At the start of the NBA season, very few, if any, expected a 23-year-old G-league rookie to have a massive effect on an NBA team. However, as the injuries piled up for the New Orleans Pelicans, the “next man up” mentality became even more important. Such was the case for Naji Marshall.
When guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker and forward Josh Hart received injuries that would keep them out long term, head coach Stan Van Gundy decided to give Naji Marshall a chance to prove himself. The rookie from Xavier found himself in a position to get some valuable minutes in an NBA game, and he took full advantage of the opportunity.
In an April 2nd loss against the Atlanta Hawks, Marshall received his first real taste of an NBA game. He played 30 minutes which was more than he has seen in the rest of the season combined. Marshall only saw 23 minutes in seven games combined before the Hawks game, per espn.com.
Naji Steps Up
In what can truly be dubbed his debut game, Naji Marshall posted nine points, five rebounds, and one assist in his first-ever NBA start. Although these are not strikingly large numbers, Naji made his presence felt by the opponents. His energy and hustle brought fire to the team when they needed it, and he proved that he has what it takes to be a factor in an NBA game. Marshall continued to get the nod from Van Gundy as his usual players battled through injuries.
Although Marshall was starting for Brandon Ingram, he made his case as a starter to such a degree that it was nearly impossible to validate taking him out just yet. Guard Lonzo Ball missed even more time after returning from an injury, and Marshall was selected to continue to take his place in the starting lineup. Marshall’s versatility and energy have proven time and again that he can have a lasting impact on a game.
In the next game against the Houston Rockets, Marshall posted double-digit points for the first time in his young career. In 24 minutes of play, Marshall put up 12 points, four rebounds, and five assists and was a big factor in the crushing win.
Naji Earns the Respect of His Team
It became clear that Naji would be a big factor for the foreseeable future as some key players remained sidelined for the Pelicans. The biggest game for the young up-and-comer was against the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 11th.
In an interview following the game, it came out that Marshall was given the game ball and called the “MVP of the game” by his own head coach. Star forward Zion Williamson also said that the win would not have been possible without Marshall’s play. When asked what this meant to him, Marshall had this to say:
Just want to be able to do it again, not making it a one-time thing. Every time I step on the floor, whether I play or not, whether a guy is out or not, that’s what I bring to the table: energy, competitiveness, hard-nosed on defense, and (want) to win by any means.” Marshall recognizes what he is capable of and looks to bring that to each and every game.Zion Williamson
As he continued to rack up consecutive games with solid minutes, Marshall made his impact felt in every aspect. Similar to what Josh Hart brings to the team, Marshall’s hustle and energy have the ability to swing a game’s momentum in favor of his team.
Naji’s Role on the Team Moving Forward
In multiple post-game press interviews, Naji has said he just tries to make the game as easy as possible on Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. In his interview following the Knicks game on April 14th, Marshall was asked if his role as an off-ball player was new to him. Marshall responded by relating it to his college days, “Nah, not really. My freshman year coming into college I played off the ball a lot for Trayvon and JP and it’s kinda the same thing for BI and Z.” Naji’s willingness to take on whatever role is thrown his way allows him to be one of the premier plug-and-play players that the Pelicans have.
Moving forward, the question is coming up as to what the Pelicans do with Marshall. The obvious answer seems to be to keep him, but will he be put into a more impactful role? If the Pelicans decide to move on from Eric Bledsoe and/or Lonzo Ball this offseason, who would take the starting roster spot(s)? Would Van Gundy run a backcourt of Alexander-Walker and Marshall? Would Josh Hart get the start if he decides to re-sign?
There are a lot of questions up in the air for the Pelicans’ future right now, but it seems that Naji Marshall needs to be included in them.