Nikola Mirotic and Anthony Davis took turns shooting jumpers and practicing layups.
It was hours before the Pelicans tipped off against the Utah Jazz, and Mirotic admitted it was a memorable moment to join Davis at the same basket in game-day shootaround. The pair of lengthy forwards worked alongside assistant coach Kevin Hanson, doing the tandem drills in which DeMarcus Cousins used to ply his pregame routine, before the big man tore his Achilles tendon last week.
It was a different vantage point for Mirotic, who used to defend Davis and recognizes the matchup advantages he can lend.
“He can do everything,” Mirotic said. “He can pop. He can roll. So I think it’s going to be hard for defenses when we play together. So when he either pops or rolls to the basket, it’s going to make it hard for my guy, or he’s going to have an easy dunk. So there’s a lot we can do. We need a little bit more time to play with each other, but the first time was pretty good. I’m sure it will be better and better each day.”
Joining Davis was an important step in the acclimation process, as Mirotic settles into his new home just four days after being traded from the Chicago Bulls.
The deal might have occurred sooner, but Mirotic ensured the Pelicans picked up the $12.5 million option on the last year of his contract before agreeing to the trade, making him more than a short-term rental. Instead, he’ll be an integral piece until at least next summer.
“It is easier,” Mirotic said of the longer contract. “It’s more calm for my family too. So we’re looking forward to coming here and setting everything up. The weather, it’s way better than in Chicago, which is good.
“When you know you have another year here, especially under contract, it’s easier since there’s no rush. So I can play simple and work hard; everything is going to be in place.”
While Mirotic was happy to be traded, it’s unlikely he appreciates the opportunity quite like Emeka Okafor, whom the Pelicans added on a 10-day contract.
The 35-year old center has been out of the NBA since 2013 and has been recovering from a herniated disc in his neck for the past four years. But he refused to retire despite $89 million in lifetime earnings. Instead, Okafor boarded the bus for the G-League, taking the floor with the Deleware 87ers for the past several months.
It’s a glimpse into a life Okafor said he didn’t previously know. The former No. 2 pick was riding the G-League circuit with players desperate for a shot at the NBA and clawing at every opportunity.
“Perspective is a blessing,” Okafor said. “My time in the G-League was all about perspective. I played 10 years in the NBA and after some time in the G-League I gained a greater appreciation for the grind. I’ve always known how fortunate I was to be in the NBA and how difficult and special it is. But seeing the grind from the other side of undrafted players and non-guaranteed contract made me say ‘Wow, it’s really a dogfight trying to get in.'
“The NBA is more or less like fantasy land. Everything is at your disposal. Everything is top notch and is at your ability to have. The G-League is the opposite. It’s the land of scarcity.”
Despite the lengthy absence and the prolonged recovery process, Okafor said he never seriously considered retirement. Now he returns to a familiar place in New Orleans, where he spent three seasons as a member of the Hornets and hopes to call it home again.
“From the moment I got injured my mind was about getting back," he said. "I didn’t anticipate it taking as long as it did, but in my mind it was always about wanting to play again.”
DeAndre Liggins also made his return to the Pelicans after a brief absence.
In the midst of roster upheaval, New Orleans re-signed Liggins after his second 10-day contract expired last week. Now, Liggins is expected to provide some defensive help on the wing and add needed depth to the Pelicans rotation after they traded three bench players for Mirotic.
Liggins played in four games during his previous 20-day stint, but came on at the end of the deal, playing more than 16 minutes in games against the Rockets and Clippers and making five of his six shots.