Naji Marshall is Earning Minutes by Stealing Space

The New Orleans Pelicans are somewhere between the fringes of the playoffs and the race to the top of the lottery. Injuries have taken a toll on the Pelicans’ roster, paving the way for rookie Naji Marshall to take advantage of meaningful minutes in the wing rotation.

When I did my draft work last season, I gravitated towards Xavier because of how joyful it was to watch Naji Marshall. The best way to describe Marshall at Xavier would be like the Pokemon Ditto; able to morph to any situation. Marshall was Xavier’s go to wing-stopper, primary facilitator, and de-facto scorer in his junior season.

He started his freshman campaign as a sixth man and eventually took over a starting spot on Xavier’s best regular season team in school history, earning their first ever one seed in the NCAA Tournament. After one year as a high end role player, Xavier graduated nearly two-thirds of their rotational minutes played and points scored. Enter: Naji Marshall primary initiator.

While the Musketeers had two leaner years trying to find their way as a young team, Marshall grew immensely as a player between his first and third year. Those on-ball reps were vital in broadening the horizons of his skillset, honing his ability as a playmaker and decision-maker, which has helped him excel in the NBA early.

So what’s been special about Marshall and how has he found early and replicable success with the Pelicans? First and foremost, Naji is happy to be here. One of my favorite parts about watching Naji recently has been the little fist pump he does nearly every time anything positive happens for the Pels on court. You won’t be able to unsee it now that I’ve pointed it out.

Naji is happy to be here, wholesome

It’s a small thing, but these little aspects that I pick up on going back through a game always stand out. Marshall is an undrafted player on a two-way contract. He knows the gravity of his play and the importance of his impact in regards to parlaying a guaranteed deal (which I think he’ll get).

Marshall’s Defensive Presence

Naji Marshall has made an immediate impact on the Pelicans defensively both on and off ball. He’s 6’7 with a near +6 wingspan, and is fantastic at utilizing his frame. Marshall’s combination of size, length, and positioning make him comfortably the best wing defender on the roster not named Lonzo Ball.

Marshall does a great job as a helper with his ability to shift laterally to dig into the paint, and then also close-out with controlled burst to contain the corner. Again, it’s the small things. Nothing is sexy about this play in general, but notice the minor movements Marshall makes. He’s able to angle and stay squared up on Elfrid Payton as he penetrates the paint, semi-contests as Payton kicks out, explodes out of the jump to the corner, all while keeping his arms splayed out up to avoid fouling while still cramping passing angles.

By staying composed on the close-out, he makes it much harder for RJ Barrett to drive from the corner and contains him well with his hips and agility. This is awesome stuff that pops to me!

While I wouldn’t consider Marshall a significant threat as a rim protector, he shows flashes rotating as the low man. He’s active off-ball and sniffs out the right opportunities to make a play, although I wish he would just go for the contest earlier sometimes.

New Orleans’ scheme favors retaining structure on the perimeter, thus Marshall is wary of committing too early in help. But often times this results in him being caught between his man and the player he’s helping onto. This was a common theme and easy to pinpoint when identifying some of the struggles for New Orleans all season. Regardless, Marshall makes the right plays much more often than not, and uses his length well to contest and deter shots from happening.

I mean, just watch this. Naji is EXCELLENT at tracking opposing players off-ball. He can struggle at times with screen navigation, because he is all limbs, but when he locks on, he’s like the freaking Terminator and he won’t stop until the play drawn up for you dies.

Cedi and Delly had no chance (There also was like no second action? The Cavs offense remains the Cavs offense).

Naji Marshall welcomes Bradley Beal to The Terrordome. Admittedly, Daniel Gafford’s screen is pretty poor, but don’t let this lead you astray from Marshall tracking a top 5 off-ball mover in the league and denying the ball.

Just watch this ability to recover with both his length and quickness. I really want to see him play low like this more often, dipping his shoulder to get skinny over screens. When he doesn’t get caught high, he can force lesser ballhandlers and intiators out of advantages, and that’s not an easy thing to do.

