Players the New Orleans Pelicans Most Need to Step Up Next Season

Ryan Clutter@@rclutt07Contributor IIIJuly 31, 2013

Players the New Orleans Pelicans Most Need to Step Up Next Season

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    Attempting to avoid a rebuilding phase, the New Orleans Pelicans have spent all of its available money to put together a contender. 

    There are new faces up and down the roster that head coach Monty Williams hopes will enable his team to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010-11. 

    While the team has struggled through injury problems with Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers and Jason Smith missing considerable time last season, the new signings have added much needed depth to the lineup—each bringing their own unique skill-set.

    The success of this team is contingent on playing together and each player stepping into their respective roles without causing a disruption in the locker room. 

    Plus, there are those who have played poorly in the past and are looking to prove they deserve a spot in Williams’ rotation. 

    Davis is the face of the franchise and newly-acquired Jrue Holiday comes to the team fresh off a career-year at age 23. The two best players on the roster know what is expected of them, it’s the role players and those plagued by previous injuries who most need to step up in 2013-14.

    Position shifts will be a common occurrence, but will these players be reliable when their number is called?

Tyreke Evans

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    The Sacramento Kings didn’t want to match the four-year, $44 million offer sheet from the Pelicans to restricted free agent Tyreke Evans, thus resulting in a sign-and-trade.

    Entering his fifth season, Evans’ production has decreased since his 2010 Rookie of the Year campaign, though his efficiency has improved.

    He went from averaging 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists in his rookie season to averaging 15.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 2012-13. 

    Evans shot a career-high 47.8 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from beyond the arc while committing a career-low two turnovers per game last season, but he's stepping into a different role in New Orleans, surrounded by shooters and offensive-minded wing players. 

    Adjusting to a new role will be difficult for a 23-year-old scorer like Evans, but he just needs to produce when his number is called. Regardless of whether he takes more spot-up jump shots or draws the defense on a drive-and-kick type play, Evans needs to step up and play team basketball without trying to do too much. 

    Amid speculation that Evans is going to play small forward, he must become a force on defense as well. New Orleans’ perimeter defense was subpar last season as they surrendered too many open, uncontested jump shots. Evans needs to provide some defensive stability on the wing and focus on clogging the passing lanes. 

    If he can score 15.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting while in a Pelicans uniform, then general manager Dell Demps did an outstanding job with this signing.

Eric Gordon

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    Shooting guard Eric Gordon’s time in New Orleans has been plagued by injury. He was traded from a rising Los Angeles Clippers team to a rebuilding Hornets team, and his heart wasn’t in it. 

    Now, with the rebuilding phase seemingly in the pastplus a healthy kneeGordon has to prove he’s the player who signed that max contract. While he was very efficient on the court, he missed the first 29 games of 2012-13 and was restricted from playing in back-to-back sets for the entire season. 

    His production has been great his entire career and he led the team last year with 17 points per game, but that came on a career-low 40.2 percent from the floor. The addition of Jrue Holiday and his eight assists per game will open up chances for Gordon. (While Greivis Vasquez had nine assists per game last season, he doesn’t have anywhere near the speed, athleticism and play-making abilities that Holiday does).

    Gordon just has to take advantage of those chances and prove he can stay on the court for the majority of games. 

    He has to step up this season and show his injuries are behind him. If he isn’t playing well, he will become trade bait and Tyreke Evans will assume the starting role.

    The Pelicans are in desperate need of players stepping up on defense. Last season, Gordon’s counterpart at shooting guard had a 47.9 effective field-goal percentage, per 82games.com. However, some of that can be attributed to his 6’3” stature. He has the athleticism to create space on offense, but doesn’t have the length to contest against the bigger shooters on defense.

    Gordon has the most to prove on this roster. He must step up and show he can contribute on a team loaded with shooters and All-Star caliber players. 

Al-Farouq Aminu

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    Al-Farouq Aminu, who will be 23 years old when the 2013-14 season begins, has improved in each of his first three seasons. With his 6’9” build and incredible 9’1” reach, Aminu emerged as one of the team’s best rebounders last season, recording 10 double-doubles.

    Small forward has become a position loaded with the league’s best scorers. Aminu averaged a career-high 7.3 points, but was often tentative and relied on his passing abilities when the ball was in his hands. 

    In the last game of the 2012-13 campaign, Aminu dropped 16 points and added 20 rebounds, providing a glimpse of his potential. Still just 22, Aminu has been given the necessary experience to succeed with the team around him. 

    Being less tentative with the ball will lead to more scoring chances, but Aminu won't be relied upon to provide offense. 

    He has to use his length to seal the passing lanes and his reach to get in the face of shooters. Aminu's value will come from his defense and rebounding. While he has shown he can be an elite rebounder for his position, his defending hasn't been a strong point. 

