A position-by-position look at the Pelicans
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
Does any NBA team merit more legitimate reasons for fans to pay attention to the eight-game preseason schedule than the New Orleans Pelicans? While there are many clubs for which you could already pencil in a starting five and playing rotation, the Pelicans still have much that needs to be sorted out in October. That’s what happens when a team brings in six new players, but also when a roster boasts so many versatile members who can slide from position to position. For instance, July signee Tyreke Evans has played significant minutes in the NBA at point guard, shooting guard and small forward. The following is a look at the team’s roster position-wise entering training camp. Keep in mind, in today’s NBA, positional designations aren’t as tidy as they once were, particularly with teams frequently relying on small lineups that don’t include a traditional center. Positions are listed in order of their designated number, with point guards being known as “1s” and centers called “5s.”
In terms of players who can handle the role of point guard and creating offense, the Pelicans have a wealth of riches, but only two roster members have played the bulk of their NBA minutes at the 1 spot – Jrue Holiday and Brian Roberts. Holiday and Roberts are both effective scorers who can also serve as play-makers and set up teammates for high-percentage shots. All-Star Holiday finished fourth in the NBA in assists last season, while Roberts had an 18-assist game vs. Denver in a March emergency start.
Tyreke Evans primarily played point guard during his 2009-10 Rookie of the Year campaign and has a career assist average of 4.8 assists, but was off the ball more recently in Sacramento. Eric Gordon also has experience at the point, briefly initiating the offense at times for the Clippers and New Orleans. Austin Rivers played some point guard in 2012-13 as well and has been receptive to continuing to hone his skills at the position.
Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans are both most commonly referred to as shooting guards by NBA analysts, leading many to raise the question of whether Evans might come off the bench as a sixth-man catalyst who provides instant offense, a la Manu Ginobili. After a season in which he was held out of back-to-back games for precautionary reasons, the Pelicans look forward to having Gordon at full strength in 2013-14. Evans admits that he would prefer to start, but said he’s willing to come off the bench for the first time in his NBA career if that’s what’s best for the team. Gordon and Evans are only half of the entire equation at shooting guard.
The Pelicans signed feared three-point shooter Anthony Morrow in free agency and have 2012 lottery pick Austin Rivers returning for his second NBA season. During the team’s lengthy trip to Las Vegas in July, Coach Monty Williams said of Morrow and Rivers: “We’re looking for a big-time battle (for playing time) between them, and some of our other wings.”
Al-Farouq Aminu was the starter at this spot 71 times last season for New Orleans. He excelled at times, while showing inconsistency at others, particularly early when he was benched. Williams has called the 6-foot-9, 215-pound Aminu one of the NBA’s premier athletes. He’s thrived when he focuses on what he does best, namely defending, rebounding and making hustle plays. Those traits might make him even more valuable on the 2013-14 Pelicans, who on paper would already seem to have enough scoring.
The only other Pelican who is a natural small forward is second-year pro Darius Miller. Unfortunately, the 6-8 Miller is expected to miss the entire preseason and the start of the regular season with a stress fracture in his left foot.
The Pelicans’ deepest position boasts one of the game’s rising talents, 2012 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis, as well as one of the NBA’s premier reserves, Ryan Anderson. Various national writers have suggested that Davis could be shifted to center in 2013-14, based on the notion that doing so would allow New Orleans to get its five best scorers on the floor at once – Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson and Davis. However, there hasn’t been any indication yet that it will happen, with Williams saying he wants to evaluate combinations and chemistry during training camp and preseason games. Anderson came off the bench 59 times among his 81 appearances last season, but likely would’ve been a season-long reserve if not for various injuries to other players (Davis was sidelined for 18 games).
There may not be many minutes available at the four beyond what Davis and Anderson play, but the Pelicans re-signed Lance Thomas and signed free agent Arinze Onuaku late in the summer. Thomas has played the past two seasons for New Orleans (starting 19 times), while Onuaku is trying to break into the NBA for the first time.
Sixth-year pro Jason Smith is the most accomplished of three true centers on the New Orleans roster. The longest-tenured New Orleans player is clearly the best offensive option at the spot, with averages of 9.9 and 8.2 points, respectively, in the past two seasons. While battling a painful shoulder injury during many of his 51 appearances last season, Smith had a quietly outstanding 2012-13 from an efficiency standpoint. He averaged 8.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in just 17.2 minutes, which equates to per-40-minute averages of 19.1 points and 8.3 boards.
Greg Stiemsma seemingly came out of nowhere to crack Boston’s playing rotation in 2011-12, then started 19 games for Minnesota last season. The 6-foot-11 free-agent pickup is known for his defense, ranking in the top 10 in blocked shots per minute in each of his two NBA seasons. Like Stiemsma, rookie second-round pick Jeff Withey’s top skill is shot-blocking. As a senior at Kansas, Withey ranked third in all of Division I, with an average of 3.79 rejections per game.