In their 25-year history, the Hornets’ most memorable moments have usually come off the basketball court: trading Kobe Bryant, after drafting him, in 1996; leaving Charlotte for New Orleans in 2002 after years of declining attendance; and then opting to recommit to New Orleans in 2007, two years removed from Hurricane Katrina. It’s not exactly the stuff of victory parades.
But in New Orleans, there’s hope – thanks in part to Anthony Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft.
In drafting Davis, the Hornets managed to land the consensus No. 1 player, who, in just one college season at Kentucky, won nearly every conceivable individual award while bringing home a national title. All of which sounded good to Sharon Hyde Augillard, who like many Hornets fans has endured her share of heartache and remembers exactly how she felt when the Hornets drafted Davis.
“We’re a city that prays a lot, and we wanted it so bad,” she said. “My team needed it so bad. We had so much adversity. And when that happened, I was like I know we’re on our way up. I was just so excited.”
And she wasn’t alone. The coaching staff was excited, too.
“The first thing I noticed is that he is very coachable,” said Randy Ayers, the Hornets’ lead assistant coach and a former basketball big man himself, playing college hoops at Miami University. And he realized right away that the teenaged NBA star actually wanted to listen — and learn.
“We were doing a footwork drill with him to help with his balance, maintain his balance when people are pushing and shoving you, and he picked it up right away transferred it right over into the next drill,” Ayers said.
Davis said he has no choice but to get better, to work. He rents an apartment in downtown New Orleans, just blocks from the French Quarter, but he’s too young to be served alcohol in bars.
“I don’t like going out, anyway,” Davis said. “So it’s a plus for me.”
And he knows he needs to improve. For the first time in a while, Davis is not the best player on the floor. He’s tall, yes, but lean, compared to the NBA’s beefy power forwards whom Davis calls “monsters in the paint.”
“You really have undersized centers and undersized forwards in the college game,” Davis said. “And now you have, almost every night, guys who are 6-10, 250. Each and every night.”
“They’re so strong that they just kind of push him under the basket,” said Hornets head coach Monty Williams. “But he doesn’t give in.”
Williams worried last fall that the game was moving too fast for Davis at times. But already, Davis is getting stronger, more experienced. And like Ayers, Williams doesn’t worry about Davis’ attitude. Most mornings when Williams hits the practice facility, Davis is already inside and sweating.
“I always try to come early and get a lift in,” Davis said. “Get treatment. Put in extra work, early in the morning. Whether that’s putting shots up, working on post moves. Stretching or whatever. I just try to get here and prepare for practice, have a great practice.”
Practice? He’s talking about practice? NBA star Allen Iverson once famously mocked the whole general idea of practice. But no one is mocking Davis’ approach to the game in New Orleans. Across the league stars like Kevin Garnett, Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, and others are praising the rookie.
For now, though, wins are scarce. At the All-Star break this weekend, Davis’ soon-to-be-renamed Hornets have just 19 victories on the season. They’re in last place in their division. And with an average age of just 24, they’re the second youngest team in the league — all of which presents challenges for coach Williams.
“The ability to play like a veteran, it takes a long time,” he said. “It could be four or five years before some of these guys get it.”
But don’t be surprised if Davis gets it a little faster.
“Guys be telling me keep working, stay healthy, keep playing hard,” Davis said. “Of course, I have a target on my back. I was the No. 1 pick, so guys will try to come after you. But guys are always encouraging me, especially my teammates and my coaches, to keep my head up.”
He’s averaging 12 points a game this season and was picked to play in the Rising Stars Challenge for rookies and second-year players during the All-Star Break. He’s looking forward to being a Pelican next year. And chances are, when he dons that new jersey, he’s going to look a lot better, a lot stronger. He’ll at least be older. Davis turns 20 next month.