The summer leagues can be a big first step for a player trying to make an NBA team’s regular-season roster.
For James Southerland, however, this is step No. 2. Southerland played for the New Orleans Pelicans at the end of the 2013-14 season and did himself proud after being called up from the NBA Development League.
Now, Southerland is looking to stay ahead in a high-stakes race for a training-camp invitation and more.
“I was able to showcase some skills there at the end of the season, but at the same time, I want to show I can do a lot more,” he said.
The Pelicans’ squad began play in the Las Vegas Summer League on Friday. For Southerland, who played at Syracuse and went unselected in the 2013 draft but made the Charlotte Bobcats’ opening-night roster, it represents an excellent opportunity.
The trade for Houston Rockets center Omer Asik has put constraints on the Pelicans’ salary cap. The Pelicans didn’t have a small forward on the roster before obtaining Alonzo Gee from the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday. There’s strong speculation Gee, who has a nonguaranteed contract for next season, may be waived or traded to another team. And, he likely wouldn’t be the only small forward on the roster.
“I try not to focus too much on that and just work to better myself in every aspect,” Southerland said. “So that way, anyone who wants to use me can use me.”
The Pelicans are looking for a player who is inexpensive but effective, who can play a basic true small forward role. The Pelicans are taking a good look at Southerland. He was one of only three starters named on the eve of summer league play, joining center Jeff Withey and rookie point guard Russ Smith, the team’s second-round pick in this year’s draft.
If Southerland were to make the Pelicans, his job mainly will be to make sure other teams’ small forwards don’t win the game for them.
“My focus is basically on defense,” said Southerland, 6-foot-8, 215 pounds. “I’m thinking defensively right now because that’s where it all starts.”
His main challenge in summer league is to not lose the leg up he has by doing a poor or average job against lesser players than he would face during the regular season. Summer League coach Brian Gates said Southerland has put the Pelicans staff on notice that he can play, but he has work to do to improve defensively.
“He’s got to get his (footwork) better,” Gates said. “A lot of players are that way. Learning the angles, that’s one coach (Monty) Williams talks about all the time with guys.”
Southerland has to fend off veteran Josh Howard, as well as Josh Carter and DeQuan Jones in summer league. Howard played 10 seasons in the NBA and was an All-Star in 2007. However, he is 34 and has had an ACL surgery in each knee.
Carter, 6-7, is considered a good defender in the Italian League who can knock down shots. However, at 195 pounds he is slight of build and perhaps maybe more of an off guard.
It remains to be seen if he can guard strong, athletic threes in the NBA. Jones is perhaps more athletic than skillful.
Southerland said he has an advantage by having played with the Pelicans.
He was with the team for just four games, playing in three, but he averaged 4.7 points and 2.7 rebounds.
“You get a flow,” he said. “I already have a feel for the team, so I know what’s going on, and I feel it can help me jell faster.”
He looked comfortable in his first game with the Pelicans. In one quarter on April 11 at the Oklahoma City Thunder, the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, Southerland scored 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting, making two 3-pointers.
“Being a three here, with guys like (guards) Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, those guys can get to the basket at any time,” Southerland said. “I can shoot the ball and definitely spread the floor.”
Versatility will be a key for Southerland, Gates said. The Pelicans envision him as a wild card of sorts in big and small lineups.
“(In summer league), he’ll play the two, the three and the four,” Gates said. “We can have a big lineup with James at shooting guard and Josh (Howard) at small forward. Then we can put in (shooting guard) Abdul Gaddy for Withey, and move James to small forward. He’ll also play some four in some lineups.”
Southerland smiles at that. At Syracuse, he was known primarily as a shooter. He made nine 3-pointers against Arkansas his senior season and later set Big East Tournament records for consecutive 3s in a game without a miss — six — and number of 3s in one tournament — 17.
However, after getting just a one-game chance at the start of last season with Charlotte and then playing in the D-League, he said he’s prepared to get down and dirty. Whatever it takes.
“I just want to show that I can go out there and do whatever needs to be done,” he said. “Little hustle plays and all that will be accomplished.”