NEW ORLEANS — There was a bit of irony in New Orleans Pelicans players Brian Roberts’ and Jason Smith’s appearance at Zephyr Field on Saturday.
Roberts, a first-year backup point guard with the team in its final year as the Hornets last season, was at the baseball field to throw out the first pitch before the Zephyrs’ Pacific Coast League game against the Tacoma Rainiers.
“It was high and wide,” said Roberts of his pitch. “I warmed up (inside the bowels of the stadium), but when I got to the mound, it was farther than I thought.”
Roberts may have come farther this season than many thought he could. Coming into the past NBA season uncertain about his role, he made his pitch to remain with the team, which has an option on a second year on whether to retain him. He said he hasn’t talked to the Hornets about it, but that he is confident he showed he can play.
“Coach (Monty Williams) told me he didn’t know how much I would play, so just be ready when your name is called,” said Roberts, who was known as a scorer but last season showed he could also play as a traditional point guard. “Whenever he called me, I tried to go out there an fight and show what I could do, and that got me more and more minutes throughout the season.”
With Smith as his running mate during Saturday’s promotion, Roberts was the only candidate to make the first pitch. Smith, who is right-handed, had surgery on his right labrum in April and is still rehabilitating.
Asked if he could have thrown out the first pitch, he said, “I’m a long way from that. I’ve been doing light weights, lifting one pound, then progressing to three pounds.
“It’s coming along, but I probably won’t be able to do basketball stuff until training camp. But I’m wish I could be back with the young guys this summer.”
The rehabbing means Smith, 27, will miss the Pelicans’ player development workouts conducted by the coaches, which start next week. However, he said he is eager for the workouts to begin. The Hornets, who started the season with only three players from the previous season, went 27-55 (check this) last season.
“It was a season of maturity,” said Smith, who is the team’s longest-tenured player, having just completed his third season in New Orleans. “We obviously need to get better, and there are a lot of guys who want to get better.”
Both players say they don’t know what direction the Pelicans will go in the draft. The draft lottery to determine where the Pelicans will pick will take place May 21. The NBA draft is June 27.
Free agency will be more important for the team, and Williams has said the team is focused on upgrading the roster with proven, talented veterans. And, the Pelicans can use help in many areas.
Smith has a year plus a team option left on his contract. He brought an intensity, physical style, rebounding and an offensive option that the team sorely missed when he became injured. A key reserve at power forward, he embodied the team’s heart.
“I thought I had a very good shooting year this season, and I got a little bit better defensively,” said Smith, who shot 49 percent and was a weapon with his pick-and-pop shots. “I think coach could count on me to have that consistency when he put me in there.”
The free-agency signings can’t begin until July 1. The interim gives Roberts an opportunity to improve and also impress Williams and general manager Dell Demps one more time. He had impressive performances when pressed into playing as a starter, including 18 assists in a stunning home victory against the Denver Nuggets, the No. 3 seeds in the Western Conference playoffs.
There had been much speculation that guard Eric Gordon could be traded this offseason. Gordon also ankle surgery Friday, which Smith said is just part of the game. But he said Gordon, who has been affected by injuries the past two years, is vital for the team when healthy.
“I think everybody saw the difference that he makes when he’s on the court,” Smith said. “He’s a scorer, (and) he’s a threat when he’s not scoring. He opens the floor up for a lot of us. He’s somebody we need healthy.”