Only three days into training camp, it had already crossed the mind of New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams that he might have to wait a while for an answer to the team’s need at small forward.
“We might have to address that position by committee,” Williams said.
Heading into Wednesday night’s preseason game against the Washington Wizards at Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., Williams has rotated Darius Miller, 34-year-old veteran John Salmons and converted power forward Luke Babbitt at small forward.
Babbitt has had the best outing, scoring 15 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting in New Orleans’ 98-86 win against the Miami Heat on Saturday. He came to the team in January after Ryan Anderson’s season-ending injury and had been adamant that he is an outside-shooting power forward, like Anderson. However, the team is stacked at power forward, and any chance of Babbitt making the Pelicans hinges on his doing well at the other forward.
Williams was asked whether the starter at small forward will be based on who is the best player or which one is the best fit with the other starters. The hope, he said, is that the best player fits in best. However, barring that, he was leaning heavily on fit, taking a page from one of his mentors, San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich, he said. That, of course, points to the defensive end, also.
“It’s such a premium on shooting now, having guys that can shoot the ball and play on the other end is a big deal,” Williams said. “I think we have that. We may not have the size that some other teams have at the three spot, but we have guys who can do some things.
“I think it’s a matter of who fits well.”
The trio has combined to shoot 11-of-34 (32.4 percent).
So far, Miller has been the starter. In the opener, a game in which the Pelicans played well and showed cohesion from the beginning, he missed five of his first six shots. He played better in the second half and finished with eight points in 32 minutes, 23 seconds. Williams, using the preseason to tinker, also tried Miller and Babbitt together, with Miller driving to the basket more.
Miller again was the starter in Monday’s game at the Atlanta Hawks, a 93-87 loss that was the opposite of the first game, with the Pelicans starting slow. They shot poorly early on, enabling the Hawks to fast break, and that caused defensive mismatches.
With Williams getting a longer lock at Babbitt and Salmons in the second game, Miller played just eight minutes, scoring two points. Babbitt was the first to replace Miller but couldn’t find his shooting stroke that time. He went 0-for-6, including 0-for-5 on 3-point attempts in 17 minutes after playing 27:26 in the first game.
Salmons backed up Miller in the first game and scored three points in six minutes. Not having gotten the Pelicans’ defense down after a week of training camp, he struggled on that end of the court. In the second game, against the Hawks, he was the third small forward, and shot 0-for-2 in 16 minutes.
Miller began working this past summer on consistently making 3-point attempts from the corner. Babbitt, who played admirably defensively last season, has worked on getting stronger and in better shape for the challenge of guarding small forwards.
Of course, the Pelicans also will play Tyreke Evans at small forward, but the plan all along has been to pair him with Anderson in a lethal second unit that would make the bench strong.
In the Wizards, who won at Chicago, 85-81, on Monday in their preseason opener, the Pelicans are playing a team that also is looking for things to work out at small forward. Washington signed former Boston Celtic Paul Pierce. However, Pierce, who is entering his 17th season and will turn 37 on Oct. 13, showed last season with the New Jersey Nets he no longer is the productive player he was.
The Wizards are hoping Otto Porter, the third pick in last season’s draft from Georgetown, can begin to come around this season and fill a big gap.
The Wizards also are looking for a boost from second-year swingman Glen Rice Jr., the MVP of the Summer League. However, at 6-foot-6, he may play mostly as the backup at shooting guard.
The Wizards are looking to be more physical this season and have brought in power forward DeJuan Blair along with Kris Humphries, another power forward, and Pierce.
In the opener against the Bulls, against whom the Wizards had a physical playoff series, Pierce got into an altercation with Chicago center Joakim Noah after fouling Jimmy Butler in a manner to which Noah objected.
Former LSU player Garrett Temple is vying for the Wizards’ backup point guard job. He played 6:01 minutes at Chicago, didn’t attempt a shot and had two rebounds, one assist and one steal. … The Pelicans return home Thursday and don’t have another game until their preseason home opener Oct. 14 against the Houston Rockets. “I’ve just got to figure out when we can get an off day without sacrificing the conditioning we’ve built up,” Williams said.