New Orleans a drastic change for Greg Stiemsma on, off court

September 11, 2013

After signing a free-agent contract with New Orleans on July 10, one of Greg Stiemsma’s friends quickly pointed out that the 6-foot-11 center was the oldest player on the Pelicans. Stiemsma initially didn’t think the information could be accurate. After all, the two-year NBA veteran is only 27.

“I didn’t believe it,” said an amused Stiemsma, who’ll turn 28 on Sept. 26. “I had to go double-check (the New Orleans roster) to see if it was true.” As it turns out, Stiemsma is in fact the eldest Pelican, exactly one day older than fellow free-agent signee Anthony Morrow. Both players were officially introduced to the New Orleans media Tuesday.

Believed to be the NBA’s youngest team based on average age, the Pelicans represent a drastic change for Stiemsma from his rookie season in the league, when he was a key reserve for the geezer-laden Boston Celtics. During the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, Stiemsma learned the NBA ropes from seasoned teammates such as Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Jermaine O’Neal. Now Stiemsma is a relative old-timer in New Orleans, surrounded by a cast of early-20s talents. He vows to use some of what he’s learned to help his younger teammates. He’s also played professionally overseas in Turkey and South Korea.

“It’s a pretty big change from playing with KG, Paul, Ray and those guys,” Stiemsma said. “This is my sixth year out of college. I’m no stranger to the professional side of the game. I understand the role that veterans have to play. I’m not going to go out of my comfort zone and my personality too much, but I’ve been through a lot and seen a lot of things. I feel like I can help in certain ways.”

Stiemsma’s indirect path to the NBA began in 2008, after he had played four seasons at the University of Wisconsin. The Randolph, Wis. (population 1,811), native battled depression early in his college career and did not play extensively for the Badgers until his junior year. After going undrafted in June 2008, he played overseas, before eventually getting his big break with the Celtics. His NBA debut came at New Orleans on Dec. 28, 2011, and featured six blocks against the then-Hornets. It remains his NBA career high in blocks.

Given what Stiemsma had to overcome to eventually cement a job in the world’s top basketball league, he’s extremely grateful for the opportunity. “I’ve said that from Day 1 when I made it into the league, that I appreciate where I’m at more than anybody else,” he said. “I know other guys have different journeys to get here, but for a small-town Wisconsin kid to take a trip around the world to make a dream come true, I think that’s a pretty good story.

“I know what it’s like overseas. I played for some high-budget teams, but also for a couple lower-budget ones, where you’re sitting on a bus for 24 hours to play a preseason game. The facilities (overseas) are nowhere near anything over here. When you add up all of those small things, it really makes me appreciate how blessed I’ve been.”

As a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves last season, Stiemsma played only about 250 miles from his hometown. Though he enjoyed the opportunity to play relatively close to home, he’s also excited to be moving to the South for the first time. That should be especially true during basketball season and the winter months.

“I’ve been kind of joking with my friends (in Minnesota and Wisconsin), ‘Remind me in February what you guys are going through up there,’ ” Stiemsma said good-naturedly. “While I’ll be driving around in sunshine. I drove through too many snowstorms last year to count, so I’m looking forward to some good weather.

“I’ve played around the world and in a lot of different cities. To play kind of close to home and in the Midwest was a lot of fun. But at the same time, I’m ready to be part of this team. I know the fans (in New Orleans) are pretty passionate and they get pretty into the games. And they’re excited about our team. I’m excited for a new adventure and a new city to be part of. I’m really looking forward to being in a new part of the country and experience that side of it.”