MIAMI — Coach Alvin Gentry, talking to the media before the Pelicans lost to the Miami Heat 140-128 in a preseason game Wednesday night, had some fun with reporters peppering him with questions.
Asked to identify the most impressive Pelicans player in this preseason, Gentry took the Q-and-A version of a layup by saying: “I like A.D.”
Anthony Davis, a 6-foot-10 freak of nature also known as an Olympic gold medalist, a five-time NBA All-Star and a three-time shot-block champ, rested on Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, Gentry, turning a bit more pensive in his meeting with the media, said 6-4 point guard Elfrid Payton is a player he’s excited to watch this season.
Payton, who started and had 17 points, a game-high eight assists and just two turnovers, is a former NBA lottery pick with the Orlando Magic who came home to New Orleans when he decided on July 9 to sign a one-year deal with the Pelicans. His first home game with the Pelicans is Thursday night, when New Orleans host the Toronto Raptors in its final preseason game of the season.
Gentry has done his homework on Payton and referenced his Cajun upbringing at John Ehret High School as well as his college career at Louisiana-Lafayette.
“We want to play extremely fast,” Gentry said, “and that suits (Payton’s) game. That’s the way he played in college. That’s the way he played in high school.
“I think he has embraced the fact that he will be able to make instinctive basketball decisions.”
Payton was an unheralded recruit out of high school who had a breakout sophomore season with the Ragin’ Cajuns. He started for Team USA’s Under-19 team that summer and was the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year as a junior, convincing him to bolt to the NBA one year early.
He was drafted 10th overall in 2014 — seven spots after Philadelphia All-Star center Joel Embiid and three selections after Julius Randle, who joined Payton in New Orleans’ free agent class of 2018.
If anything has held Payton back so far, it’s been his shooting. But his effective field goal percentage — which adjusts for the value of three- and two-point shots — has increased in each of his four years in the league. In fact, his EFGP was a career-best .493 percent last year, including .520 with Orlando before slumping a bit in the 19 games since he was traded to Phoenix.
Gentry, though, sees progress in Payton’s marksmanship, including a 7 for 11 performance on Wednesday (2 of 3 on 3-pointers).
“I think he feels a lot more confident as a shooter,” Gentry said of Payton, who no longer has the long hair that seemingly restricted his vision. “(Shooting) is an area where he has to get better, but I guarantee that no one has put in more work than he has since training camp started.”
If Payton’s shot is falling, the rest of his game should flow. His speed and quickness are elite, and his career numbers include 6.4 assists and 2.4 turnovers.
“Elfrid has shown us he can run the team,” Gentry said. “He has surprised me as a passer. I knew he was pretty good at it, but he is very good at it, reading situations.
“Usually this is the age (Payton is 24), where guys in this league are what they are. I think this is an opportunity for him. We think he can push the basketball. We think he can be a good decision-maker, and he’s going to have an opportunity to prove that.”
At 0-4, the Pelicans are the only winless team in the NBA’s preseason. Miami’s points total on Wednesday set a team record for a preseason game. ... Besides Davis, the Pelicans rested guards Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore. Gentry also singled out Moore, saying he has played “as well as anyone in camp this year.”