LOUISVILLE — A homecoming. A debut. An updated look at a player widely believed to be destined for professional basketball stardom.
Of all events, an NBA preseason game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Miami Heat on Saturday night contained those elements, any of which can be appealing. The thank-you for elevating what might otherwise be a humdrum affair went to the Pelicans, who have two former University of Kentucky standouts (Anthony Davis and Darius Miller), plus former University of Louisville standout Russ Smith on their preseason roster.
That's a homecoming times three.
Davis, the burgeoning star, was in a playful mood in meeting with reporters after the Pelicans shootaround Saturday morning.
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Looking around the Yum Center, he said, "I'm very excited even though I'd rather play in Rupp (Arena)."
Davis and Miller, teammates on Kentucky's 2012 national championship team, had dinner with UK Coach John Calipari Friday night. When a reporter facetiously asked if Calipari tried to foist the check on the players, Davis smiled and said, "Not with the contract he just got."
More seriously, Davis expressed gratitude for the chances to play for Mike Krzyzewski-led Team USA. Last month, Davis averaged 12.3 points and 6.6 rebounds for Team USA, which won the World Cup in Spain. Davis was also a member of U.S. team that won the gold medal in the 2012 Olympic Games.
"I'm happy to be part of something like that," he said. "Happy I had the chance to win two gold medals (and) I had an opportunity to go with coach (Krzyzewski), which was a good thing."When asked what he learned from playing for the Duke coach, Davis said, "How to be a better leader."
Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said Davis had the potential to be "one of the best players in the NBA." He added that team success will be a critical factor in Davis' ultimate mark on the game.
"Winning is the one thing that elevates you as a player ... ," Williams said. "When you win, it puts you in a different place."
Or course, winning an exhibition game, especially a preseason opener, is relatively meaningless. Williams said none of his players would see "heavy minutes" against the Heat.
The exhibition game's featured attraction was Smith, who led Louisville to the 2013 national championship and, of course, played his home games in the Yum Center. Smith claimed he wasn't nervous about beginning his pro career in his college home arena.
"Nah, I'm more lackadaisical, cool, calm and collected ... ," he said. "Everybody who supported me the last four years, I think it's bigger for them."
Smith acknowledged that he's gone from big man on campus to tentative rookie. Of the playing time he expected Saturday night, he said, "Anything from 15 minutes to a DNP."
Williams noted how Smith must make the transition from unpredictable "Russ-diculous" for U of L to what the Pelicans hope is a dependable pro.
"Being a good pro is figuring out what you can and can't do," said Williams, who noted Smith's quickness. Smith's ability to defend full-court is "something a lot of NBA guys don't do (pause) well," the Pelicans' coach said.
Smith sounded more sure of the warm welcome Davis and Miller would receive Saturday night even though they played collegiately for U of L's arch rival.
"Oh, they're going to get love, man," Smith said. "Definitely, Big Blue is going to be in here, for sure."
Smith deferred star-of-stars status to Davis. "I think as far as generic fans coming out, they're definitely here to see A.D.," he said.
As always, Miller remained soft-spoken and seemingly more comfortable off center stage.
Miller, a native of Maysville, got animated when asked about Kentucky's team for 2014-15. "Oh, I think they'll be really good," he said.
After saying he'd watched several of UK's games in the Bahamas in August, Miller added, "I think they definitely have a shot at a championship ... I think they'll be really good ... a lot of talent. They have guys coming back who know what it takes."