Pelicans focus on getting better _lowres

Advocate staff photo by A.J. SISCO -- Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) and New Orleans Pelicans center Alexis Ajinca (42) fight for a loose ball during action at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans Saturday, February 7, 2015.

Coach Monty Williams and the New Orleans Pelicans, fresh off two road wins that have them on a three-game winning streak, didn’t want to talk Thursday about being in the eighth playoff spot or the battles ahead.

They were back home, and the schedule was affording them four days before their next game on Sunday vs. Denver.

For the Pelicans, the additions of forward Dante Cunningham, guard/forward Quincy Pondexter and, most recently, point guard Norris Cole have been important to the team’s newfound success. But so has the continued player development work that has helped those players as well as starting point guard Tyreke Evans, reserve forward Luke Babbitt and backup center Alexis Ajinca. And, most notably, it has seen power forward Anthony Davis develop into a star.

“It’s the most important thing that we do off the game floor,” Williams said after Thursday’s practice, as players continued working on moves and shooting. “The PD department has helped so many guys. It’s helped our program, helps our guys understand what we do.”

Headed by assistant coach Kevin Hanson, the program has many facets, Williams said, with a lot of it involving film work, the mental, teaching aspect of the NBA game, as well as summer work. One aspect has been getting new players quickly acclimated.

Evans’ improvement as a shooter is easily seen in games. Clearly he has benefited working with assistant coach Fred Vinson. Babbitt’s game was overhauled from that of a stretch power forward to one with a mid-range game and better play-making skills.

Ajinca said the results make you want to work even harder.

“You have a little more confidence, and you come back the next day and you work on some other stuff,” he said. “You feel more confident you can put it down during the game.”

Ajinca, who played with Charlotte, Dallas and Toronto, said the Pelicans work on more player development than any team on which he’s been a member. At 7 feet 2, he was more of a face-to-the-basket player, although previous teams also worked with him on playing with his back to the basket.

He has emerged. He already was a good shooter, which translated into developing his turnaround jump shot. However, he has been making hook shots as of late. The two moves together in the low post can be the start of giving defenders fits, with the turn, face and drive the next component.

“I’d say here, (PD work) is a lot more specific about what you need and what you need to work on,” Ajinca said.

Williams said that through development work, Ajinca has become an option as a go-to player in crunch time.

“(Against Brooklyn on Tuesday), he settled us down,” Williams said. “We went to him about three or four times in a row, and he went to work.”

Game tape often tells the coaches what a player needs to add to his game, such as a move or improved technique that could have resulted in a player being more successful in a certain situation or avoiding one in which he was unsuccessful, Williams said.

“It involves that and just listening to the guys about what they want to do with their games, too,” Williams said. “You have to have an ear for that. Guys have their dreams and aspirations about what they want to do with their career, and you try to mesh that with your program.”

It’s why players such as Robin Lopez, Jarrett Jack and others have gone on to play well with other teams.

The work has made for a confident Pelicans team, enabling them to remain competitive after injuries to key players Davis, forward Ryan Anderson and starting point guard Jrue Holiday. It has become a mind-set, Williams said.

“We know we haven’t done anything, and that’s the mentality around here,” Williams said. “Our guys were here an hour and a half before practice and here after practice. We’re hungry.

“There’s too much basketball left, too much work to be done, and our guys understand that.”

Notes

Monty Williams said he expects Tyreke Evans to play Sunday. Evans sprained his left ankle against Milwaukee on Monday, but looked OK on Thursday, the coach said. … Jrue Holiday was expected to see a specialist in Los Angeles on Wednesday concerning his right lower-leg injury. Williams said there was nothing to report, yet. There was no update either on Ryan Anderson, who is in his third week sidelined with a right MCL sprain. The injury is expected to take up to four weeks to heal. … Anthony Davis turned 22 on Wednesday.