The New Orleans Pelicans traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to play the Miami Heat in their first preseason game Saturday.
However, for rookie point guard Russ Smith, it will be like a home game. Smith played collegiately at Louisville, leading the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA championship.
“I was just thinking about some of the fans and friends who will get a chance to see me in an NBA uniform and just competing,” Smith said. “When I first saw it on the schedule, it was just crazy.”
For two other Pelicans, it will be a homecoming of sorts. Power forward Anthony Davis and small forward Darius Miller played at the University of Kentucky, winning the NCAA title in 2012. However, Louisville and Kentucky are bitter rivals.
Miller, who is from Maysville, Kentucky, said he wasn’t sure if the response from the crowd will be of appreciation for a native of the state or if he will be seen as a hated Wildcat.
“Hopefully, they’ll see me as a (state of) Kentucky guy,” Miller said. “I hope they don’t boo me.”
Miller and Davis are making their second consecutive trip back, with the Pelicans having played last season in Lexington, where UK is located. Davis feigned confusion when asked how it felt to be going back to the state for a game.
“Is Louisville in Kentucky?” he asked, obviously having fun with the rivalry.
However, he liked the idea of Wildcats fans and Cardinals fans in the same building, hopefully united, nonetheless.
“That’s going to be exciting to see,” he said. “They’re fans, man. Two Wildcats and a Cardinal on the same team, so they’re going to come out and support us. I think it’s going to be cool because it’s not a Kentucky game. It’s going to be the Pelicans.”
Like any rookie, Smith has been trying to adjust to the rigors of an NBA training camp. There’s been a ton of information thrown his way, from terminology to more complex defense to so many new plays. Of course, he draws on his experiences as a key player in Louisville’s successful program.
“I think I’m going to come along,” he said. “I’m trying to come along as quickly as I can. Even if I’ve started off sluggish or behind, I know the competitor that I am, I’m going to catch up sooner or later. That’s my goal, and I’m going to keep pushing and fighting.”
Coach Monty Williams said Smith’s struggles are understandable and there’s a lot to like about him. Williams worked personally with Smith after Thursday’s morning practice on the nuances of the NBA game and what the Pelicans are trying to accomplish, Williams said.
Williams didn’t want to rate how well Smith his doing, saying he didn’t want to put too much pressure on him, but that he has done what young players do.
“He’ll make plays, and then sometimes you’ll want to take him home and put him in your back yard and tell him to stay there until you come and get him,” Williams said. “But what I like about him is he takes coaching well, and you can’t say that about everybody.
“You’ll get on him and talk to him about stuff, and he doesn’t get down on himself. If he works as hard as he does, takes the coaching, he could get better faster.”
Smith said it has taken some adjustment on the court, too. He used to come up to the 3-point line in college, hesitate, then burst to the goal in about two dribbles, he said.
“The NBA 3-point line is a couple of feet farther back, so I’ll have to take three or four dribbles to get what I want,” he said. “It just truly messes up the timing. I have to be smarter, come off at a pace, change speeds and make the correct decision.”
That’s because NBA defenders usually are quicker and longer than what he’s seen in college. He became part of a practice highlight on Thursday.
“Anthony Davis blocked my shot,” Smith said. “I can’t remember the last time a guy blocked my shot like that.”
However, he is lightening quick, teammates say, and he impressed with his play in the Summer League and held his own during summer development workouts and pickup games.
“He’s a real point guard,” Davis said. “Just like all rookies, you’re learning so much, just like me my rookie year. And, the bad thing is that he is a point guard, so he has to learn everybody’s positions, all the plays and all the things that coach is trying to give to him, and he has to learn quickly.
“It’s tough, but I think he’s doing a good job of handling it.”
Pelicans center Alexis Ajinca has strained muscles in his legs and is not expected to play in Saturday’s game. Ajinca has spent much of the summer getting bigger and stronger through a weight-lifting program with the team. He said he sat out the second practice Thursday because of the strains and did not practice Friday. Ajinca and his wife also are expecting a baby “any day now,” he said. “I hope I’m not away with it comes,” he said.