Injuries create opportunity for several Pelicans
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
Veteran NBA players often tell their younger counterparts that no matter how little they may be getting on the court during a given stretch, it’s important to always be ready to contribute. Based on injuries or other unforeseen factors, you never know when a team may need you. That’s never been more the case than now for the New Orleans Pelicans (15-24), who have lost three key players to injury over a two-week span. With leading scorer Ryan Anderson, starting point guard Jrue Holiday and starting center Jason Smith all sidelined, some of the trio’s less-experienced teammates have been thrust into larger roles.
While the headlines of late understandably have been about what the Pelicans are missing, fourth-year head coach Monty Williams is now focused on trying to make the best of an unenviable situation. It’s a scenario Williams has dealt with on an annual basis in New Orleans, dating all the way back to a season-ending David West ACL injury in Williams’ first year with the then-Hornets.
“Everybody’s at the funeral,” Williams said of media or fans who may be feeling sorry for the Pelicans and their current injury-ravaged, short-handed plight. “I’m not. For me, it’s a positive in that guys are getting a chance to play, a chance to help us win games. At the start of the season, none of those (unproven) guys thought they had a shot to play more than 10 minutes a game. Now some of them are playing 20 to 25 minutes a game, even 30. For me as a coach, as hard as this is, and as much as I want to win games, I have to shift my focus a little bit, and spend more of my time teaching some of our young guys, because they’ve never been in these situations. It can be a good thing for us in the future of this ballclub, once we get everyone healthy.”
Here’s a look at several players who have seen their minutes rise notably since the early portion of the season, when the Pelicans were periodically close to full strength:
BRIAN ROBERTS, second NBA season
No Pelicans player has had to make a bigger adjustment than Roberts, who went from backup point guard to starter when 2013 All-Star Holiday sustained a stress fracture in his right tibia. Roberts had some experience from his rookie season as a fill-in starter when Greivis Vasquez was briefly sidelined, but on a nightly basis he’s now been facing the likes of Tony Parker and Stephen Curry. Point guard is the NBA’s deepest and most talented position, meaning it won’t get much easier on paper for Roberts this month: He’s got Memphis’ Mike Conley on Monday. Next week? Kyrie Irving and Ricky Rubio.
AUSTIN RIVERS, second NBA season
One of the few Pelicans who have not missed a game due to injury this season, Rivers had a total of 12 early-season DNPs, but has moved into a prominent spot in Monty Williams’ rotation lately. It’s only taken Rivers seven appearances in January to play 132 minutes, already almost as many as he logged in the entire month of December (145). He split his time on the floor at point guard and shooting guard as a rookie, but due to Holiday’s absence, a much larger chunk of his action in 2013-14 has come at the point.
DARIUS MILLER, second NBA season
Miller’s 2013-14 season had a delayed start due to a stress fracture in his left foot that caused him to miss training camp and preseason, as well as the early portion of the regular season. Like Rivers, Miller went through a stretch of DNPs by coach’s decision, but has been needed to play critical minutes recently. He’s played at least 15 minutes in each of the past five games, after doing so just twice this season through Jan. 7.
ALEXIS AJINCA, fourth NBA season (first since 2010-11)
The native of France signed with the Pelicans on Dec. 20, returning to the NBA after two-plus seasons playing professionally in Europe. Just two weeks later, Ajinca found himself in the New Orleans starting lineup for the Jan. 3 win at Boston. He started the next four games as well, matching up with heavyweights such as Indiana’s Roy Hibbert and Washington’s Marcin Gortat.
JEFF WITHEY, first NBA season
Through the end of December, the rookie 7-footer from the University of Kansas had only appeared in four games that were decided by single digits, as nearly all of his playing time came late in routs. He’s still mostly played spot minutes recently, behind Greg Stiemsma and Ajinca at center, but in Saturday’s game vs. Golden State, he logged 14 minutes. It was his second-highest minute allotment of the season.