Making a Difference: How Larry Nance Jr. Elevates the Pelicans’ Second Unit

For the New Orleans Pelicans, rostering sturdy backup bigs has been critical in the Zion Williamson era. Williamson is a generational challenge with the chance to lead a team to a title as its best player if unencumbered by health complications. But Zion has played just 114 games in his first four NBA seasons, necessitating the presence of a complementary big like Larry Nance Jr. in the Pelicans’ rotation.

Veteran Versatility

Playing 21.2 minutes a night at the backup five spot, Nance’s defensive presence and interior scoring help out the rest of the Pelicans’ offensive-oriented stars. Defense is Nance’s main strength as a reliable shot blocker, defensive playmaker (2.0% steal rate) and sound help defender from all over the floor.

With excellent awareness and instincts, Nance functions well as the last line of defense, stealing passes and rotating into help positions to deter drives with his speed and quickness. He’s a fairly versatile pick-and-roll defender as well. Nance, unlike New Orleans’ other bigs, has the mobility and coordination to play higher up and operate some blitz/hedge defensive schemes, allowing the Pelicans some much-needed defensive flexibility.

He’s not a perfect defender as he doesn’t protect the rim at a high level, hindered by his often inconsistent technique and lack of dominant size at the center spot where he tends to play. Tracking Nance’s health will be key as he missed last season’s play-in game with an ankle injury. Losing any vertical athleticism will hurt Nance as leaping ability on both ends is a pillar of his game as a rim defender and as an above-the-rim finisher.

Look Out Below

That scoring at the basket is how Nance primarily drives his offensive value. Nance dunked the ball 66 times last year and often ranks toward the top of the league in that category despite playing fewer games and minutes than many players above and below him. Converting easy looks at the rim fuels his elite scoring efficiency (64.9% true shooting, +12 relative true shooting).

Nance scores positively from floater range as well, hitting 55.1% of his shots from 3-10 feet last season. That places him in the top 20 in that zone last season (>1000 minutes played). He floats into that mid paint area after screening or cutting or grabbing and offensive board and can dribble there himself in certain actions when the play calls for it.

Though Nance isn’t a perfect live-dribble playmaker as he can make poor decisions with the ball in his hands, Nance comfortably operates as as a high-post hub. He flows into dribble handoffs and ball screen and can dribble himself into defensive soft spots to set himself or his teammates up for shots. Passing to cutters from the high-post and finding open teammates while handling with a numbers advantage is all Nance needs to add positive value as a handler and a passer in a complementary offensive role.

Larry Nance Jr. is as sturdy and reliable as backup bigs in the NBA come. His defensive versatility and high-value offensive skills render him a competent option as a backup or spot starter whenever his team needs him to do so. And on a Pelicans team that can’t seem to stay fully healthy, that presence is all the more critical for their success.

Written by contributor Ben Pfeifer.


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