The New Orleans Pelicans’ summer league team began practice Monday with 12 players.
The team, which will begin play in the Las Vegas Summer League on Friday, is an eclectic mix of players, including a trio who were with the Pelicans last season, some who have played overseas, those who played in the NBA Development League, undrafted free agents and a draftee.
That’s different from most teams, who usually have drafted players, undrafted free agents and a few young roster players from the previous season.
“It’s a new group, but it’s a veteran group,” said Brian Gates, an assistant coach on Monty Williams’ staff who is in his second year as the Pelicans’ summer league coach. “It’s really interesting to see (the veterans) and then with the young guys.”
It is a testament to today’s global scouting — and the Pelicans’ — to bring in players from various experiences. The players are taking different paths but have their eyes on the big picture: trying to land a spot with the Pelicans or another NBA team.
By participating in summer league, point guard Russ Smith, who was selected out of Louisville in the second round of the NBA draft June 26, is doing what fresh, young draftees do on their way to acclimating themselves to a higher level of play.
“It’s been fun playing with and against guys who know the game,” he said.
Power forward Patric Young, who played at Florida, 6-foot-5 guard Drew Crawford of Northwestern, and 6-5 shooting guard Cameron Ayers of Bucknell are here to prove a point. Neither was selected by an NBA team on draft night. Crawford is the son of referee Dan Crawford, and Ayers the son of Pelicans lead assistant coach Randy Ayers. This is the first chance for the trio at gaining a shot at their dreams. That has a hunger burning in them, certainly for Young.
“I’ve got to have that chip on my shoulder,” said Young, 6-9, 240 pounds. “I was an undrafted guy that deserved to be (drafted), so I have to be the most aggressive, angry guy out there, especially starting with summer league.”
Before entering summer league play, he is getting valuable experience in practice against two veterans who play overseas.
Power forward Samardo Samuels, 25, played in Italy (Emporio Armani Milano) last season, and power forward Keith Chamberlain, 26, played in Turkey (Haccettepe).
Along with small forward Josh Carter, 27, (Montepaschi Siena in Italy), each is looking to make an impression at a position in which the Pelicans have a need.
With the goal of earning a contract this summer, they may have a decision to make come training camp time, when their Euroleague teams begin starting up and a contract may be more obtainable.
In the meantime, summer league is a good way to stay in basketball shape against good competition and keep their names on the minds of NBA general managers.
“People ask me what do all these guys look for,” Gates said. “I think Josh Carter has been to four or five summer leagues. … Sometimes guys will try to come here and try to better their stock in Europe or catch on with another team.”
That includes a handful of younger players who spent last season in the NBA Development League: DeQuan Jones (Reno Bighorns), Abdul Gaddy (Maine Red Claws) and Courtney Fells, a 6-5 guard who played at North Carolina State and has been in pro leagues but spent last season with the Austin Toros.
So did veteran Josh Howard, the most intriguing story on the Pelicans’ summer league team. At 34, Howard, who played 10 years in the NBA, is trying to use this summer’s experience, on the heels of averaging 14.7 points per game with Austin last season, to make a comeback.
Gates said Howard is in the right place.
“Those guys go to these summer leagues, and there’s seven guys that the team already has under contract who are going to play,” Gates said. “So it’s like, ‘I’m just searching for my minutes.’ That’s not going to happen here. They’re all going to play. This is a new opportunity for ’em.”
And then there are second-year center Jeff Withey, forward Luke Babbitt and small forward James Southerland, who played with the Pelicans last season. Withey has an opportunity to gain a bigger role on the Pelicans if he has an excellent summer league, then an impressive training camp.
“He should look to be dominant,” Gates said.
Babbitt was playing in Russia last season when the Pelicans signed him in February. Southerland played in the Development League before the Pelicans brought him in with five games left in the regular season.
This summer marks the start of their going through the full process with the team. With perhaps a leg up already, they are looking to make the most of it.