Kendrick Perkins moves up depth chart at center after Alexis Ajinca hamstring injury

In virtually every 2015-16 NBA preview, Kendrick Perkins’ assignment in New Orleans is summed up as an off-the-court role, with the 30-year-old bringing leadership and serving as a mentor for Anthony Davis and the Pelicans’ array of young players. But as Perkins probably knows as well as anyone on his new team, things can change quickly in the league.

After Pelicans backup center Alexis Ajinca sustained a right hamstring injury in the first half of New Orleans’ first preseason game, the 12-year veteran Perkins suddenly moved up the depth chart at center. Ajinca is out 4-6 weeks, which means he’s likely to be sidelined when the regular season tips off Oct. 27. Although no player wants to benefit from a teammate’s injury, like anyone, Perkins prefers to be on the floor.

“I know I’m here to be a leader and be a veteran and all that, but I want to play,” Perkins said Tuesday, when asked by media about the potential impact of Ajinca’s injury. “I’m a guy who wants to compete. I want to play. I want to win. At the end of the day, if the opportunity presents itself, I’m not looking back. I’m going to keep pushing forward. I’ve got to. That’s just the competitive nature in me. I always said I’m going to play until they tell me I can’t play no more. I do want to play.”

Perkins officially signed in free agency with New Orleans on July 29, but the 6-foot-10, 270-pounder actually wanted to come to the Crescent City five months earlier. After Oklahoma City traded Perkins to Utah at the February trade deadline, the Jazz bought out Perkins’ contract, making him a free agent. Perkins ended up signing with Cleveland and was part of the Cavaliers’ run to the NBA Finals, but he also had considered playing for the Pelicans.

“(It was) very easy (to sign in New Orleans this time),” Perkins said. “I wanted to come in February, when I first got traded and I got bought out by the Jazz, but the opportunity wasn’t there, so I had to wait. The first day of free agency, (the Pelicans) called me and I was ready to come.”

With 143 career playoff games under his belt, Perkins is the most postseason-tested Pelican on the roster by a wide margin (Norris Cole is second on the list with 64 games, followed by Omer Asik’s 37). He sees New Orleans as a team filled with players who are trying to take the next step in their careers, particularly from a team-success standpoint. For a few key Pelicans, last season was their first trip to the playoffs, including Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis.

“Except for AD, the rest of our guys are at the point in their careers where it’s time to make statements, about who they are,” said Perkins, a starter for the 2008 NBA champion Boston Celtics. “If they’re going to be winners or not in this league. I feel like over the last month and a half that I’ve been with these guys, they’re more than ready. You can tell they’re ready to listen.

“I feel like we’ve got a good team, from top to bottom. We’ve got a lot of depth, we can match up with any team, but then again, that’s on paper. We’ve got to make sure we put in the ground work every day, continue to punch the clock and continue to get better. You look at Golden State last year, they were a team that got out of the gates fast. But they gelled and established who they were early. With a young ballclub, we’ve always got to do that.”

“It’s like he’s a coach-player almost,” forward Dante Cunningham described of Perkins. “He has such great insight to what’s going on on the court. That allows us to sit back and see exactly what the coach is trying to put on the court, because he’ll give us another way of saying what the coach is saying. That’s another step this team needs, with such a young group of guys.”

In the calendar year of 2015, New Orleans has added three players who’ve regularly participated in the pressure-cooker of May and June basketball, including Perkins, Cole and Quincy Pondexter, who has made the playoffs every year of his pro career. Although it’s possible he’ll be on the court more than many initially anticipated, Perkins also vows to bring the wisdom and knowledge he’s accumulated since being selected 27th overall in the historically-great 2003 draft class.

“I just felt like they were missing that one veteran piece, a guy to come in and give that extra push,” Perkins said of the Pelicans. “A guy to come in and hold them accountable. I felt this was good for me. (As a veteran leader), I use everything I’ve been taught. Growing up under (Kevin Garnett in Boston), going to Oklahoma City and actually teaching those guys the same thing I’m doing here. My main thing is just winning and being unselfish. If you’re not a winner, I can’t mess with you. I don’t want to be around you. If you’re selfish, I don’t want to be around you. We constantly preach togetherness and unselfishness.”