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New Orleans Pelicans X-Factor: Devonte’ Graham

As the NBA season approaches and the preseason coming to an end, we’ll be taking a look at the player on each team that holds the key to unlocking their potential, and for the New Orleans Pelicans, the attention turns to Devonte’ Graham.

The Pelicans turned over a large portion of their roster during the 2021 offseason, with Lonzo Ball, Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe and others exiting New Orleans. While the specter of Zion Williamson’s recovery from foot surgery looms over everything with the franchise, the Pelicans do have reasons for optimism with their new additions. Graham is at the center of that positivity, with New Orleans hoping he can recapture his 2019-20 form in a different locale.

Graham, a former second-round pick, enjoyed a breakout in 2019-20 when he averaged 18.2 points and 7.5 assists per game for Charlotte. The 6’1 guard connected on 37.3 percent of his three-pointers (on huge volume) and, even after a 2020-21 season that saw some statistical regression for Graham, he is appealing for any offense.

For one, Graham is a very willing pull-up shooter that opposing defenses have to respect when he has the ball within 30 feet of the rim. His career three-point percentage (36.3 percent) doesn’t necessarily paint the full picture, as Graham takes difficult attempts at high volume. In fact, he has buried more than 42 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes over the last two years and, on a team with Williamson and Brandon Ingram, he should be freed up to work off the ball with impunity. Graham is also a quality passer, and he has real gravity that should work well on a team with play finishers all over the roster.

With that said, Graham does have real pressure to be efficient and productive. The Pelicans are certainly weighing pressures, both internal and external, as they attempt to build a winner around Williamson, and New Orleans used a real chip to land Graham in a sign-and-trade scenario. The Pelicans do have young guards like Kira Lewis and Nickeil Alexander-Walker behind him, but it is clear that New Orleans fancies Graham as their primary starting point guard. Graham isn’t exactly known for his defensive excellence either, and his two-way performance could go a long way toward illustrating the team’s ceiling.

Williamson’s health and performance is the No. 1 factor in New Orleans, and both Ingram and Valanciunas have more star power at this stage. However, Graham’s performance could swing a lot for the Pelicans. His defensive concerns could be magnified if the Pelicans don’t receive better effort and performance on that end from their stars. Then, Graham is a career 39.5 percent two-point shooter, and if the three-point shooting and passing don’t jump off the screen, the door could be open for more playing time for Lewis, Alexander-Walker or others. That isn’t exactly what the Pelicans were hoping for when they acquired Graham, and there may be a spotlight on the team’s starting point guard from the opening tip.