When basketball season tips off later this year, New Orleans Pelicans forward Naji Marshall won’t be part of the debut of Birmingham’s G League franchise, but Squadron players might benefit from having Marshall deliver an inspirational pregame speech via Zoom from 300-plus miles away. Undrafted in 2020, the Xavier (Ohio) product rapidly became a G League success story, going from rarely seeing the court for the Pelicans early last season, to starting 10 times in April and May, to leading an unbeaten summer league team in August.
“Just stay ready and show you’re ready to work,” Marshall said, when asked what advice he would give to Birmingham players. “Go out there and play hard, take advantage of every opportunity you get. Stay in the lab, be a great person, just the same things I did. Stick with it. It can be a frustrating process, but (embrace) every chance you get to show what you can do.”
Looking back at a whirlwind last nine months for him, Marshall recognizes that his G League experience was extremely valuable. The 6-foot-7, 220-pounder only appeared in three of New Orleans’ first 37 regular season games in 2020-21, but after returning to the Crescent City from a successful stint in the G League bubble, the 23-year-old played in each of the final 25 contests.
The G League’s 2020-21 campaign was an unusual one for all involved, consisting of a 15-game regular season and an abbreviated playoff format. Marshall averaged 15.5 points and 5.4 rebounds, helping Erie go 11-4, before being eliminated by eventual champion Lakeland.
In the span of less than a month, Marshall demonstrated what he’s capable of doing against professional competition, something that hadn’t been possible while he was on the Pelicans’ early-season roster.
“Obviously (the Pelicans) wanted to know if my game and my skill set transferred over (to the pro level from college),” Marshall said of the importance of his G League action. “So being able to show it, and being able to play the way I did, it got me prepared to come back to the Pelicans.”
Birmingham players will have a much different day-to-day G League experience in 2021-22. Instead of traveling to Orlando and being isolated for a portion of basketball season, the Squadron will benefit from the opportunity to play home games in refurbished Legacy Arena. They’ll be a five-hour drive from New Orleans throughout ’21-22, allowing them to shuttle back and forth between the Gulf South cities when needed, something that wasn’t possible last winter.
Although last season’s G League bubble may have been a less-than-ideal way to begin a pro career, Marshall focused on what he needed to do to put himself in the best position to seize on chances to contribute. His perspective also could serve as an ideal mentality for Squadron players, as they prepare to launch G League basketball in Birmingham this winter.
“I was just waiting for my moment, being ready for whatever that was,” Marshall said of the initial uncertainty surrounding his rookie season. “Whether it was the G League or the NBA, or summer league. Everything I’ve done throughout my life has prepared me for this moment, and every opportunity I get, I’m confident I can take advantage of it.”