Injuries give rookie first chance
“Physically, I feel fine, because I went against some big guys in the Big 12. ... So I’d say it’s just mentally. It has a lot to do with maturing.” JEFF WITHEY Pelicans center
Garbage time during the Pelicans’ rout of the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday in Biloxi, Miss., may turn out to be a time Jeff Withey treasures as the preseason goes forward.
“He’s OK,” coach Monty Williams said. “He’s still learning the system. … I liked his activity.”
Although Withey, a rookie center, is 7 feet, things didn’t appear to be looking up for him during this training camp.
Going daily against veterans bigger and stronger, the realities of body maturity and weight training were all too evident for Withey, a slender 235 pounds.
It was looking as though Withey, a second-round pick of the Portland Trail Blazers who came to the Pelicans in the three-team Tyreke Evans trade, needed a year of development before he could contribute in NBA games.
When a less-than-considerate schedule rushed the Pelicans into their preseason games after four days of practices, Withey languished at the end of the bench.
He played just 1 minute, 20 seconds in the first game at Houston, the least amount of time by any player by nearly nine minutes. Williams didn’t play Withey in the second game at Dallas. And in the third one against Orlando, he played 1 minute, 33 seconds. His preseason totals to that point? Zero-of-3 shooting, no free throws, two rebounds, one blocked shot, one steal and three fouls.
However, with the Pelicans blowing out the Hawks, Withey received a break when bruising 6-foot-9, 265-pound power forward/center Arinze Onuaku got his fourth and fifth fouls within the first 1:40 of the fourth quarter.
Enter Withey. Playing with an ease not seen in the preseason, he scored six points on 3-of-4 shooting, grabbed six rebounds and had a steal in 10 minutes, 20 seconds. His one miss came on his first shot, a dunk attempt in which he was wide open.
“It was my best game of the preseason for sure,” said Withey, a former Kansas standout. “When I got on the floor, I made the most of it. In the previous games, I got in and I was nervous and didn’t know what to do, really. I just … played like I know how.”
Withey, who has said it’s obvious he needs to get stronger, said size and strength were not as big of an issue as it may have seemed since coming to the Pelicans. To him, the challenge has been mental, the difference in the NBA game and having to process the volume of information needed to at least begin to reach a standard of play.
“Physically, I feel fine, because I went against some big guys in the Big 12,” said Withey, the conference’s career leader in blocked shots. “I went up against Anthony Davis (against Kentucky) in the (2011 NCAA) championship, and other NBA guys.
“So I’d say it’s just mentally. It has a lot to do with maturing and just knowing the plays, knowing the defensive sets and stuff like that.”
Asked if Withey played Sunday with more of a sense of urgency after not getting much time, or any at all, in the previous preseason games, Williams said he’s always shown that.
“But try putting your 13-year-old in a car and tell them to drive from Mandeville to the West Bank,” said Williams, a father of five. “They’re going to struggle, or drive down the highway without putting his seatbelt on.
“That’s where he is right now, but it’s our job to coach him.”
Williams said he doesn’t know if Withey will get more playing time in the remaining preseason games, saying injuries — moreso players returning from injuries — will factor into that. However, he said he would like to break Withey of an old college habit.
“Sometimes, he wants to go help all the time (defensively),” Williams said. “That gets you in trouble, especially if you go from the wrong spot.
“I liked his activity (against Atlanta). I wish he could have finished that one dunk. But I like that he (rolled to the basket) on the next play and made a shot.”
Perhaps Withey could be forgiven for missing the dunk, given his scant opportunities in games.
“(The ball) just slipped out of my hand,” he said, smiling. “I was a little excited, and it just slipped out of my hand.”
Eric Gordon scrimmaged 5-on-5 with teammates for the first time during Monday’s practice.
Gordon had been “ramping up” his conditioning since training camp started Oct. 1. He had ankle surgery on May 10 and went through rehabilitation before coming to New Orleans before camp began. On Thursday, he passed a conditioning test that cleared him to scrimmage.
“It’s good to get back into the full swing of things now,” he said. “I feel fine. I’d pretty much knew I’d be fine, and I’m pretty much looking forward to these upcoming practices and games.”
The Pelicans have four preseason games remaining. They play Thursday against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Tulsa, Okla. Gordon said he doesn’t know if he’ll play in that one.
Asked if he needs a certain amount of preseason games to get ready for the regular season, Gordon said: “I definitely want to play in some preseason games to get ready for the regular season, for sure.”
Williams said power forward/center Jason Smith, who sat out Sunday’s game because of hip and possibly quadriceps injuries, did not practice. The team is awaiting tests from doctors. ... Guard/forward Tyreke Evans, whose left ankle was sprained Oct. 5 against Houston, did not participate in the scrimmage but continues to work on his offensive game.