Pelicans assistant coach Bryan Gates may have been hesitant to name any players as starters for this year’s summer league team, other than center Jeff Withey, but he does acknowledge that former Louisville guard Russ Smith will have quite a bit of responsibility given to him early.
“If anybody will have the most thrown at him, it will be (Smith),” Gates said. “Playing point guard in the NBA is tough.”
The Pelicans opened their summer league minicamp at their practice facility Monday, and Gates said there is a gluttony of wing players on the team’s roster, and that Smith will be relied on to take care of a lot of the ball-handling responsibilities.
“Everyone can look at our roster. We’ve got six or seven small forwards here,” Gates said. “I know at Louisville they asked him to score a lot, and now he needs to make that transition that he may not need to shoot 14 to 16 times. He might need to have six or seven assists.
“I think he needs to learn the reads and learn our language,” Gates said.
The Pelicans traded the rights to point guard Pierre Jackson, their 2013 second-round pick, to acquire Smith, the 47th overall pick in this year’s draft, from the Philadelphia 76ers.
Smith flourished during his time at Louisville, where he played in two Final Fours and won a national championship in 2013.
He averaged 18.2 points and 4.6 assists last season.
“I think I can help defensively,” Smith said. “But I feel like I can put the ball in the basket when given the opportunity. And I can come up on ball screens, push in transition and make some good decisions.”
The Pelicans have signed several guards — including Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans — to lucrative deals in recent years.
But there appears to be an opportunity for Smith to earn a spot on the Pelicans roster once the regular season starts, if he can take full advantage of his opportunity in the summer league.
Reports throughout the summer have said the Pelicans may be shopping backup guard and former first-round pick Austin Rivers for a possible trade before the season begins.
And backup guard Brian Roberts is an unrestricted free agent after the franchise did not extend him a $2.8 million qualifying offer.
Also, Holiday has not yet been cleared for any basketball activity after playing in only 34 games last year because of a stress fracture in his right tibia that required surgery.
With so many question marks surrounding the Pelicans backcourt during the offseason, Smith may be able to force his way into the discussion with a strong performance in this year’s summer league.
“I think the fact that they traded for him (is good),” Smith’s former coach, Rick Pitino, said in a recent interview with The Courier-Journal. “Although they have a strong backcourt, you know Russ is gonna make it. He just needs to just forget about proving people wrong.”
There is a possibility the Pelicans may go down the same path with Smith as they did with Jackson, retaining his rights in the NBA Development League or in Europe. Smith’s contract does not become fully guaranteed until he makes the regular-season roster.
‘’I’m just here to compete and do whatever it takes to fit in a role,’’ Smith said.’’ I’ve been well prepared. I had a great teacher in college basketball, coached by Rick Pitino. So I’m a little bit ahead of the curve.’’
The Pelicans play their first summer league game Friday against the NBA D-League Select team.