Alonzo Gee blocks a shot by Washington center Marcin Gortat

Alonzo Gee contributes defense and hustle as Pelicans starter

by Jim Eichenhofer

In a Nov. 22 game during which the two teams combined to post a whopping 238 points in the Smoothie King Center, New Orleans forward Alonzo Gee finished with just eight points, a modest tally that went largely unnoticed in the box score. Yet it was what he did on the other end of the floor – tightly defending Phoenix guard Brandon Knight, forcing him into an 0-for-8 shooting start – that helped illustrate Gee’s value to the Pelicans early in 2015-16. New Orleans outlasted Phoenix 122-116.

The NBA journeyman is averaging 3.9 points and 2.9 rebounds through 27 games, ranking him 12th and ninth, respectively, among New Orleans players, but the Pelicans (8-19) moved Gee into the starting lineup Nov. 13 in Toronto. He’s remained there ever since, providing much-needed sturdy defense and a player who can contribute in other ways besides scoring. In addition to being matched up with potent scorers like the 6-3 Knight, Gee has also been assigned to perennial All-Stars of varying skill sets such as Stephen Curry, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.

Although New Orleans still has ground to make up to become a factor in the Western Conference playoff chase, it has gone 7-12 in Gee’s most recent starts. The Pelicans began the season just 1-7 prior to the change.

“I love his energy and his tenacity,” Pelicans assistant coach Robert Pack said. “He really doesn’t mind the grind. As a defensive player and a guy who’s looked upon to guard the other team’s best player most nights, you’ve got to be willing to do that. He’s a selfless player and goes out there and gives it his all. He accepts the assignment and locks in to the details. You see it in the body positioning and the way he goes out there that he’s prepared to guard the guy he’s assigned to.”

“I’ve guarded 1 (point guard) through 5 (center) already (in the NBA),” a smiling Gee said. “I’m glad to be in the position to be able to guard those guys. I wouldn’t want to be in any other position.”

Gee’s attitude and perspective comes partly from a gritty professional career during which he’s had to fight for every role he’s had in the NBA. The 28-year-old Florida native broke into the league in March 2010 as a D-League call-up with the Washington Wizards. At the time, he was such a little-known name that his veteran Washington teammates neglected to give him rookie duties such as buying donuts, because they did not realize that Gee was in fact a first-year player.

The University of Alabama product went on to play for San Antonio, Cleveland, Denver and Portland, before signing as a free agent with New Orleans this summer. He describes his hustle and intensity on the court as something that was a necessity, a prerequisite to initially be able to keep an NBA job.

“(It comes from) just trying to find my way in the league,” Gee said. “On every team I’ve been on, I had to be that guy to bring that intensity on the defensive end. I’ve been trying to do it here as well… You can’t coach effort. I try to be the hardest-playing player on the floor.”

On a Pelicans roster that features a handful of high-volume scorers, Gee is instead asked to do a lot with a little in terms of offensive opportunities. He’s actually leading New Orleans in field-goal percentage (51.7), including making 40 of his 67 two-point attempts. The athletic seventh-year pro is adept at finishing fast breaks and is one of the NBA’s most underrated dunkers.

“He’s made some good plays finishing at the basket, and he’s been really good defensively,” Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry said.

It’s that latter end of the floor where Gee makes his biggest impact, even if it doesn’t always result in glossy statistics. The Nov. 22 win over Phoenix was a case in point, but Gee’s eight-point game didn’t go unnoticed by at least one important group of observers.

“(After the game) I heard a few fans saying ‘good job’ to me, because of my effort,” Gee said. “I feel like they notice it now. If you know the game, you know what’s going on.”

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