Anthony Davis has come a long way as New Orleans' main attraction
When Anthony Davis was drafted by the then-Hornets in 2012, the closest the Chicago native had come to New Orleans cuisine was Popeyes -- which, to be fair, is a "Louisiana Kitchen."
Five years in one of the best food cities in the country has not only helped put some much-needed meat on Davis' 6-foot-11 frame, it has provided the Pelicans' All-Star big man a chance to refine his palate.
"I fell in love with gumbo," he said. "It's funny now, when you go to other cities and they have New Orleans-style gumbo or New Orleans-style whatever, it tastes nothing like it."
Davis, who will turn 24 next month, said he has settled into his adopted city, to the point where he can keep up in a conversation of local haunts and customs. He has started eating seafood and feels the slow pace of life fits his laid-back demeanor.
He hasn't yet been hit up for tips by fellow All-Stars heading back to New Orleans for this year's game, but like any good host, he has a few recommendations ready. He said he's even considering hopping on a Mardi Gras float for the first time.
Like any small-market superstar, he has quickly learned how to defend the city from the unavoidable barrage of questions regarding his interest in staying there long term. (Davis hasn't yet finished the first year of a maximum contract that will keep him in New Orleans until at least the 2019-20 season.)
"I don't plan on leaving," Davis said on media day in September.
"I don't plan on leaving," Davis told international media on Tuesday.
The interest in Davis' future is inevitable, especially with the Pelicans' current predicament -- 11 games under .500 at the All-Star break and all signs pointing to a return visit to the draft lottery -- raising doubts across the league about the franchise's ability to construct a contender. But within that environment, Davis has managed to firmly re-establish his trajectory.
In 53 games this season, Davis has played more minutes than he did in 11 more games as a rookie, while also nearly doubling his shot attempts. As a result, his stat line, much like his physique, has swelled like never before: Davis is averaging career bests in points (27.7), rebounds (11.9), assists (2.2), shot attempts (20.2), usage rate (29.7) and minutes played (36.4).
Dogged by criticism last season over a lack of effort on the defensive end, Davis' defensive metrics have started to climb back into the territory that placed him squarely in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year race two seasons ago.
The Pelicans might have fallen off the national radar and been forced to reconfigure the blueprint that got them to the playoffs in 2015, but the Davis business is again booming, with the four-time All-Star selected to start for the West a second time -- his first time being healthy enough to do so.
The recalibration of their star's efforts has no doubt been welcomed by the Pelicans, even if Davis hasn't lost sight of how successes fit into the big picture.
"I'm nowhere near where I want to be, as far as the team or myself," he said. "I think there's a lot that we have to accomplish as a team, and there's a lot that I want to accomplish individually. But that's only going to come within the team."
In that regard, Davis has become a more active participant. After a season cut short by a knee injury left him without a spot on all three All-NBA rosters -- and thus, without an extra $25 million in his piggy bank -- Davis emerged from the offseason emboldened by a renewed sense of responsibility and with an understanding that the role of "face of the franchise" requires more than simply being a team's most productive player.
"The first couple years, I was just trying to get my feet wet and go and just play," he said. "Now, realizing this is your team, this is something that you have to take over and lead this team to whatever the organization has wanted to lead it to, which is championships. You have to be vocal about the decisions you want, the players you want. Whatever it is, you have to be vocal about it.
"No one can read minds, so that's what I do. When I hear something or I see something or want to know something, I go and ask. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't. We just try to find a solution and keep moving forward."
Such a studied approach might be tough to reconcile for several All-Star stalwarts heading to New Orleans this weekend. Before Davis ever played in the NBA, he was very much the typical rookie for the 2012 edition of Team USA, stacked with the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
"We all loved him from day one because he was very humble," Tyson Chandler, the starting center on that gold-medal-winning squad, said earlier this season.
"He wanted to get better; he wanted to learn. It was all a part of gaining our respect, which he passed with flying colors."
Davis made his All-Star debut in New Orleans two years later as an injury replacement for Bryant. While his in-season production was worthy of the platform, the then-20-year-old sophomore had to figure out how to fit in before he could attempt to serve as unofficial host for a city that he himself was still attempting to grasp.
This time around, there are few doubts about Davis' ability to point visitors to the tastiest redfish or his place among the league's hierarchy.
"I told him, 'You always gonna be my rook.' But clearly, he has gained all of the respect in the world," Chandler said. "I say that in a loving matter, because I loved everything he's been able to accomplish.
"You look at him now as that [rookie], but you enjoy the journey and the progress he's been able to make."