Center stage: Pelicans’ Omer Asik squares with Rockets’ Dwight Howard _lowres

Washington Wizards' Marcin Gortat (4) shoots over New Orleans Pelicans' Omer Asik (3) during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Jacksonville, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

It’s only preseason. But there could be a battle Tuesday night at Smoothie King Center.

And one need look no further than the middle, where New Orleans Pelicans center Omer Asik and Houston Rockets pivot Dwight Howard abide.

Asik played two seasons for the Rockets, including a forgettable one last season when he was relegated to the bench after Houston signed Howard, considered the top big man in the world, to a lucrative multiyear contract.

The two Southwest Division teams meet four times during the regular season, so perhaps this preseason tune-up won’t matter much to either of the centers. Getting acclimated to new teammates and plays takes center stage.

However, Pelicans guard/forward Tyreke Evans said pride and competitiveness usually take over in instances like this one.

“You want to go after it in every game,” he said. “But I know whenever you go against your old team, you want to show them something.”

Asik, who was signed in July, has been working on getting acclimated after spending the latter part of the summer playing with Turkey’s national team in the FIBA World Cup.

“I’ve just been trying to learn the system offensively and defensively and getting to know my teammates and how they play,” he said. “It’s been going good. Everybody’s in shape; we’re having good practices.”

Asik was brought in as the big-bodied center who is a good defender and rebounder that the Pelicans desperately needed. Through three preseason games, coach Monty Williams said, things have gone very well.

“He’s certainly everything that we thought he was going to be defensively,” Williams said. “Defensively, his IQ is off the chart. He may not block a shot, but he distracts a lot of shots, and that’s something we value.”

Williams said Asik can be a great asset offensively, also, with his low-post scoring.

“He averaged 20 points and 16 rebounds in the World Cup, so he can score,” Williams said. “He just hasn’t carried a team.”

Through the first two weeks of training camp, Asik has been working with lead assistant coach Randy Ayers on becoming more of a scoring threat. During the drills, Ayers has Asik shooting right- and left-handed jump hooks, 8-foot baseline jump shots, and 8- to 10-footers in the lane. And free throws, plenty of free throws in anticipation of one of the better offensive rebounders getting fouled often.

Williams said he likely will increase the starters playing time — up from the 20-minute range in Asik’s case.

“I was thinking about Games 4, 5 and 6, getting everybody’s minutes up, and then re-adjusting in the last game,” Williams said. “So that could be the case (Tuesday), where we could get our guys up into the 30-minute range to prepare for the season in that regard.”

And perhaps give fans a taste of what appears to shape up as a good a division center battle.

Evans could play for the first time this preseason. When training camp started Sept. 30, he came in with a strained right hamstring.

He missed the first three preseason games but has practiced the past three days, starting with noncontact action Saturday. By Monday, the team was going very hard, and Evans was still participating.

He said Sunday that he may play Tuesday but likely would return for Thursday’s game against Oklahoma City at Smoothie King. Williams didn’t rule out Evans playing Tuesday but added that if he had to guess, he’d say no.

After two weeks of training camp, Williams’ mind obviously was on things other than a preseason center’s matchup and whether a key player would return Tuesday or Thursday.

“We’ve had a number of days (of practice), so we want to be further along as far as our defensive coverages, transition defense,” he said. “Obviously, we want to make more shots. We’ve gotten a number of open shots in our games.

“And we want to continue keeping the points on defense down, keeping the corner (3-pointer) percentage down.”