My comp for Marshall coming out in the draft was a toolsier Torrey Craig with a bit more athletic pop. This tracks still because one of the few weaknesses for Naji right now is at the point of attack against like-size or bigger players. He’s fantastic at using his length as has already been noted, but his base is pretty high up and he doesn’t have the strongest lower body or core right now.

Marshall goes under the screen on Lamar Stevens and is in great position, but Stevens powers right through and over him.

Exhibit B: Marshall expertly flows from digging on Randle out to the point of attack on Alec Burks. But, Burks gets into Marshall’s chest on the drive, knocks him off base, and creates space for himself to get off an open look.

Marshall is already a plus defender with great attention to detail and awareness, improving his individual strength would be a boon to his own play and New Orleans’ defense as a whole.

Playmaking, Quick Decisions, & Spacing

I want to simultaneously talk about Naji Marshall’s ability to space the floor and create for others. While they’re different skills, they both feed into the same goal: optimizing space.

Zion Williamson has exploded over the past few months as one of the most dynamic and powerful offensive drivers in basketball, eviscerating defenses with the precise domination of the Hammer of Dawn. As Zion gashes Zion sized holes in opposing defenses, how can his teammates both capitalize on that space and also accentuate it?

The typical line of thought here is shooting, and that’s not wrong! However, I’d actually posit that the ability to attack an already tilted defense can be just as impactful as shooting, sometimes more so. Jake Rosen wrote a great piece on second side creation that I’d reccomend reading, as it really helped me piece together more of my own thoughts on advantage attacking and space optimization.

I wrote about Thaddeus Young’s “anti-gravity”, or his ability to help the offense maintain proper spacing despite lack of a consistent jump shot. I see some similar attributes in Marshall, although packaged differently. Marshall has shot 33.3% from three on low volume since entering the regular rotation, and that seems about right given his shooting in college and relatively average to slightly below free throw shooting. He certainly could be making strides as a shooter, but the numbers are fairly volatile this early on.

While Naji may not consistently be spacing himself, he’s able to attack the space that Zion creates. This in tandem with his ability to reach the paint and make quick decisions opens up a great deal for the offense and his individual playmaking.

In the following play, Naji attacks off the initial pick and roll, causing the defense to shift and sink into the paint, and finds Lonzo an easy look off a relocation.

Off 2nd Drive

Marshall is fantastic at the last second no-look pass off a drive

Catch and Drive

It’s been really cool to see Marshall’s confidence grow this month, as well as Stan Van Gundy’s faith in him. Naji brings the ball up the court fairly regularly, which seems minor, but gives versatility in how an offense gets set up in the halfcourt and some of their initial actions.

We’re even seeing some of that play out in pick and roll! The ability to get downhill and manipulate defenders with his vision is huge. He’s already quite good at finding the roller or a man open in the dunker spot.

Eye Manipulation!

He’s also started to develop a fun chemistry with Jaxson Hayes as his screener and in transition as well. The Pelicans have some of the most untapped potential in the league in terms of elite athleticism. More Hayes/Marshall lob plays please!

Naji Marshall is an ideal fit alongside Zion as a player who can build upon what Zion creates while bolstering some of his weaknesses. Quick decisons, ballhandling, and the ability to play sound defense can’t be understated. He isn’t reliable at creating his own looks at a high level yet, and that’s okay. He doesn’t need to.

Watching him at Xavier, unsure of what he’d look like in the NBA, and seeing him translate this well has been such a joy to watch. The talent and skill was clearly there for him and I think the shooting was overblown in some regards. Shooting can be worked on, Naji’s got very good overall feel for the game and that just can’t be taught.

While Marshall certainly has room to grow as a player, he’s earned his rotation spot and he’s making an immediate impact. I’d be more than surprised if the Pelicans didn’t sign Marshall to a guaranteed deal, it’d simply be a mistake not to.

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