METAIRIE, La. (AP) Donatas Motiejunas, the Pelicans’ new 7-footer, might sound delusional to more cynical NBA observers.
Two of the first topics Motiejunas discussed after his first practice with the Pelicans on Wednesday were the health of his back and the Pelicans’ playoff prospects, offering rosy outlooks on both fronts.
”I’m going to prove it when I get on the floor,” Motiejunas said when asked about fighting the perception that he’s been damaged goods since back surgery near the end of the 2014-15 season. ”I don’t see an issue to fighting through this.”
The versatile Lithuanian, who has left and right post-up moves, hits about 31 percent of his 3-point attempts and draws praise for his passing ability, also sees himself as a boost to the Pelicans’ playoff chances. New Orleans is eight games below .500 (14-22), but sat just two games out of the final Western Conference playoff spot heading into Wednesday night’s NBA slate.
When Motiejunas was asked whether he saw his stint with the Pelicans, which will pay him a pro-rated veteran minimum of about $600,000, as an audition for when he becomes a free agent again next summer, he answered by talking about team goals.
”I’m here to help the team win. I’m not here to look at my personal stats,” Motiejunas said. ”If this team is going to make the playoffs and I’m going to help them, it’s going to put my value up regardless.”
Motiejunas later added, ”As long as we’re going to stay healthy, this team right now can make a big push.”
A handful of teams expressed interest in signing Motiejunas, who has played four seasons in the NBA with Houston, averaging 7.8 points and four rebounds. They were all offering about the same pay because most teams at this point in the season are restricted to paying the NBA minimum for new free-agent acquisitions.
Gentry said the Pelicans had internal discussions about trading for Motiejunas last year and were pleased to be able to get him now in a low-risk, free-agent deal.
Gentry said the presence of Anthony Davis and up-tempo, evenly spaced offense the Pelicans run appealed to Motiejunas.
”The opportunity to play alongside a great player – obviously it makes the game easier,” Gentry said. ”The system that we run is something that was appealing to him.”
And for New Orleans, having a big-man with passing skills and shooting range helps Davis because he ”can take away some of the potential double-teams” that Davis might otherwise see.
Indeed, Motiejunas said his mission is to help Davis ”get wide open shots.”
”I’m a creator,” Motiejunas said. ”I can take the ball to the paint, force the defense to collapse on me and dish the ball to (Davis), and without a lot of energy waste he can get an easy bucket.”
The Pelicans have used a smaller, quicker lineup recently with the 6-11 Davis at center. It has paid off in the form of five victories in seven games. Gentry said Motiejunas will likely play center, but his ability to run and pass means a lineup shift, with Davis moving back to power forward, should not disrupt the rhythm with which New Orleans has played lately.
Davis agreed, saying Motiejunas has ”a high basketball IQ, but the thing that stands out to me the most is his ability to pass. … It gives me another opportunity to get out on the floor and roam, step out and shoot the ball, or be able to attack more.”
As a restricted free agent last offseason, Motiejunas signed an offer sheet from Brooklyn worth about $36 million over four years. Houston initially sought to match it, but ultimately allowed the 26-year-old to become an unrestricted free agent after negotiations broke down, in part because of the player’s history with back injuries. He played in only 37 games last season, but also only missed one regular season game after Feb. 27 and played in five playoff games.
Motiejunas said he’s been working out on his own in Vancouver the past five months and is in ”really good shape.”