Austin Rivers has played exceptionally well in the summer league.
Taking place in Las Vegas, the summer league held its first-ever tournament, a single-elimination showdown with seeds spanning from No. 1 through No. 22. New Orleans locked up the No. 11 seed after wins over the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, separated by a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Pelicans were eliminated in the first round of the tournament—an 87-82 loss to the Denver Nuggets—effectively ending the team’s chances in Las Vegas.
A loser’s bracket matchup versus the Washington Wizards on Friday, July 19 will be the Pelicans' final game.
More than a win-loss record, the summer league provides coach Monty Williams and general manager Dell Demps with an opportunity to evaluate their players before extending an invitation to training camp.
It’s no surprise that the players who were on the roster last season received the majority of playing time and the bulk of the highlights. Summer league games are 40 minutes—10-minute quarters—and both Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts saw over 30 minutes of action per game.
Given the chance to impress Williams and the Pelicans front office, some players have opened eyes and see a legitimate shot at making the roster come October. Others know they have a spot; it's just about polishing their game and fixing flaws.
Austin Rivers’ Growth
As the biggest name on the Pelicans’ summer league roster, Rivers wanted to quiet his critics and revert back to the style of play that earned him the No. 10 pick in 2012’s NBA draft.
He has averaged 17 points per game in Las Vegas, hitting threes and using his explosiveness to attack the basket.
After a 24-point effort in the first game since he broke his left hand in March, Rivers’ confidence soared. He was the best player on the court throughout the summer league. He is feeding teammates, finishing drives, drawing fouls and playing tight, on-ball defense.
It’s a different Rivers that we’re seeing, and that has a lot to do with his growth—and health.
According to John Reid of The New Orleans Times-Picayune, Rivers said, “I just came here to work and win. This has been a great summer league for me so far. I’m no longer thinking too much. I feel like I can beat anybody.”
His aggressiveness and execution will create a space for him in the guard rotation if he can continue to be confident in training camp.
Jeff Withey Can Be a Dominating Defender
Perhaps the player who made the most of his minutes is Jeff Withey. Cutting his hair didn’t alter the length of the 7' big man's reach.
With no clear-cut starting center, Withey has a shot to crack the rotation and receive quality minutes on opening night.
In Las Vegas, he displayed his greatest strengths: interior defense and shot-blocking.
Although he struggled in his debut against Milwaukee, going 1-of-5 from the field with two rebounds and one block, that can happen to anybody in their first professional game. He shook off the jitters and came out strong against Cleveland.
Playing just over 15 minutes, Withey had a team-high three blocks (including two on one play) and grabbed three rebounds. He is a hustle player and is able to disrupt shots even if he doesn’t get a hand on the ball.
Withey told Reid of The New Orleans Times-Picayune:
I just need to be me, block shots, get extra possessions and run the floor. So it's an easy job for me because that's what I'm all about. I don't have a lot of pressure to score or anything like Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Austin Rivers.
Withey recorded a game-high six rebounds against the Nuggets, including two offensive boards. If he’s able to give the offense extra possessions on a consistent basis, his role will become that much more important.
His efforts on defense and on the glass haven’t gone unnoticed. Coach Williams spoke to Reid regarding Withey: “I think he has the ability to make plays for us on the defensive end like nobody else that we have.”
Plus, Withey doesn’t foul. He totaled just three fouls in three games, which is an added bonus when playing in the middle of the defense.
Battle of the Guards
With the acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, plus the presence of Eric Gordon, the backcourt is crowded.
The greatest position battle lies with the guards, including Rivers, who are all vying for that backup or third-string role.
Rivers has clearly played the best basketball in Las Vegas, but Roberts and rookie Pierre Jackson are trying to show their abilities as well.
New Orleans has yet to pick up the option on 27-year-old Roberts, who is playing extremely well this summer. He’s knocked down mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper, scoring an average of 14.5 points on 45.5 percent from the floor. His best performance came in a 20-point effort on 8-of-15 shooting against Milwaukee.
At the 1:05 mark of the highlight below, you can see the mid-range jump shot that Roberts has been consistently draining.
A backcourt of Rivers and Roberts has showed it can compete at a high level. Each has gotten their touches and has been able to create plays off the dribble.
Roberts won’t be a primary ball-handler, and he has proven he can knock down shots playing off the ball. His performances will make it tough for Demps not to pick up the $788,872 option.
Jackson, on the other hand, has had a tough time sustaining himself in limited action. Like Withey, Jackson struggled mightily in his first game against the Bucks. Fighting nerves, he went 1-of-7 from the field with three turnovers and four points.
Jackson has played in just two games—an eye infection caused him to miss the game against the Nuggets—going 2-of-11 from the floor, while totaling six points, five assists and eight turnovers.
A player with tons of potential, Jackson was able to burst past the defense off the dribble, but he couldn’t finish at the rim. His overall outings were subpar this summer and may have hurt his chances of making the final roster, given the depth at his position.
The Latest from Darius Miller
Darius Miller had a breakout performance in his 23-point effort versus Denver. He scored 20 second-half points in his most impressive outing as a professional.
This comes after the Pelicans brass urged him to be more aggressive with the ball. In four summer games, Miller has played over 29 minutes per game, and his 23 points on Wednesday upped his scoring average to 13.5 per contest.
Still, it hasn't been all good for the former Kentucky Wildcat. It took a couple games for Miller to find his stroke, as he went 10-of-31 from the field in his first three games.
Against Denver, Miller was clearly working on the aggressive side of his game. Instead of settling for the outside shot, he made plays with his ball-handling by creating open shots in the mid-range and driving to the basket.
Miller went to the line six times, which is relevant because in 2012-13 he shot a total of eight foul shots in 51 games.
A true team player, Miller is overcoming early frustrations and has been working diligently to secure a roster spot.
Summing It All Up
The Pelicans roster is almost set. With huge upgrades in the backcourt this offseason, there is an ongoing battle for backup minutes. The guards have been playing quality basketball and will have more chances to impress during training camp.
It is highly unlikely any other player from the summer league team—excluding Rivers, Roberts, Miller, Withey and perhaps Jackson or Lance Thomas—makes the roster.
If Demps is looking for size, Thomas has a shot at receiving an invitation to training camp over Jackson. However, if skill and talent is the deciding factor, then with practice and maturation, Jackson will be Demps’ man. Bringing both would total 15 players for the roster.
Thomas was waived before re-joining the Pelicans for the summer league. He could be brought back on a more cost-effective salary, and he has given Demps every reason why that would be a good idea.
The 6’8” forward led the team in scoring against Cleveland, making all five of his shot attempts for 14 points, while grabbing 10 rebounds, including four on the offensive end. He totaled 23 boards in the three games he appeared in.
If the interest in Greg Oden gains any ground, either Jackson or Thomas will be the odd man out.
New Orleans is set up to rebound nicely from a 27-55 season. If Rivers is at 100 percent, Withey has an interior presence and Miller produces on the wing, the entire roster would be solidified.