The NBA is a league of labels.
Except for a handful of well-rounded superstars, front offices and coaching staffs slap personnel into neatly packaged categories to ensure the arsenal is appropriately versatile. There are shooters, post defenders, shot-blockers, rebounders, floor spacers and just about everything in between.
New Orleans Pelicans forward Quincy Pondexter doesn’t neatly fit in the box. It’s nearly impossible to get teammates or coaches to nail down the trait Pondexter adds most to the team he joined Jan. 12.
Unlike a typical role player, Pondexter’s abilities don’t simply fill a niche or shore up a single problem. Instead, his versatility is often highlighted as his best asset, contributing to several facets needed as the Pelicans (25-22) try to climb up from the No. 9 spot in the rugged Western Conference.
“It’s been different on different nights,” coach Monty Williams said. “He has great energy every time he steps on the floor. He has a good IQ for the game. He has the ability to lock guys down, and he has the ability to make shots. All of that helps us.”
Considering the Pelicans’ lack of depth at the wing positions, not only was Pondexter’s small forward position a critical need, but his varied attributes helped transform New Orleans into a more well-rounded unit than it was before it was acquired him from Memphis in a three-team trade.
Swapped for former 10th overall draft pick Austin Rivers and rookie Russ Smith, Pondexter was considered expendable by the Grizzlies when they acquired Boston Celtics leading scorer Jeff Green for a first-round pick.
While Green had scored in double figures in six straight games for first-place Memphis entering Saturday night, the Pelicans are in the midst of their best stretch of the season, compiling a 7-3 record with Pondexter in the rotation. Meanwhile, Pondexter’s role has increased dramatically from the shrinking responsibilities he was facing with the Grizzlies, fighting to regain his form after missing 65 games last year with a stress fracture in his foot.
Though the career 33 percent 3-point shooter is swooning at a career low from the field and his scoring is down more than 20 percent from the past two years, Pondexter is providing the Pelicans something they need more than points.
“He’s so helpful to have out there,” said guard Eric Gordon, the Pelicans’ highest-paid player. “He’s a vocal guy. He’s a leader, and you know he’s always working hard. We definitely needed a guy like that on our team, and that’s why he’s given us a good boost.”
It’s a welcome return to New Orleans, rejoining the franchise that traded for Pondexter at the No. 26 selection in the 2010 NBA Draft, following his four years at Washington.
After a nondescript rookie season in New Orleans — playing just 11 minutes per game with minimal impact on the team’s most recent playoff season — he was traded to Memphis for point guard Greivis Vasquez. The opportunity afforded him a chance to learn the game as part of an emerging contender, known for its rugged style and toughness.
He became a fan favorite, known for his ability to hit clutch shots around the perimeter and off the bench. His role grew in each of his first three seasons in Memphis, adopting the defensive grittiness and professionalism the franchise built itself on.
Then in the 2013 playoffs, he averaged nearly 9 points per game in Memphis’ run to the Western Conference finals, establishing himself as the team’s primary outside threat and a key cog to the franchise’s future, resulting in a four-year, $14 million contract extension.
It was the culmination of three years that helped mold Pondexter into the type of player the Pelicans front office coveted when it was looking to fill a void on the wing and add a significant dose of consistency to its wildly uneven roster.
“I haven’t had the same journey as a lot of players have as far as young guys in this league,” Pondexter said. “A lot of them come in on bad teams and they’re forced to score a lot. They don’t know how to play the game. I was forced to play the game, and the rest came later. Even now, I don’t care about scoring or anything. I just care about playing the right way and getting my team to win. Winning solves everything.”
Just two weeks into his second tenure with the organization, Pondexter already earned respect from the Pelicans’ most established stars. He notably led the team’s pregame huddle before its emotional 109-106 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 25, helping snap a nine-game losing streak to the Southwest Division rival.
He has helped keep New Orleans afloat defensively without injured point guard Jrue Holiday and spurred it to quality wins over the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Clippers while Anthony Davis was sidelined.
Although Pondexter downplayed the concept of being the missing piece to the talented team’s puzzle, he’s adding to enough areas that even those on the floor with him struggle to define where his impact is felt most.
“He can just do a bit of everything,” forward Ryan Anderson said. “Whether he’s playing with the starters or with the guys off the bench, he’s always contributing, and that’s the most you can ask for.”