Anthony Davis shows growth with Pelicans in return to Rupp

Anthony Davis dressed for Saturday’s preseason game under a championship banner he helped win.

Standing in the Rupp Arena locker room, Davis pulled his Pelicans jersey over his head. His long arms nearly touched the bottom of a Kentucky 2012 national title banner, hanging suspended from the middle of their circular locker room.

Two years removed from the moment that earned the Wildcats that banner and Davis a championship ring ­— a run that cemented Davis’ status as the No. 1 pick — so much felt so familiar for him.

“It was real fun,” Davis said of playing on the same court for the same crowd again. “I would love to come back here and play again. This state and this school did a lot for me.”

Yet so much is different for Davis from his season in college.

Davis’ game has developed immensely since he first arrived on Kentucky’s campus two years ago, and some of it was on display Saturday in New Orleans’ 93-89 win over Washington.

He finished with 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting, four rebounds, two steals, two blocks — including the game-saving swat of a Bradley Beal layup with under 10 seconds left — one assist and five turnovers.

“Anthony has matured so much physically and mentally even after just one season in New Orleans,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who popped into Rupp Arena to take in part of the game, in a statement. (He was unavailable for additional comment.)

Davis arrived at Kentucky to play for Calipari as a raw, unpolished forward. Still, his athleticism and physical gifts were apparent.

“He’s obviously grown a lot as a player,” said Pelicans forward Darius Miller, Davis’ teammate for one year at UK. “But he was still, at that point, really, really good. We could all see it from day one. The stuff he’s done, I mean, it’s amazing, but I feel like everybody (at Kentucky) had high expectations for him.”

He lived up to those expectations, dominating the country with his defense.

On offense, though, he played mostly around the rim, grabbing rebounds and converting lobs into dunks.

“So nobody really knew how he could expand his game and shoot the ball and handle it because he was playing in the post so much,” said Washington guard John Wall, a former No. 1 pick out of Kentucky himself. “He’s a talented young player, and the only thing he’s going to do is keep getting better and improving.”

Davis said there’s still much to be done to emerge as the breakout star many — including all those who saw him at Kentucky — expect him to be.

But Davis knows he’s changed drastically as a second-year player.

“A lot,” Davis said of the difference. “I’ve just been working, and when you work, you’re gonna improve. I’m just trying to do everything I can to become a better player.”

Those who played against him in college have seen the improvement.

Pelicans rookie center Jeff Withey lost to Davis in the 2012 national title game while at Kansas. Davis scored just six points in that game but had six blocks and 16 rebounds.

“I just remember Anthony having a big impact on the floor defensively,” Withey said. “He’s gotten so much better in the last couple years. He was already a good player in the championship game. Just offensively, he has a killer mindset now.”

Those who have played against him in the pros see the improvement, too.

“The rookie year’s always a learning experience,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “I think he evolved as he went through the grinder of an NBA season. I would think that he’s probably a totally different player today than he was a year ago at this time.”

New Orleans coach Monty Williams said the biggest change from Davis from year one to year two is his confidence, gained from the work he put in over the summer to expand his game.

“It’s just cool to see him out there on the floor believing in his ability and believing that he can go after guys,” Williams said. “And block shots and play with energy and have an effect on the game that only 10 people in the league can have.

“And he can do it at 20 years old.”

At 20 years old, Davis is still maturing off the court.

Beal, a fellow top-ranked recruit in Davis’ high school class, said he keeps up with Davis whenever they’re in the same city.

“That’s my guy,” Beal said. “He’s acting the way he’s supposed to. He’s a hot commodity. People know who he is. He acts the right way. He shies away from things he shouldn’t be doing.”

That’s crucial for the former top pick. Pelicans guard Brian Roberts, who went through his rookie year with Davis, said the former Kentucky star handled the constant attention and pressure of being a hyped rookie adeptly.

Wall, a former No. 1 pick himself, knows what it’s like to be in the spotlight.

“Just stay humble,” Wall said of the challenge. “I know Anthony very well from just being near (Kentucky). I know he’s going to keep working and trying to progress.”

Davis continued that progression Saturday, and the growth was evident. He walked back to the locker room victorious, past murals on the locker room walls depicting his own image from that championship year at Kentucky.

He’s still adapting to different teams, different atmospheres, different coaching styles and different rules in the NBA, Davis said. But back at Rupp Arena, his first home away from home, he delivered more of the same.

“I think I did a pretty good job of adjusting (in my rookie year),” Davis said. “But there’s still a lot more to learn.”