After the New Orleans Pelicans summer league team’s second day of practice Tuesday, center Jeff Withey called it together and spoke.
It seemed a little odd. There are many players older and more experienced on the team than Withey. And, Withey is soft-spoken.
However, with small forward James Southerland the only other player who spent time with the Pelicans last season, Withey is the summer team’s elder statesman with regard to the organization. And, his development last season, culminating in his promising play in the final stretch, is what has him in this role.
“Not only can he be the leader of this team, he is the leader,” said Pelicans summer league coach Brian Gates. “This summer is about the development of Jeff Withey.”
Of course, there are other objectives concerning the team’s play in the Las Vegas Summer League, which begins Friday. They are to find a small forward who can make the regular-season roster, get point guard Russ Smith acclimated to a defensive role the Pelicans have mapped out for him and develop power forward Patric Young, an undrafted free agent from Florida.
The Pelicans’ trade with Houston for center Omer Asik could result in just two true centers on the roster, with Withey as the backup. If the trade falls through, he would have an even bigger role. In either case, he would have to perform well and consistently.
“I want to improve my rebounding and develop my offensive game,” Withey said. “I really would like to become a better defensive rebounder, especially, and continue to get better as a shot-blocker.”
Withey, 7-foot-1, has been working with assistant coach Kevin Hanson on enhancing his play and also has hit the weights, putting on 17 pounds since the end of the season, he said.
Ideally, he would be groomed enough to fill the center/power forward spot formerly played by Jason Smith.
“We’re going to put Jeff in different situations, and we’re challenging him to do some things he might not normally do,” Gates said. “He is going to get 15 to 20 touches (offensively) per game.”
There are four small forwards on the roster. With the pending trade for center Asik addressing the team’s biggest need, the Pelicans are trying to find an inexpensive way to fill the second-biggest need. They are rolling the dice with summer league players because of salary-cap restraints and that the small forward will be the last offensive option on the team. They basically need someone who can hold his own.
“We’ve explained to the guys, defend your position,” Gates said. “And not with everybody helping. Make open shots. And rebound your position.”
Gates said the Pelicans are looking for another Brian Roberts, but at small forward. Roberts, a point guard, made his mark in the summer league in 2012 and played admirably for two seasons with New Orleans.
“You just find a gem,” Gates said. “That’s one of the things that has me excited.”
Vying for an invitation to training camp in October and ultimately a spot on the Pelicans are holdover Southerland, veteran Josh Howard, Italian League player Josh Carter and DeQuan Jones, who played in the Development League last season.
The Pelicans are excited about Smith at point guard. Listed at 6 feet, he is not that tall but is very quick. The Pelicans have carved out a role in which he would be pressure the ball full court and be a change-of-pace defender behind starter Jrue Holiday.
Point guard Pierre Jackson, who was traded to Philadelphia for the draft pick to select Smith, was a prolific scorer in the Development League. However, at 5-8, Jackson was told by Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps that he needed to show he can be more of a pesk picking up guards full court and making them turn their backs to him to protect the ball, which usually results in steals and bad passes.
The Pelicans believe Smith can do that. They also want to see more.
“Russ is going to play a lot of minutes, and (let us) see his NBA point guard ability,” Gates said. “Quick is quick. But can he run a team? Can he demand the respect of the floor, be the floor general out there? That’s going to be his challenge.”
Young is seen as the big, strong power forward to complement Anthony Davis’ taller, more sleek and athletic build and all-around style. The Pelicans brought in Development League player Arinze Onuaku last season to fill that bump-and-grind role. He made the final roster but was not the rebounder or physical defender the team sought, and he also didn’t run the court well and was soon gone.
Young (6-9, 240) doesn’t seem to have those problems, but like Onuaku will have every chance to make the team. Young, who played center at Florida will start at power forward alongside Withey, also is a big part of the versatility the summer league team has, Gates said.
“We’ll start Jeff the five and Patric at the four,” Gates said. “Then, we can take Jeff out and put a (shooting guard) in the game and have a different kind of lineup.
“One of the things I like about this team is it has good chemistry.”