutoStats tracking data, Hawkins averaged .105 dribble handoffs received per touch (which ranked in the 87th percentile in the NCAA) and scored .328 points per handoff (85th percentile).
Looking at the bigger picture, Hawkins’ ability to get into his shot in so many different ways turns him into an off-ball playmaker. Think about how super snipers like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Reggie Miller all are/were able to get defenses to overreact to their movements and leave other players on the floor unaccounted for just to keep them from burning them with their jumper.
Hawkins still has a ways to go before he’s in the same tax bracket of shooting as those gentlemen, but he did flash some of that same pedigree during his time with the Huskies.
Now, imagine it’s Williamson setting that off-ball screen for Hawkins. Think about how that decreases the margin for error defensively. If opponents accidentally overreact to Hawkins, they run the risk of conceding a layup to Williamson (one of the best paint scorers in basketball). If the screen navigator gets caught in the screen, Hawkins – the dead-eye shooter we’ve been waxing poetic about – is left with an open 3.
No matter how you slice, the defense has to be airtight on those sequences. That’s like needing a 99 percent on your final to pass the class – not exactly a position you want to be in!
With all that said, the game is rapidly evolving, and you can no longer get away with just being a shooter. Defenses are smarter than ever, and they have created tactics (like the fly-by closeout) designed to run shooters off the line and force them to beat the defense off the dribble.
We broke down Murphy’s game last season and raved about his ability to drive these aggressive closeouts. And while he was in college, Hawkins flashed the ability to be a similar type of attacker.
It is worth noting, however, that these flashes are exactly that: flashes. Hawkins still has a ways to go as a driver. He struggles to finish with his left hand, and as a result, he’ll put himself in some awkward situations to get to his right hand. And due to his slighter build, he also struggles to absorb contact when exploding at the rim.
[Sidebar: Hawkins also isn’t as tall as Murphy (6-foot-5 compared to 6-foot-9) or as vertically gifted, so his upside in that area isn’t nearly as prolific.]
On defense, Hawkins’ steal percentage of 1.4 (26th percentile in the Big East, per KenPom) doesn’t scream defensive playmaker. But he is positionally sound with a strong understanding of defensive rotations. He’s also got some lockdown moments on his college resume as an on-ball defender.
His aforementioned slight build (and penchant for picking up ticky-tack fouls) could lead to some growing pains early on as he adjusts to the NBA game. But overall, Hawkins profiles as someone who can hold his own on that end, which is all the Pelicans will need from him if he’s going to provide all the shooting and gravity we alluded to.
A conversation about Hawkins’ long-term ceiling is better suited for March. For now, in the short-term, Hawkins has a chance to be the rare rookie who makes an immediate impact in the NBA – by staying afloat on defense, using his shooting to space the floor for Williamson, and using his movement/gravity to create open looks for his teammates.
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