Dante Cunningham expected to start at small forward in preseason opener

by Jim Eichenhofer

Dante Cunningham’s late-summer decision to re-sign with New Orleans meant returning to the franchise where he’s spent the past three seasons, as well as rejoining a handful of teammates who’ve been on the roster for that entire span. It also may mean a starting role for the eight-year veteran, but that could be determined during the Pelicans’ brief four-game preseason slate.

Alvin Gentry said Monday that Cunningham likely will start at small forward Tuesday in the team’s exhibition opener vs. Chicago (7 p.m.). Since July, the other four starting positions have been known – all occupied by current or recent NBA All-Stars – but the “three” spot has been uncertain.

“More than likely, we’ll start him at that spot,” Gentry said of Cunningham’s role Tuesday against the Bulls, adding that he will play up to 15 minutes.

Gentry said the Pelicans have not committed to whether they will have the same every-game starter at small forward, or whether it might change based on matchups and opponents. During Saturday’s open practice in the Smoothie King Center, E’Twaun Moore started with the first unit, but Cunningham was held out of scrimmaging due to a hip flexor. Cunningham described his DNP on the weekend essentially as a chance to rest and not a concern.

“Maintenance. I guess I’m getting up there in years,” the 30-year-old said, smiling widely.

Cunningham described his outlook on his potential role in 2017-18 as flexible and open to whatever New Orleans needs him to do. He’s had to fill in various times for injured players over the past three seasons, playing a total of 212 games (out of a possible 230).

“I love the game of ball,” he said after Monday’s practice. “I love to play. So whatever I need to do. I’m willing to help the team in every way possible.

“I want to be a Swiss Army knife, if you would. I want to have every tool in the pocket.”

Other notes from Monday’s practice:

Gentry said his key players may play close to normal minute allotments in preseason, at least through the first three games. New Orleans’ condensed schedule concludes with an Oct. 13 game at Memphis – where the Pelicans will also open the regular season – so don’t expect to see much of the starters in the first of those two consecutive visits to FedEx Forum. …

Cunningham, who shot 39 percent from three-point range last season, said he wants to shoot 50 percent there in 2017-18, a lofty goal but one that’s more reachable due to the open looks he may get beyond the arc. Part of the recent signee’s motivation to return to New Orleans came from the other additions that were made by the Pelicans in free agency.

“The biggest thing in coming back here was just the moves that the organization made this summer,” Cunningham said on Media Day. “Obviously getting Jrue (Holiday) back, but also the veterans coming in, like Tony Allen, (Rajon) Rondo, all guys that have led a team, have been on winning teams and just know how to be great leaders on the court. I think that’s what this team needs and we’re on the right track.”