Pelicans summer league preview: Axel Toupane defensive versatility may be key to future

Athletic breakaway dunks, corner three-pointers, crafty drives to the basket, contested jumpers to beat the shot clock. Watching YouTube’s highlight reel from an April 5 D-League game between Raptors 905 and Canton provides a diverse sampling of what Axel Toupane is capable of offensively, at least on that level. The native of France erupted for 41 points in a playoff win for Toronto’s minor-league affiliate – then signed for the rest of the NBA season five days later with New Orleans.

Toupane, who logged a total of 41 minutes in the final two regular season games of 2016-17 for the Pelicans, will now try to stick in the majors permanently. His bid to add to career totals of 25 official NBA games and 352 minutes continues Friday, when New Orleans’ summer league squad coincidentally faces Toronto (5 p.m. Central, NBA TV).

“He’s a heck of a player, a slasher, probably the best guy in transition (in the D-League),” said Pelicans summer teammate Quinn Cook, who played against Toupane for two seasons in what’s now called the G-League. “And he has some game experience in the NBA.”

Over the past two years, the 6-foot-7 small forward has played in regular season games for Denver, Milwaukee and New Orleans, sometimes holding a tenuous grip on a roster spot, including three 10-day contracts. After going undrafted in 2014, he returned to France’s pro league in ’14-15, but has had an itinerant existence since coming back to the U.S.

“Circumstances have always been random for him,” Pelicans summer head coach Jamelle McMillan said of Toupane’s eventful recent time in the pros. “It’s tough to go from overseas to a 10-day to another situation. In those situations, it’s the guys who have imposed their will and go after the trust of the coaching staff and teammates (who succeed). He’s on track in trying to use this summer to establish himself in what we do.”

During his NBA cameos, Toupane has logged minutes at three positions, showing versatility that is becoming increasingly valued by teams. Defensively, he has the size to even play power forward in small lineups (15 percent of his NBA minutes have come at the “four” spot, via Basketball-Reference.com), something that could help give him more opportunities.

“A really good guy, a culture guy, with great size and length,” McMillan described. “The main thing for him is really attacking guys on the defensive end and having an aggressive mindset. His position is crucial, as we just witnessed in the Finals. It’s important to guard twos and threes, and even fours, in an (Andre) Iguodala-type situation. He has to be able to guard in the post, as well as on the perimeter.”

Over a total of 68 games with Raptors 905, Toupane has averaged 15.4 points per game, but he may be able to make a bigger mark in the NBA at the other end of the court. It’s something he’ll focus on during the Pelicans’ stay in Las Vegas.

“Where he’s been before, I’m not sure if they needed that to be his role, as much as we do here,” McMillan said of defense being Toupane’s biggest focus. “It’s really a mind-shift of him embracing that side of the floor and locking down. Defense is an interest; anybody can do it. Not everyone can pull up to shoot from halfcourt – that takes hours of repetition. But everyone can try on D, move their feet and contest shots. It’s simple effort and interest. Instilling that interest in his mind is a work in progress, but he’s growing in that area. He plays a very essential position that we need on our roster. (Summer league is) a tremendous opportunity for him, to get a look from the (NBA) team he’s on.”

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