The fourth preseason game is when NBA coaches begin to think more about getting their starters ready and their rotations set for the regular season.
That is particularly true for the New Orleans Pelicans, who by quirk of schedule have seven preseason games instead of the usual eight.
“I want to get the starters’ minutes up, have them start to play 30 minutes a game to get in NBA shape for the season,” coach Monty Williams said.
With five days of practice between Wednesday’s preseason game against Washington and Tuesday’s against Houston in the Smoothie King Center, the Pelicans have been back in training-camp mode with two-a-day practices.
The team had just one practice Saturday, but it lasted about two hours, not including skills enhancement after practice. There was no doubt as to the focus.
“A lot of offense, a lot of sharpening up tools, so to speak,” Williams said. “We’re trying to clear up some things. We have a lot of formations and packages that guys are getting familiar with, but they’re picking up more than I thought they would. We’ve thrown a lot at them, and these are great days to practice and get a lot of stuff in.”
The Pelicans hit the road after four days of twice-daily practices that were necessary just to be able to play preseason games. Williams said this is an extension of that.
“It gives our guys a chance to look at the games we’ve played, learn from our mistakes, look at some things we’ve done well and get back into a camp mentality,” he said. “Our practices are a little longer. We get to break down a lot of our drills and show guys how we want to do things, and then allow their natural abilities, offensively and defensively, to take over, and then (go over) their mistakes in practice.”
Williams saw positives defensively during the three games; the Pelicans allowed 91 points per game and an average of five made 3-pointers. There was still some things to clean up, though.
“Just understanding our system,” he said. “The 3s that we did give up were due to rotating off the wrong guy. In Atlanta, we gave up two or three corner 3s, and we don’t like doing that. And we were rotating to (big men) and leaving a guard. And those are things you can only start to teach in camp with the hope of getting better at it.”
On Thursday, Pelicans swingman Tyreke Evans was showing no ill effects of a strained hamstring, running at a brisk pace around the perimeter of the side-by-side courts at the team’s practice facility.
On Friday, he was participating in shooting drills and those that required him to make moves and drive to the basket. On Saturday, he had his practice jersey on and clearly had worked up a sweat. Williams said he practiced.
“He looked pretty good,” he said. “He’s just got to get his conditioning up.”
In the days before camp, the team said Evans would miss three to five weeks. The end of next week will be three weeks. Given the nature of the injury and Evans’ importance, though, Williams said the team will be cautious.
“We’d like to get Tyreke back a few games before we start the season,” he said.
He can sky
There are two handprints high above the square on one of the Pelicans’ backboards on the near court at the facility. Those belong to D.J. Stephens, who signed Oct. 2 after guard Dionte Christmas sprained an ankle.
It would take a miracle for Stephens to make the team, but the 6-foot-5 former Memphis player has created quite a buzz with his leaping ability.
“I was measured at having a 46-inch running vertical leap and a 40-inch standing leap,” said Stephens, who went undrafted in 2013 and spent 10 days last season with Milwaukee around stints with teams in Greece and Turkey.
During training camp, he has been flashing highlight-reel dunks during four-on-four half-court pickup sessions and drills. During the preseason games, he brought excitement to the layup line with fancy dunks.
Williams said Pelicans fans may get a chance to see Stephens in game action Tuesday. If not then, perhaps in Thursday’s home game vs. Oklahoma City.
“He’s a guy who may be the best athlete in the NBA,” Williams said. “I’ve not seen anybody jump that high. He’s a once-in-a-generation athlete.”
The challenge for Stephens, Williams said, is that, because of his leaping ability, he played power forward in college, so he needs to improve as a perimeter player.