It’s difficult to watch the New Orleans Pelicans play against the Portland Trail Blazers without wondering where they would be had center Robin Lopez not been traded last summer.
Lopez, a big-bodied 7-footer, has given the Trail Blazers a rim protector along with surprising scoring and rebounding. Those abilities have helped provide immensely improved team chemistry.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans have had a glaring hole at center all season.
One solace for the Pelicans (32-44), however, in the trade has been the recent play of Jeff Withey, a rookie center from Kansas who was a second-round draft pick of the Blazers (49-28). Withey has not had anywhere near the impact of Lopez, but his progress has been a bright spot on a team ravaged by injuries.
“Jeff has come a long way this season,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams. “He looks nothing like the guy we saw in training camp. He has worked hard. His body looks different, and he has made progress on the court working with (assistant coach) Kevin (Hanson).”
The Big 12 defensive player of the year as a senior last season, Withey has shown progress offensively, particularly in the past few games. Working with Hanson, he has improved his jump shot.
“It’s just something we’ve been working on for a while, and I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it,” said Withey.
He is averaging just 2.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 0.75 blocked shots this season in 10.8 minutes per game. However, in his past four games, with Anthony Davis ailing with a left ankle injury and then with back spasms, Withey has averaged 8.8 points on 13-of-14 shooting (92.8 percent) and 4.3 rebounds. In his past three games, he has averaged 4.0 blocks.
When Davis left the Pelicans’ home game against the Sacramento Kings on March 31, Withey filled in by playing 28 minutes, 15 seconds. Although the Pelicans had a disappointing loss in its last home game before three road games against Western Conference foes,Withey didn’t miss a shot. He scored eight points on 4-of-4 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds.
Most impressive was his career-high five blocked shots, two coming against Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, who was simply manhandling the Pelicans.
Withey, a slender, 7-foot, 235 pounds, has shown a physicality and activity he didn’t have at the beginning of the season. Some of it is, he’s gotten use to the physical play of the NBA. Some of it is, he decided to hit back.
“You don’t have to be big to be physical,” Withey said. “Some of it definitely is that the game has slowed down for me now. I understand things a lot better.”
That has been evident on offense, too. In the Pelicans’ home victory against the Boston Celtics on March 16, Withey had a season-high three assists. The most memorable one came after he flashed to the high post, near the top of the key.
He pump-faked, then dribbled just inside the free-throw line, where he threw a lob to Davis for a dunk. That tied the score at 84 heading into the fourth quarter and got the crowd going.
“We didn’t draw it up like that,” Williams said. “That was just Jeff and A.D. Jeff obviously saw something and made a play.”
Withey has shown he can pair with Davis but also replace him at power forward and team with 7-foot-2 Alexis Ajinca, making for a long tandem of rim protectors. That worked well in the Pelicans’ victory against Utah in particular.
“It worked, because (the Jazz) didn’t have a stretch (power forward),” Williams said. “Jeff is not used to chasing fours around the 3-point line. But it gives us another option.”
Against the Blazers, the Pelicans, who have lost their past four games, are facing a team that is trying to hold on as the playoffs near. Once the top seed in the Western Conference at 31-9 this season, Portland went 11-14 in its next 25 games.
A back injury to All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge contributed to a recent slide that threatened to knock the Blazers, who were in the fifth spot, into seventh.
Moreso, however, opponents have figured out that if they chase the Blazers’ formidable shooters off the 3-point line, forcing them to handle the ball, that is a good recipe for defeating them.