    Extra conditioning and focus on his defensive game will allow him to step up and be the player the Pelicans need. Not a scorer, but a difference maker on the other side of the court. He’s young and continues to get better, but this can't be the year Aminu takes a step backwards. 

    Thin at the small forward position, coach Monty Williams absolutely needs Aminu to step up.

Jason Smith

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    Fresh off of shoulder surgery, Jason Smith will head into training camp as the most veteran big man on the roster, raising the chance he starts the season at center. 

    Standing 7’0”, Smith is a surprising offensive player, utilizing his size and hustle to find success with his jump shot. 

    Not a strong rebounder—3.3 average for his career, 3.6 last season—Smith needs to use his frame to come down with more boards and give his teammates extra possessions.

    Playing center last year, Smith’s counterparts grabbed 13 rebounds per 48 minutes (82games.com). His work ethic and dedication should allow him to receive a majority of minutes at center, but the fact remains he has to stay healthy. 

    Smith has a lot to prove this season after losing the starting position last year to Robin Lopez. He gutted out his injuries and played with tremendous heart, but if he can’t stay on the court, he’s not doing the Pelicans any good.

    A contract year, Smith needs to step up and show he’s durable enough to be a viable center. He’s the most experienced player on the roster and must provide guidance for the youngsters and lead by example. 

    It’s not far-fetched to think Smith can be a starting center in the NBA. He has the necessary traits: hustle, motivation, defense, offense and speed; he just needs to utilize his skill-set to make an impact.

    It’s his for the taking, all he has to do is step up and grab it. 

Austin Rivers

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    Perhaps the player that needs to step up the most is Austin Rivers. He had an atrocious 5.95 player efficiency rating in his rookie season, barely making an impact before breaking his right hand in early March.

    Rivers was the No. 10 pick in the 2012 draft out of Duke and was supposed to emerge as the Pelicans point guard of the future. 

    Well, it’s safe to say that plan didn’t work out quite as expected. He was more of a combo-guard, starting at the 2 when Gordon missed the first 29 games due to an injured knee.

    The problem with Rivers was he couldn’t quite grasp the pace of the NBA until late February, and he still couldn’t rack up the points. 

    Known for his ability to attack the rim, Rivers appeared tentative and couldn’t finish around the basket. He made just 48.9 percent of his shots at the rim and finished the season with a shooting percentage of 29.5 from three-to-nine feet away, per HoopData.com.

    There is no doubt a chip on his shoulder after scoring 6.2 points per game in his first year in the league. This coming after he averaged 15.5 points in his only season at Duke. 

    If the summer league is any indication of the Rivers we will see in 2013-14, there’s no question he will step up. He has become acclimated to the style and speed of the NBA, slowing down his pace and knocking down shots from all over the court. 

    Though he scored a team-high 18.2 points per game in Las Vegas, he won’t need to do too much for the Pelicans. With the scorers on the team, if Rivers can contribute 10 points per game and keep the defense on their toes with his speed and driving ability, he will have done his job and finish with a successful 2013-14 season. 

Jeff Withey

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    As word came out that the Pelicans have officially signed second-round draft selection Jeff Withey, he becomes part of a roster with no clear-cut No. 1 center.

    A premier shot-blocker and defender, Withey is poised to make an impact on this team. Training camp will provide further insight, but Greg Stiemsma is a 27-year-old entering his third year in the league and Smith has a lot to prove.

    However, the transition from college to the NBA isn’t always smooth—just ask Austin Rivers. Critics say Withey needs to add weight to prevent getting bullied in the post. Even general manager Dell Demps weighed in on the situation. He told Jim Eichenhofer of Pelicans.com, “He’s coming to the NBA as an experienced college player from Kansas. He probably needs to add a little weight, but we think he can contribute.”

    Withey should aim to do more than contribute. He has the talent to succeed at this level and the speed to run up and down the court faster than most at his position, he just has to step up right away and show he can handle defending the bigger, stronger centers. 

    Withey doesn’t just block shots. An aspect of his game that goes unnoticed in the box score is his length, which he uses to disrupt shots and protect the rim. Simply putting a hand in the face or near the opponent will cause off-balance, low-percentage shots.

    Because of the attention his Kansas teammate Ben McLemore received during the 2013 NCAA Tournament, Withey became a force on offense as well. Though his offensive post game isn't great, he doesn’t get the credit he's due for his short-to-mid-range jumper. In the Jayhawks' three tournament games, Withey averaged 15 points on 61.3 percent shooting. He took over the North Carolina game with 16 points and 16 rebounds. 

    In New Orleans, the guards and Davis will attract the attention of the defense, which could leave Withey open around the baseline. 

    If he can step up and clog the middle for 25-30 minutes per game, while knocking down shots, he can be the formidable center the Pelicans need to become a force in the Western Conference.