When undrafted power forward Patric Young agreed to a two-year contract with the Pelicans on Saturday, a source told The Advocate, it was another move by General Manager Dell Demps that likely will enhance the team’s play during the 2014-15 season.
Starting with the trade for center Omer Asik, the pieces appear to fit better for the team to contend for a playoff berth — barring injuries like those that hamstrung the team last season.
Lesser moves were made to fill a need or enhance the team’s skills: drafting point guard Russ Smith, signing small forward John Salmons, re-signing small forward Darius Miller and securing Young, who played at Florida.
The Pelicans also signed Jimmer Fredette, but it remains to be seen whether he can adequately replace Anthony Morrow as a perimeter shooter — and that could be key with 3-point ace Ryan Anderson coming back from neck surgery. Fredette also has defensive limitations.
Still, the Pelicans appear improved, and that Demps was able to address team needs without giving up any of his core players is a big reason. Asik, at 7-foot and 255 pounds, is a strong defender and rebounder who helps make all of the other pieces fit better. He will log a lot of minutes, allowing the Pelicans’ chemistry to improve.
“That was part of the thought process — pairing (Asik) with (power forward Anthony Davis) and also with Ryan and with (guards Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon),” Demps said. “We feel like we have some pretty good players. And we think that not only will they make him better, but he will make them better.”
Last season, the Pelicans manned the center position by committee, first with Smith and Greg Stiemsma and then with Davis playing there for early stretches. When Jason Smith was lost for the season with a right knee injury Jan. 18, the team brought in Alexis Ajinca. The trio of Stiemsma, Ajinca and rookie Jeff Withey was mostly ineffective, one reason why the Pelicans ranked in the bottom 10 of the NBA in opponents’ scoring inside 10 feet.
New Orleans also struggled to defend the pick-and-roll, particularly after Holiday was lost for the season Jan. 10 with a fractured right tibia. When he was healthy, Holiday appeared to be the strong defensive point guard the Pelicans coveted when they obtained him on draft night in 2013.
Russ Smith, a rookie out of Louisville, should help in that regard. He was brought in as a change-of-pace defender expected to play behind Austin Rivers, but with his quickness he likely will be effective in half-court defense fighting over and under screens.
If he plays as expected in his limited minutes, that would bode well in Demps’ and coach Monty Williams’ attempts to have a bench that is competitive. Smith also could bring continuity in the overall defensive scheme; the Pelicans were 19th in steals last season and 14th in forcing turnovers.
Small forward was the team’s second-biggest need. But salary-cap dollars spent at shooting guard, where Gordon will make $14.8 million this season and Evans$11 million, made it impossible to address that in a big way.
Salmons, a 13-year veteran, brings solid play in a traditional small forward role on both ends of the court. Like the addition of Asik, that bodes well for the team’s chemistry, making the pieces fit together better than someone who is more of a hybrid.
Salmons, 34, also will help in the development of small forward Miller, whom the Pelicans re-signed Thursday. He showed promise as the season went along, playing particularly well at the end.
Young appeared to be a keeper during summer league minicamp practices, and he solidified that with his play at the Las Vegas summer league, averaging 7.4 points and 8.0 rebounds, including 3.4 on the offensive glass. The Pelicans have been looking for a big, strong power forward to play behind Davis — a more lithe, athletic player. Young, at 6-9 and 240, is that guy. He brings size and physicality but also runs well.
He is the perfect complement to Davis but also pairs well with slender backup center Withey, a good defender who has yet to show he can rebound well.
Demps brought in Salmons by using the team’s $2.7 million mid-level exception. With Salmons being paid $2 million, that left $700,000 for other deals. The Pelicans also got a $500,000 break because of Holiday’s injury, which resulted in his not being able to reach contract incentives.