METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday will play for the first time this season on Friday night against the Portland Trail Blazers, general manager Dell Demps said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, guard Tyreke Evans returned to practice on a non-contact basis Tuesday. Demps said it is unclear when Evans will play, but that he appears to be in “great shape.”
Holiday has been on indefinite leave since summer to care for his wife, retired international soccer star Lauren Holiday, who had brain surgery last month, just weeks after giving birth to the couple’s daughter.
The Pelicans play in Orlando on Wednesday night, and Demps said Holiday is slated to practice with the team on Thursday before making his debut the following night in what will be New Orleans’ 13th game of the season.
Demps said he expects Holiday’s return to be gratifying for Pelicans players and staff on both personal and professional levels.
“He’s just a great person – just bringing him back and getting him back with the group, from a social standpoint,” is most important, Demps said. “From a basketball standpoint, we don’t want to put pressure on him and make him feel like he’s the savior.”
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said he wasn’t certain whether Holiday, who has been working out on his own in North Carolina the past couple months, would start or how much he’d play.
“I just know we won’t play him 35 minutes the first game back,” Gentry said. “We’re not going to do anything like that. I think we’ve got to be smart about it. He’s been working out twice a day. He’s in great shape. There’s a big difference in being in great shape and being in basketball shape.”
New Orleans has won just two of its first 11 games, but also two of its last three after and 0-8 start.
“It’s good for us – a big, key component to our team that we’re able to get back,” said forward Anthony Davis, who has been averaging 30.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, but has lacked the help he need to produce more victories. “It’s good for everybody and we’ll try to get this thing going.
Holiday is expected to return as healthy as he has been in several seasons.
He began last season on minute restrictions following his rehabilitation from a nagging lower leg injury that had sidelined him for much of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 campaigns.
A former Eastern Conference All-Star with Philadelphia before his trade to New Orleans in 2013, Holiday wound up playing in 65 games with 23 starts during the 2015-16 season, averaging 16.8 points, 6.0 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 28.2 minutes per game. He scored 20 or more points 25 times and recorded six double-doubles.
“Jrue’s very good offensively and very good defensively,” Davis added. “He’s going to bring that passion, that energy, that fight. So it’s going to be good to have him back on the floor for us and have Jrue being Jrue.”
Tim Frazier has been starting in Holiday’s place this season, averaging 11.4 points and 7.9 assists. He said he’s been in constant contact with Holiday, particularly after games to ask for his evaluation.
“Coming from the point guard spot, I know what you see outside is different from what I see on the court,” Frazier said. “He just told me what he’s seeing and he’s been positive, telling me to keep my head up and continue to fight and that he was on his way back soon.”
As for Evans, the Pelicans will gradually ramp him up to contact practices within the next couple weeks, Demps said, raising the prospects that the versatile 6-foot-6 guard and wing player could be playing in early December.
“It’ll all be based on how his rehab goes in the next days, weeks,” Demps said, peering through a conference room window with a view of Evans running through basketball drills on the practice court. “If you just look at him right now, it’s pretty close.”
Demps said the Pelicans also hope by the end of next week to receive a medical update on small forward Quincy Pondexter’s recovery from multiple knee surgeries, which might provide a clearer timetable on his return.