Pelicans aiming high as free agency arrives

On Thursday night, Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps’ smile was as wide as has been seen in the past year.

Demps had just pulled off a draft-night trade that netted the Pelicans the type of athletic point guard he and Coach Monty Williams had coveted.

The draft, which usually yields a young player who won’t be a tremendous contributor right away, gave the Pelicans some big-time, proven help for next season.

That swap with Philadelphia — which boils down to center Nerlens Noel, selected No. 6 by the Pelicans, for point guard Jrue Holiday — could pay off before the season even starts.

The free-agent signing period begins Monday, and Demps is poised to address further needs to help the team improve last season’s 27-55 record. Although free agents usually want money, playing time and a chance to win, Holiday could attract other top players as a sign the team is turning things around.

Even as rumors swirled on draft night, Demps said he and his staff anticipated being active this summer.

“We want to upgrade the roster,” he said. “(Owner Tom Benson) is giving us all the resources we need to upgrade the roster, and that’s what we want to do.”

Heading into the draft, the Pelicans were approximately $24 million under last season’s $58 million salary cap. That was before obtaining Holiday, whose salary will be about $11 million next season. That leaves enough money to bring in at least a few free agents who can improve the roster.

The Pelicans have just seven players under contract for next season, counting Holiday. The NBA won’t approve the trade until July 10, the start of its fiscal year.

The obvious position that will be targeted for a free-agent signing is small forward — and there will be all types from which to choose. The list of players who could fit in well with the Pelicans is long: Andre Iguodala, Tyreke Evans, Andrei Kirilenko, Matt Barnes, Mike Dunleavy and Earl Clark, among others. And there are other players at other positions who warrant interest.

Demps said finding players to complement Anthony Davis, last year’s No. 1 pick, is key.

“Fit is important,” he said. “We have a young core, and we want to build around it.”

Signing Iguodala may be wishful thinking. He opted out of the final year of his contract with Denver, which would have paid him $16 million. Obviously he wants the security of a multi-year deal.

And at 6-foot-6, he is more of a shooting guard, although he is effective at small forward. His athleticism, defense, versatility and experience make him attractive for the Pelicans, but he likely is looking to play for a winning team, not a rebuilding one.

Evans, 23, began his career as Sacramento’s starting point guard, then moved to shooting guard and finally small forward. At 6-7, he drives to the basket well. He needs to improve his overall game, particularly his defense, and Williams is known for being able to develop young players.

He is a restricted free agent, though, and Sacramento can match any offer. But the long-struggling Kings are under new ownership, just drafted shooting guard Ben McLemore and point guard Ray McCallum and may be headed in a new direction.

Kirilenko could be interesting. At 32, he may be too old for the Pelicans, but at 6-9, he is long, crafty, a good shot-blocker and has been consistent. He could help the Pelicans with his drives to the basket and back-door cuts, which gave New Orleans problems last season, and he is effective on the fast break.

Barnes is a competitor with a solid all-around game, which includes 3-point shooting and defense. But he has been a career backup.

Dunleavy, 6-9, is a good outside shooter who can handle the ball and attack the lane. Clark is 6-10 and a promising young player, but it remains to be seen whether he’s just a power forward with outside shooting skills.

Small forward Kyle Korver, one of the best outside shooters in the league, also is available.

Other free agents who could draw the Pelicans’ interest include former New Orleans Hornets guard J.R. Smith, veteran center Samuel Dalembert (a good shot-blocker) and point guard/shooting guard Monta Ellis (a high-octane scorer).

Smith would be intriguing. After eight years of showing both tremendous potential and agonizing immaturity, he seemed to turn the corner last season. He averaged a career-high 18.1 points but more importantly played with more discipline and was better defensively.

When he came to New Orleans last season with the New York Knicks, he wore a look of remorse and said he wished he had allowed himself to be coached more by Byron Scott when his career began with the Hornets. A return could bring redemption, particularly if the Pelicans win big, and his explosive scoring and freakish athletic ability might be worth a try.

Jason Smith, the Pelicans’ backup center and power forward last season, and small forward Al-Farouq Aminu also are free agents. Smith, 7-0, gave the team tough, steady play and a pick-and-pop option on offense. Aminu was not the answer at small forward, but at 6-9 he is athletic, a good rebounder and defender who makes plays with his shot-blocking and lob dunks that get the crowd into the game.

Note: The Pelicans will debut the rebranded New Orleans Arena court design for next season Monday morning on Pelicans.com. Fans also will be able to take a 360-degree tour of the new inner bowl of the arena, including the new Party Perch in the Balcony. It will have a bandstand that will feature live music.