New Orleans Pelicans Summer League Preview: What to Watch for in Vegas

Published: July 10, 2013

Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson might be the most impressive finishing five in New Orleans basketball history. Al-Farouq Aminu was brought back to take another crack at the starting small forward position, as Dell apparently chose him over more established players at the positions. Jason Smith appears fully recovered from injury, and could be the starting center come opening day.

And none of those guys will be playing for the New Orleans Pelicans next week in Las Vegas as Summer League kicks off.

But that doesn’t mean that Summer League isn’t important for this franchise. I would argue that this could be the most important Summer League, in fact. The Pelicans finishing five is a known entity; They are all quality young veterans who are quasi All-Stars when healthy. It’s unsure how they will fit together, but there is no doubt that they can play at a high level in this league. For the key players on the Pelicans Summer League team, there is still a high level of uncertainty.

And that’s what makes this Summer League so intriguing. With the Pelicans so heavily invested financially in the top half of its roster, it is imerative that they get some solid contributions from guys on the bottom half who are still on rookie contracts or minimum deals. They have three guys who return to the team after playing in Vegas last year, and logged minutes under Monty WIlliams during the regular season. They also have added two rookies that were arguably amongst the most NBA ready prospects in this draft. Those five players are scheduled to make just around $7 million combined next season, and if a roster is only as strong as its weakest link, it is imperative that at least some of these guys take a step forward this summer.

With that in mind, we take a look at the Summer League roster and what to watch for from each of these guys individually.

Austin Rivers

To say that Rivers struggled last season would be a bit of an understatement, but luckily he has a few things going for him. First of all, he was actually playing quite well before he suffered his season ending injury against the Lakers. In the 9 games following the All-Star break, he was shooting 51% from the field and 40% from three while drastically reducing his turnovers (just 0.6 per game). Second, the injury to his right hand actually allowed him to focus on his off hand for about two months. And third, players traditionally have the largest growth in the summer between their first and second seasons.

Rivers is finally 100%, now that the hand and all the nagging foot and ankle injuries are finally healed. This Summer League is big for him, arguably bigger for him than any single player in the entire league. Numerous national articles claimed that his season last year was one for the ages – in a bad way. Then, this offseason, Dell spent nearly $90 million on two playmakers in Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans to put next to Eric Gordon, leaving Rivers to battle it out with Brian Roberts, Anthony Morrow and second round pick Pierre Jackson for the 4th guard position.

If Rivers wants to lock down that spot and secure the 12-15 minutes that come with it, he is going to have to show improvement on the catch-and-shoot. Chances are that Evans, Holiday, or Gordon will be on the court at all times, at least one of them, and that means Rivers will play primarily off the ball. Last season we started to see him get more comfortable catching and shooting, especially from the corner. In order to prove his value offensively, this trend will have to continue, as will his ability to finish at the rim and hit free throws.

Defensively is where Rivers really showed some promise last season, and if he can show that he can guard PG’s on a regular basis, he can lock down the 4th guard spot. Evans is better suited guarding 2’s and 3’s, leaving a need for a guy to pressure the ball at the point of attack in the second unit. Rivers showed the effort and quickness to be a great defender last season, but he struggled off the ball, primarily in rotations. If you want to play for Monty WIlliams, it starts with defense, and if Rivers off the ball defense can match his on the ball defense, he will be a regular in the rotation this season.

Darius Miller

When Anthony Morrow was signed, people immediately started questioning what the signing meant for Eric Gordon or even Ryan Anderson (because of the Asik rumors), but in all honesty, the guy it probably effects the most is Darius Miller. Miller showed some tremendous flashes last year, but they were too far and few between. He was criticized by coaches and even teammates for being too passive, and even when he was sent to the NBDL, he didn’t really light it up down there.

Miller is an above average defender who is a tremendous passer for his position and a solid three-point shooter. Remember, the Spurs released and re-signed Danny Green twice and sent him to the NBDL numerous times before it finally clicked for him. Miller has confidence issues at times, but he seems to thrive when he isn’t asked to do much. The Pelicans now have the talent to allow him to just be a corner three specialist, so watch for that in summer league. Can he find the open spots behind the arc when guards penetrate, and can he knock those shots down?

If he can, he could very well challenge Morrow for minutes as our shooter off the bench.

Jeff Withey

Withey was viewed by some as a throw in when the Pelicans acquired Tyreke Evans, but the way this roster stands right now, Withey is legitimately in the running to be our starting center. Despite being just a rookie, he is actually the 7th oldest guys in this team after playing 4 years at Kansas, and he was one of the most NBA ready prospects in the 2013 draft. If Withey wants to win this starting job or at least crack the rotation, he will have to show two things:

1.) That he can hold his ground in the low post against 250+ pound centers

2.) That he can hold his own when playing pick and roll defense

We already know he can block shots at the rim on defense and finish at the rim on offense. If he shows that he can do those two things, we could look at a guy taken 39th in the draft becoming an immediate starter, and/or a guy who logs 12-16 minutes per game.

Brian Roberts

At first glance it looks like Brian Roberts does not have a spot in the rotation, but after a rookie season that saw him drastically improve from Game 1 to Game 82, I would not count him out just yet. Like Rivers, Roberts will have to show that he can be a deadly spot-up shooter playing off the ball. He had a habit of overdribbling last year, but to be fair to him, he wasn’t out there with a ton of talent and at times he was the only scoring option. That won’t be the case this year, however. Roberts will be asked to play off the ball for more this season, and this is as good of a time as any to show what he can do.

Pierre Jackson

Like Withey, Pierre Jackson played four years of college ball and is NBA ready. His production screamed top-10 pick, but his height screamed European League. We know that Jackson can score, but what he has to show this upcoming week is an ability to focus on defense when he is off the ball and he also needs to limit his turnovers offensively. He can be a spark plug that has a legitimate chance at beating out Brian Roberts and maybe even Austin Rivers for minutes, but he has to fix those two glaring weaknesses in his game to do so.

The Others

– I predict that Cameron Moore will become the guy everybody falls in love with during Summer League. 6’10” and athletic, super defensive minded, and all hustle – Moore will thrive in Summer League. I can’t see him making our roster come October, but he will be a guy Dell keeps a close eye on if we need to fill a roster spot down the road.

– Jon Brockman is a legit NBA player that came into the league four years ago and showed that he could rebound and occassionally score in this league. If he gets the minutes, he could lead the SL in rebounding, but again, I don’t see how he makes this roster in October.

– If you want a dark horse to make our squad as the 15th man, I would look to Elston Turner, Jr.. He is a 6’5″ guard who can light it up from inside and out, and can also get to the line. Maybe we bring him in and if Morrow leaves next year, he can slide into that spot.

– With 14 guaranteed contracts on the books, I really don’t see anybody else on the Summer League making the team this year outside of the key guys, but who knows 2-3 years down the line? The coaches get an up close look at these players, and if an injury occurs or we do a 3-for-1 trade and need to fill some roster spots, you can call these guys in and they know your system. Remember, with Dell it is not always about today. He is thinking years down the road, and so should you!



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