Two years removed from coaching in the NBA, Stan Van Gundy was looking for a “great opportunity” before returning. He believes he’s found just that in the New Orleans Pelicans, a team equipped with what he called two of the more unique talents in the league in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.
Van Gundy said Ingram, the 2019-20 NBA Most Improved Player, can play the game like a point guard at times, and he didn’t want to label Williamson as a power forward or a center just yet.
“I think you have a vision what [Williamson] is, which is a multi-talented guy,” Van Gundy told reporters Tuesday at his introductory news conference. “He is an unbelievable playmaker for a guy at his size. He’s a guy who can take the ball off the glass and lead the break and make plays. He can make passes off the dribble. He can finish over bigger people inside. He’s a multi-talented guy. I don’t look at him in any way as far as is he a four or a five. I’m not sure those labels matter when it comes to him.”
Van Gundy added that the plan will be to try to build around Williamson as much as possible.
“I think as we study and try to get more definitive and talk to Zion about what he likes,” Van Gundy said, “I think it’s more what positions we want to put him in and who is best around him and things like that. It’s not limiting him to a position. I think we’ll get to a starting point of that at the start of the season and my guess is as time goes on, I’m going to find out that he can do even more than I think he can do and things will evolve from there.”
Another improved player for the Pelicans this past season was point guard Lonzo Ball, who took a big jump in his three-point shooting. Ball shot 31.5 percent from deep in his first two NBA seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, but that jumped to 37.5 in his first season in New Orleans.
Van Gundy said Ball might be the best player in the NBA in advancing the ball up the floor quickly to keep the defense off-balance. He added that Ball’s shooting can help to space the floor and give players like Williamson, Ingram and Jrue Holiday more room to create offense. He also compared Ball to JJ Redick, who Van Gundy coached in Orlando, in terms of having a slow start to their careers before figuring things out down the line. He said that based on what he’s seen on film, Ball is a “very smart basketball player.”
“Smart basketball players eventually figure it out,” Van Gundy said. “I went through that with JJ Redick. Granted, I mean he came in and it took him a little bit of time to build his career. But smart, hardworking guys figure it out as times goes on and continue to improve. So I think as good as Lonzo is now, and he’s very good, I think that we can expect a good arc of improvement for him over the next few years.”
The Pelicans finished last season 21st in the NBA in defensive rating (111.8) and that side of the floor was a clear point of emphasis for why the Pelicans chose to hire Van Gundy.
“I think it’s clear just by the numbers that where this team has to get better is at the defensive end of the floor,” Van Gundy said. “We’re going to have to make a real commitment at that end from a coaching staff point of view. That commitment is to do a great deal of teaching and getting it to where we really understand what we’re doing at that end of the floor.
“From a player’s point of view, the players are going to have to make the commitment that if we want to win at a high level in a very, very talented Western Conference, then we are going to have to be a very good defensive team. They are going to have to put in the time and effort. All of us have to make the commitment to get better at that end.”
Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin praised Van Gundy’s record as a regular-season coach (.577 winning percentage in 907 career games) and pointed out his above-.500 record (48-43) in postseason play. Van Gundy won 60.5 percent of his games in Miami from 2003 to ’06 and increased that percentage to 65.7 in five seasons in Orlando.
But when he got to Detroit in 2014, his teams struggled to find success as they were above .500 just once in four seasons. Van Gundy was also an executive making personnel decisions on those teams, something he won’t have to worry about with Griffin, general manager Trajan Langdon, vice president of basketball operations Swin Cash and assistant general manager Bryson Graham handling those calls.
“I will say this, one of the things I’m really excited about is just getting back into a coaching role and letting [the Pelicans’ front office] worry about that other stuff,” Van Gundy said. “Griff mentioned the other day me watching a draft candidate and I started shaking. I’m not sure that’s what I want to do.
“I’m really excited about just being able to zero back in on our roster, developing the player that we have and getting our team to play the best basketball that we possibly can. That is one of the really exciting things for me coming back after this short layoff.”