When last season ended, Jeff Withey was a rookie brimming with confidence after he spent much of the year finding his way.
A 24-year-old 7-footer out of Kansas, he played well down the stretch — blocking shots, bringing energy and, near the end, scoring from the high post.
Two weeks into his second training camp, Withey looks nothing like that player. Although he naturally is quiet and low-key, his body language doesn’t suggest confidence at all.
“I’m just trying to get back into a rhythm,” he said. “It’s hard in just three (preseason) games. Last year, I felt I started getting into a rhythm later on in the season. So I’m trying to get like that as soon as possible.”
Eager to play a bigger role this season, Withey approached the summer with gusto in the Pelicans’ strength and conditioning and skills enhancement programs. The Pelicans were just as enthusiastic: Summer league coach Bryan Gates said the team’s summer efforts would be first and foremost about Withey’s development.
That didn’t go so well. Withey suffered foot and ankle injuries.
That experience seems to have carried over into training camp, much more than his success from the end of last season has. Coach Monty Williams doesn’t seem too concerned, but with the preseason nearing the halfway point, he intimated the obvious: It’s time for the Withey of late last season to replace this one.
“Jeff has had his moments,” Williams said. “Looking at his numbers, they’re not bad. We want him to play with a bit more force. The thing that he did last season to close out, he was a rim (protector), he was diving (to the basket) hard in pick-and-rolls. There were times when Jeff dove down the lane and dunked on guys, and they didn’t expect it. And a lot of that was due to (being) in great shape; he wasn’t dealing with injuries.”
Other than the usual aches and pains, Withey said he’s healthy. So is 7-foot-2 center Alexis Ajinca, who had been bothered by a strained hamstring and quadriceps. Ajinca has begun to assert himself with the backup big man job — the roster’s fourth big — at stake.
Last season, there were plenty of minutes to share at center and backup power forward. Starting center Greg Stiemsma was usually ineffective or in foul trouble, and Jason Smith, who had been a backup at both spots, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
With Omer Asik joining the Pelicans this season, the minutes have shrunk at center. And rookie Patric Young has a chance to snatch time behind Anthony Davis at power forward because he is the rugged, tight end-type the Pelicans have been seeking.
There’s a big difference between being the fourth big and the fifth big.
“Usually the fifth big doesn’t get a lot of minutes,” Williams said. “With us, there’s 96 minutes between AD, Omer and (3-point shooter Ryan Anderson). All three of those guys can play 30-plus minutes. In a perfect world, the fourth big is fighting for 10 minutes a night, and that’s a good situation for us if we can work that out.”
Withey said he’s not ready to let go of what he envisioned for this season: nailing down that fourth big spot.
“I definitely want that position,” he said. “I know there’s a couple of guys on this team that want it. I think as long as I keep doing what I’ve got to do and piggyback off of last year, I think that it’s definitely possible.”
In the first preseason game, Withey had four points on 2-of-6 shooting and seven rebounds in 19 minutes, 21 seconds before fouling out against Miami. At Atlanta, he scored six points on 3-of-6 shooting with three rebounds in 15:15. He did not post a block in either game.
He didn’t play in the next game against Washington; Ajinca was returning from an injury and needed minutes, and Young got playing time in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.
“I feel like I haven’t been doing a good job of playing defense,” Withey said. “I lose my man sometimes, and that’s just kind of getting refocused. (Williams) has been obviously trying different lineups and seeing how that works. Once it gets more into a solid foundation, that’ll definitely help.”
Williams said Withey will improve once his role is clarified as the regular season draws closer.
“I’ve had him on the floor playing with guys he’s never played with, and that can throw you off,” he said. “And Jeff is the type of guy (who) needs a point guard out there to set him up. I’m sure he wants to play a lot better. He’s going to get his chance in these next four games.”