As Pelicans center Jeff Withey approached the media after summer league minicamp practice Thursday — the team’s last before heading to Las Vegas — he bumped his head on a caged-in fire alarm high on the wall.
“Maybe I’m still growing,” Withey said, laughing.
At 24, it’s unlikely the 7-footer is still shooting upward, but it’s apparent he has grown out. Withey, who’s listed at 235 pounds, revealed Thursday that he’s added 17 pounds since the end of the season.
“I feel more comfortable with the ball,” Withey said. “Just on the block, (I’ve) been working on it all last season and this summer. And I’ve gained a lot of weight, so I feel more comfortable in the paint.”
That’s a good move, seeing as the Pelicans may be lacking in big bodies soon.
Longtime center Jason Smith is an unrestricted free agent, and the Pels might decide his injury history trumps his veteran leadership. Greg Stiemsma was waived in April.
The team will finally have a stable starter in Omer Asik when he brings his 7-foot, 255 pound frame with him from Houston, but only after some contracts are moved around. Alexis Ajinca, a 7-foot-2, 248-pound center who was signed to a two-year guaranteed deal in December to shore up the position, is a prime candidate to free up space.
None of the team’s forwards exceeds 225 pounds aside from Ryan Anderson, who despite his 240 pounds plays on the perimeter.
So players on the summer league roster like Withey and undrafted rookie forward Patric Young (6-9, 240) could make an impression with their size on a team that sorely needs it.
Young, who spent four years at Florida, is known above all for his physique. His size and strength translated to an average of 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in his final three college years.
Young’s defensive contribution is harder to quantify, but he was the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and his presence was a major reason the Gators made it to at least the Elite Eight for four straight seasons.
Considering his proven assets, being passed over in the draft left him feeling slighted. That’s not good news for the players who will have to face him in Las Vegas.
“(Summer league) is a great chance for me to prove to other teams that they missed an opportunity for a player who’s going to be an established role player in the future,” Young said. “I’m just glad to be a part of this organization, and I’m going to do my job of rebounding, playing defense and working.”
Did his strength come natural?
“Yes and no,” Young said.
He said he’s blessed to have a body that’s receptive to the extra heft, but he still had to work hard to pack on pounds.
“If you want to gain weight, it’s more than what you do in the weight room. It’s what you eat, it’s how you sleep. It’s a whole mindset. I wanted to get my body in tip top condition, and I did that through a long process.”
Lead assistant Randy Ayers said adding overall bulk to the roster is a priority, but that there’s also such a thing as being too big.
“(We need to be careful that) they’re not losing their mobility and flexibility,” Ayers said. “You can put on a lot of bulk and all, but if you don’t know how to use it, it doesn’t work to your advantage. So now we want to see how they react in game situations.”
Young said he realizes his superior strength will only get him so far. Sometimes it’s better to dial back the aggression.
“I talked to coach (Monty) Williams yesterday and he said he sees a dog in me, but you’ve got to know which dog to bring out. Sometimes you need to be the pit bull. Sometimes you need to be the smart lab, understanding when you need to bring out a certain part of yourself and having a great balance and discernment in that.”
Listed similarly at 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, Keith Chamberlain, who has bounced around the D-League and international leagues since exhausting his eligibility at D-III Grinnell College in 2008, doesn’t look the part. Compared to Young, he’s roughly the same height, but significantly smaller.
Spending the first half of the year playing for Haceteppi Universitesi in Turkey, though, he often found himself to be the biggest player on the court and built confidence playing down in the paint and averaging a double-double.
“They relied on me to do a lot — not just rebounding but scoring in the post and at the free-throw line,” Chamberlain said. “They didn’t have 7-footers like Jeff or guys like Pat Young, so I was down there battling. It helped out a lot in going against players that are bigger you. Even if they’re bigger than you, they might not be as quick, so you can use your advantages in things like rebounding, and it’s really important to me that I end every possession with a rebound.”
The frontcourt players jostling during summer league aren’t the only players looking to use their size to help the team.
Ayers, Chamberlain, Young and Withey all mentioned how good Anthony Davis looks these days, and it was apparent when he walked into the facility toward the end of practice Thursday to take jump shots sporting bigger, more chiseled arms and a new high-top hairdo.
Withey, like himself, said he even thinks Davis has grown a couple of inches.
“It might be the afro, though,” he said, laughing again before thanking the media and walking back toward the locker room.