Tim Frazier was determined and inquisitive. He worked hard. He listened. He showed up early to practice.
He had plenty of attributes that Damian Lillard liked, but Lillard might have been most drawn to one that he lacked.
“If you ask anybody — our coaches, any of my teammates — they’ll say me and Tim were ready to kill each other in practice and playing pickup games,” said Lillard, the Portland star and former teammate of Frazier, who’s now playing a key role for the shorthanded Pelicans. “There was no, ‘This is my good friend.’ It was kill or be killed, basically.”
This was last season, when Frazier was a Blazers newcomer and Lillard already was Portland’s franchise cornerstone. But even as an understudy, Frazier refused to back down from his new superstar teammate. His battles with Lillard in practice and pickup are the stuff of Portland legend, all jersey-grabbing and trash-talking and, mostly, fouling.
“He fouled me a lot,” Lillard said. “And I fouled him a lot.”
So it’s no great surprise to Lillard that fearless Frazier has made an impact in a short stint with the Pelicans, who signed him to a 10-day contract on March 16, then to a deal on March 26 for the remainder of the season.
In nine games with New Orleans, Frazier is averaging 13 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists. The Pelicans are 4-5 since signing him, including a 101-95 win against the Nuggets on Thursday in which Frazier scored seven fourth-quarter points and sank a critical 3-pointer to put his team in front with 45 seconds to play.
“He really does seize the moment,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “I mean, he has taken total advantage of the opportunities that have been given to him, and I think that’s all you like to see.”
Frazier has had to work to be granted those chances.
After a standout four-year career at Penn State, he went undrafted in 2014. He signed with the Boston Celtics in September of 2014 but was waived before the season started. He signed a pair of 10-day contracts with the Philadelphia 76ers last February and played six games there before he was cut.
He had an MVP season in the NBA Development League and signed last March with the Trail Blazers, and “really impacted our team with just his personality and his character,” Lillard said.
And Lillard impacted Frazier.
“(Lillard) is like a brother to me,” Frazier said. “We built a relationship since I touched down in Portland a year ago. Since then, we spent pretty much every day together, except when I left.”
Leaving — the Blazers cut Frazier on Feb. 18 — was “bittersweet,” Frazier said. He went back to the D League for a month before signing with the Pelicans, who presented in opportunity for ample and immediate playing time.
“It was sad to see him leave our team, because everybody on our team loved him,” Lillard said. “ He was great for our team, chemistry-wise. He was always ready. He came to practice, he was ready. First one at the facility every morning. So it was sad to see him go, but he’s a guy that deserves it. He deserves an opportunity because of the way he works, the way he can impact a team.”
Playing for a team with a shorthanded roster, Frazier undeniably has impacted New Orleans. He’s averaging 26.2 minutes per game for the Pelicans and shooting 50.6 percent from the floor and 50 percent from 3-point range.
He’s scored in double digits in eight of nine games and has earned an extended look as a potential backup point guard for next season.
Though he’s averaging 2.7 turnovers per game — a number that he’s “got to cut down a little bit,” Gentry said — Frazier is fast and committed to pushing the ball upcourt, critical to Gentry’s up-tempo offense.
“I think the guys like him,” Gentry said. “I think he’s a pass-first point guard, which is good for us and good for our system. Guys like playing with him, and we have confidence in him.”
Meanwhile, Frazier’s confidence, forged in those practice battles with Lillard, is growing. He’s getting more comfortable in New Orleans?? system, increasingly convinced he can contribute in the NBA.
Frazier would like to remain with the Pelicans, he said. But he knows a thing or two about making an impression, and he knows New Orleans isn’t the only team evaluating.
“Anytime you get a chance to step on the court and play the game of basketball it’s an opportunity,” Frazier said. “Somebody’s always watching. If it’s here, Portland, Portland, Maine, or in the D-League anywhere, it’s always an opportunity. You never want to take that for granted.