When the New Orleans Pelicans play the Dallas Mavericks in Bossier City on Thursday night, the game likely will be the last chance for a cluster of players at the bottom of the roster to make a big impression.
It’s the last preseason game, and Pelicans coach Monty Williams said it’s important center Jeff Withey, power forwards Patric Young and Kevin Jones, point guard Russ Smith and shooting guard D.J. Stephens take what they’ve learned in practice and show they can apply it to the court with what’s expected to be their longest stint.
“It’s always important for those guys to solidify who they are as players,” Williams said. “We have a number of guys who are still trying to make their mark in the league and earn a spot on the team, so these games are really important to them.”
The Pelicans have 17 on the roster. Teams are allowed to keep 15 players, with only 12 on the active list to play in games.
Withey, a 7-footer entering his second year, will be on the team when rosters are set Monday. However, Thursday night’s game will be big for him, too. It will be a chance to begin distancing himself from a sub-par summer and training camp that he said Wednesday were because of personal reasons that he would not disclose.
“Preseason has been pretty tough for me, personally,” he said. “It’s a lot of ups and downs for me, a lot of stuff going on in my personal life.
“Being professional, it’s about trying to separate those whenever you step on the basketball court and play basketball and do the job. So, that’s something I have to learn as a young player, something I was struggling with.”
The effects have been evident. Withey has performed listlessly in games and at practice. He has played just 49:21 in five preseason games after playing 34:36 in the first two combined. He has averaged 2.0 points and 2.4 rebounds per game with more turnovers (six) than blocks (three).
He doesn’t want that to carry over into the regular season, when he certainly would be mired deep on the bench.
“This last preseason game, I think, is a good opportunity for me to really show what I have,” he said. “Summer League didn’t really work out for me; I got hurt. And then, this preseason has been a struggle. I finally feel like I’m kind of myself a little bit.
“So it’s going to be big for me just mentally getting back on track.”
Withey said he took a step toward that during Wednesday’s practice.
“(Wednesday) was a great day for me,” he said. “I’m an energy player. Today is the first day that I came in and just tried to tear the rim down. I feel good right now.”
Williams would like to see Young, an undrafted rookie from Florida, try to tear the rim down and grab his job on the roster with both hands. The coaching staff seems to love Young for his potential. At 6-10, he is built like an NFL tight end or defensive end, and is the type of player Williams and his staff have been trying to add to the roster for three seasons.
“He’s as tough and as strong as anybody we’ve had,” Williams said. “He’s a quick learner, and he comes from a good program. He’s somebody who continues to carve out a niche for himself in the NBA. He learns how to rebound out of his area, finishes around the basket and defends. If he keeps defending the way he does, he’ll find himself in the NBA.”
Stephens and Jones are the odd men out, likely headed for the NBA Development League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the Pelicans’ affiliate. Stephens, however, an extremely high leaper who was a 6-4 power forward at Memphis, has intrigued the coaching staff. On Wednesday, he was working with assistant coach Dave Hanners on his ball-handling. Stephens, who had a 10-day contract last season with Milwaukee, seems resigned to his fate, but said he’ll leave as a better player with a chance still of reaching his dream.
“Just being in practice with these guys, you understand being in the NBA, you’re not going to totally stop anybody,” said Stephens, who has played 6:36 spanning two games. “It’s just to slow guys down and make buckets hard on guys. But just competing and playing hard and never giving up on a play and just helping your teammates on defense and being in spots, it just helps you become that much better as a player and it helps you out later on down the road.”
Williams left open the possibility that the starters could play long minutes to get ready for the start of the regular season on Tuesday. However, he said that might not be important because his team is in good shape.
The bigger issue is how he thinks the Pelicans are playing.
“We’re still getting better,” he said. “We still have a lot of guys still figuring out our offensive system. We’re not in a position where we can go ahead and just get ready for opening night.”