Naji Marshall deserves a fully-guaranteed contract
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
The injury bug has taken a gargantuan bite out of the NBA within the last month.
Jamal Murray went down just a few days ago with an ACL injury that will keep him out for the remainder of the year, Donovan Mitchell just went down with an ankle injury that will keep him out for several games, Anthony Davis and LeBron James incurred achilles and ankle injuries within weeks of one another, COVID-19 protocol has kept a multitude of players out for a barrage of games and the list goes on.
Among some of the league’s top players, the New Orleans Pelicans have been unable to stave off these unfortunate setbacks as well. Zion Williamson dealt with a sprained thumb, Brandon Ingram suffered a toe injury, Lonzo Ball incurred a hip flexor strain, Nickeil Alexander-Walker is still out with a moderate left-ankle sprain, Josh Hart is expected to miss the rest of the season receiving surgery for a torn UCL his right thumb and Jaxson Hayes is currently day-to-day with back spasms.
And thus, the Pels signed Isaiah Thomas to a ten-day contract, and Wes Iwundu, James Johnson, Billy Hernangomez and Naji Marshall were thrust into significantly more playing time they may not have received otherwise.
While Johnson and Hernangomez could have been expected to offer meaningful minutes over this stretch without a large portion of the team healthy, few could have expected what Marshall has brought to the table for the Pelicans since the beginning of April.
Over the last nine games, the undrafted, two-way player has contributed 9.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists and a steal per game while shooting 36% from three in 27.3 minutes a game. And that’s just what is on the box score.
Marshall has stepped into a significant role, largely defending the opposing team’s best players, and has made it difficult on them each and every night. Marshall chases over screens, denies the ball, makes the ball-handler take difficult angles and makes winning plays all around. He injects whatever lineup he joins with intensity and a desire to win that many who have guaranteed contracts can’t (or don’t) offer. He has value in the NBA.
It’s easy for a player like that to become a fan favorite as well. Not only that, but the Xavier product has become quickly adored by the Pelicans’ color announcer on Ball Sports New Orleans, Antonio Daniels:
It’s more than justified, too. He makes high IQ plays and doesn’t turn the ball over. His three-point shot is just respectable enough for opposing defenders to chase him off the line, and he has the intelligence to attack the basket with ferocity. He often makes the right read in passing up a good shot for himself for one of his teammates to get a great shot.
While all of those compliments are true, the thing about Marshall is that, in all reality, he’s still fairly raw on the offensive end. If he can hone that three-point shot to regularly shoot close to or over 40 percent from deep (“with Fred Vinson all things are possible,” NOLA basketball 4:13), develop more of a soft touch around the rim and use his athleticism to his advantage around the rim, this two-way player could be more than deserving of a fully guaranteed contract sooner rather than later.
And if the Pelicans can lock him up for multiple years on a cheap deal, David Griffin could come out of this (less than ideal) season still looking like a genius.
There are two ways this can go, though. We’ve seen a player of this type in New Orleans the last two seasons: Kenrich Williams, or, as he is more affectionately referred to, Kenny Hustle.
There was a stretch in the 2019-2020 season where Williams looked to have potential to be a regular, grit and grind type player for the Pelicans. Between October 28, 2019 and November 27, 2019, the TCU product on a veteran minimum contract scored in double figures three times and hauled in ten or more rebounds four times. He also shot 44 percent from the field over that stretch.
The now member of the Oklahoma City Thunder was thought as a player who wouldn’t get a ton of minutes, but when he did, he’d offer enough to stay a regular part of the rotation: rebounds, defense and effort plays. Then he got hurt. Then we realized what he was. A player too big and slow to guard guards and wings, and a player too small to guard forwards and centers.
The other side of the coin is a player and a contract like the Thunder also have in Luguentz Dort. Dort made his money just prior to the season shut down and guarding James Harden in the NBA bubble last season. The 6’3”, 215 pound Canadian has a knack for making top-tier players in the league incredibly uncomfortable each and every night. His quick feet, active hands and attentiveness to his opponent’s strengths make Dort one of the most feared defensive players in the league.
But Dort has shown this season that he can be so much more than that. After shooting just 29.7 percent from deep last season and not having the tool box to do much else to help on the offensive end, Dort got into the lab between the bubble and the start of the 2020-2021 season and has shown he can improve, too. The undrafted, two-way threat has become more consistent from deep, shooting 34.3 percent this season, and he’s also literally doubled his scoring output, going from 6.8 to 13.6 points per game, and is averaging career highs in rebounds (3.6), assists (1.6) and steals (1.0) per game. He’s also fouling less on defense while playing seven more minutes a game than he did in 2019-2020.
For those of you who don’t know, Dort is currently on a four-year, $5.4 million-dollar deal. For upside and what he currently offers the Thunder, this might be the biggest steal league-wide.
If the Pelicans truly believe in what Naji Marshall brings and who he can be going forward. This type of contract may be one of the best moves Griff will have made in his tenure as the vice president of basketball operations for the Pelicans. It’s more-or-less risk averse, too. Should Marshall just be another Kenny Hustle, the deal hardly affects the Pels’ flexibility going forward. Sure, it’s a roster spot, but with the way Zion and B.I. are playing right now, and if New Orleans can start to trend in the upward direction, who’s to say other talented role players won’t want to join what’s going on in the Big Easy?
There’s no guarantee Marshall can be what Lu Dort has been for OKC (for many reasons, largely because of frame, Marshall will have more defensive versatility), but if he can continue to develop on the offensive end and never relents his outlandish effort on the defensive end, Naji Marshall may be one of the biggest diamonds found in the rough throughout the NBA.