Last eight games a chance for development, improvement (4/1/14)

by Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans rookie center Jeff Withey takes the ball to the basket Saturday at San Antonio

After a New Orleans win over the Clippers on March 26, a newspaper reporter complimented Pelicans Coach Monty Williams for his astute defensive strategy against Chris Paul. Williams’ usage of big guards on Paul contributed to the perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer shooting a career-worst 0-for-12 from the field. As a smiling Williams quickly pointed out, however, it wasn’t part of a brilliant master plan – due to injuries, the only backcourt defenders the Pelicans had available vs. Paul happened to be taller ones like 6-foot-6 Tyreke Evans and 6-5 Anthony Morrow.

As a result of a consistently short-handed roster, nearly every Pelicans player has been asked to do something he may not have expected in 2013-14. For some, that’s meant starting for the first time in the NBA. For others, it’s been playing a new position or logging more minutes than anyone anticipated.

In recent weeks, rookie center Jeff Withey and second-year forward Darius Miller have gone from being sparingly-used to every-game regulars in Williams’ rotation. The 24-year-olds and second-round draft picks have benefited from the additional time on the floor, while being given a chance to demonstrate their improvement heading into the offseason.

“It’s an opportunity for a lot of guys who wouldn’t in other circumstances, if we didn’t have guys hurt, get as much playing time,” said Morrow, a six-year veteran who’s also capitalized by scoring at least 20 points in three of the past four games. “You’ve got to really cherish it. It’s the NBA – you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity every time you get a chance.”

With eight April games remaining in the season, starting with a Western Conference road trip to Denver, Utah and Portland, the Pelicans’ young players will have one final opportunity to gain experience they hope to carry into 2014-15.

Withey has made gradual progress throughout his rookie season, but perhaps the best example of his all-around development occurred Monday, when he notched eight points (on 4-for-4 shooting), seven rebounds and five blocks in 28 minutes vs. Sacramento.

“I thought Jeff was great,” Williams said. “His energy, defense, scoring a little bit.”

Miller, who was forced to play catch-up to his teammates early in the season due to a foot injury that sidelined him until December, has quietly put together a solid recent stretch. Miller is averaging 10.3 points over the past four games, shooting 56 percent from the field. In the Clippers game on March 26, he tied his career high in scoring with 16 points, while going 7-for-9. Miller has played 20 or minutes in each of the games, the first time all season he’s gotten that much playing time for four straight contests. He also did it once as a rookie, during virtually the same late-March stretch on the calendar.

The first two games on this week’s New Orleans road trip are against teams that have also been eliminated from playoff contention, prior to the Pelicans closing the season with six straight tilts that could have major implications for the opposition. Regardless of the circumstances, Pelicans players say they’ll treat the final two weeks of 2013-14 as something to build on entering the summer months

“We have to do what we’ve been doing for the last 74 games,” Morrow said. “Nobody’s giving up. This is a tight-knit crew from top to bottom. We’re going to fight for each other and compete for each other. That’s what we’re going to do.”

“We’ve just got to come out and play,” said Anthony Davis, who will try to finish his first All-Star campaign in strong fashion. “We can’t think of it as eight games left. We’ve got to try to get better going into the offseason.”