As disastrous as the New Orleans Pelicans' last season was, it proved the best NBA teams have great stars but also great supporting players. New Orleans was the only team in the Southwest to miss the playoffs, but the difference between another lost season and a playoff run won't be stars like Anthony Davis, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, it will be some players that casual fans might overlook. Meet five Pels who bear watching:
Omer Asik (Center)
Probably the most crucial player to the Pelicans' championship aspirations is also the newest. New Orleans acquired the Turkish big man in a trade with the Houston Rockets, hoping to give the Pelicans one of the more intimidating front courts in the league. The Pelicans' defense, despite leading the league in blocks (mostly thanks to Davis), ranked in the bottom half of the league in terms of efficiency and rebounds. Asik provides a potential solution to both those problems and, if it doesn't work out, he's a free agent after this year.
Ryan Anderson (Forward)
This is all you need to know about Anderson: After he was injured in a game against the Boston Celtics Jan. 3, New Orleans lost nine of its next ten games and all but said goodbye to its playoff hopes. That's no coincidence. Anderson averaged close to 20 points a game before his injury and, most important, helped spread the floor with his long-distance shooting, giving Davis the perfect safety valve in the key. With Anderson on the floor, teams can't just double-team Davis and clog the inside. It's those type of mismatches that the best teams rely on for wins.
For all the new additions the Pelicans have made in the past few seasons, the team sometimes seems to have forgotten about the small forward position. Through the first few days of training camp, it seems as though Salmons has become the Pelicans' starter, despite being, at best, the team's seventh-best player.
The problem is that Salmons hasn't had a statistically memorable season since 2011 and, at small forward, he'll be tasked with guarding superstars like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and (just twice in the regular season, thankfully) LeBron James. With luck, Salmons can fit in as a role player and the team defense can pick him up when Durant and other athletic forwards blow past him in the lane.
Russ Smith (Point Guard)
The rookie from Louisville, Kentucky was a leading scorer on the 2013 NCAA Championship team but still fell to the second round of the NBA draft. He's not likely to see serious minutes if the players ahead of him stay healthy, but Smith has the potential to be a bench scorer who can keep defenses off balance.
A surprise All-American senior year at Brigham Young University and an NCAA Tournament run made Fredette a national star. In the NBA, though, he's struggled to find his former glory. But the Pelicans have so many questions with their guards that even the Jimmer has a shot to make a name for himself coming off the bench.