Even though New Orleans Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps and coach Monty Williams remade the team for this season, there was one piece that was missing last season that still had to be addressed.
With slender Anthony Davis and Jason Smith and nearly small-forward-sized 3-point shooter Ryan Anderson as the power forwards, that New Orleans needed a big, physical banger there to go against the likes of Memphis’ Zach Randolph and others was obvious.
Injuries sometimes allowed for auditions, but last season saw the team bring in bigger, more muscular or physical power forwards such as Dominic McGuire, Henry Sims and Lou Amundson in an attempt to fill the void.
It may be filled now, although time well tell. Arinze Onuaku, a former Syracuse player who was selected to the NBA Development League All-Star team last season, was with the Pelicans even before training camp started, making his presence known.
“He is a strong guy, man,” Anderson said Tuesday of Onuaku, 6-feet-9, 275 pounds. “He is definitely something that we need on this team. He’s just a big body, a strong player, and he really knows how to play the game.”
Williams said he has been impressed with Onuaku’s play in practice and obviously has been trying to get him ready for the season. Onuaku played a total of 40 minutes, 34 seconds in the first three preseason games and fared OK.
However, Williams, demanding more, voiced disappointment with Onuaku’s play against the Atlanta Hawks in Sunday’s preseason game in Biloxi, Miss.
He played 10:11 and didn’t attempt a shot but sank two free throws and grabbed two rebounds.
He was taken out of the game after getting his fourth and fifth fouls less than two minutes into fourth quarter.
“We have a couple of guys who just don’t play as hard as they need to play,” Williams said.
Then, Williams was asked about Onuaku specifically.
“He has to understand NBA basketball,” Williams said. “What he thinks is running is not running for us. We RUN down the floor.
“With his ability and his size, he’s got to be able to take advantage of it by beating people down the floor. That’s why we spent six weeks in preseason running and doing all the things we feel like are going to help us as a young team.”
Williams said Monday that he thought Onuaku was a little off from the good work he’s been doing in practice.
To Onuaku, it’s part of many adjustments he’s had to make with the Pelicans, who are 4-0 heading into Thursday’s game against Oklahoma City. He said he wants to keep getting better at everything Williams is expecting from him.
“He’s always preaching running,” Onuaku said. “That’s always him. We want to get the ball out and run, so all five guys have to be sprinting.”
Onuaku knows why the Pelicans brought him in, and said he tried to make the most of his early preseason game opportunities. He had eight points on 3-of-5 shooting, seven rebounds and a blocked shot against Houston, but has scored just four points since.
“I’m just here to bring what we need,” he said. “We need a physical big man to play defense, cover the rim and go against those bigger guys.”
Anderson said Onuaku brought something immediately when he walked into the door to the Pelicans’ practice facility and that it continues to permeate the team’s practices. With his size and ability, he forces his will. That’s what was missing against the Hawks.
“He brings a presence in practice every day and makes it a fight, makes it a battle. And that’s how this team really gets into it and is being successful,” Anderson said.
“I’m just glad that he’s aggressive when he gets the ball. I know that he can defend, I know that he can rebound. I like having him on the court with me, and the other guys, too, because we know he is going to cover our backs.”
Onuaku will have a good gauge concerning his potential effectiveness when he goes against Thunder center Kendrick Perkins on Thursday night in Tulsa, Okla. Perkins is a strong and very physical player.
Like Onuaku has done all training camp, he said he’ll take it as another chance to learn.
“There are guys in the league who are big, physical guys,” he said. “I’m trying to get a feel for it, but the vets, they have little things they can get away with, like where they put their hands and getting position and things like that.”
Williams has said since camp began that he thinks Onuaku can really help the Pelicans.
“He’s a young player, he certainly has a skill set and a size we don’t have,” Williams said. “We enjoy having him because he works at it.”
Power forward Jason Smith again did not practice on Tuesday after sitting out Sunday’s game with a hip and possible quadriceps injury.