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The 2012 New Orleans Hornets 

Alejandro de los Rios on how the team is rebooting with a new owner and exciting new players

click to enlarge Anthony Davis - PHOTO COURTESY OF NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Last Thursday, during his first media availability since the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where he won a gold medal with Team USA Basketball, Anthony Davis started his press conference asking members of the media if they'd like to wear his gold medal. It may have been a token gesture, but it was a great sign for the Hornets. It showed their No. 1 pick comfortable in the spotlight; Davis, 2012 National College Basketball Player of the Year and NCAA Champion, exuded a quiet confidence when talking with reporters.

  It's normal practice for an NBA team to show off its latest star player, especially when that player was the No. 1 overall draft pick. After the brief back-and-forth with reporters and some photographs, Davis was off to a TV interview. From there, Davis had just a few moments to talk, but even from these brief moments, it's clear that Davis' quiet demeanor belies his media savvy.

  Davis is a 19-year-old who regularly interacts with his 230,000-plus Twitter followers, asking them where to eat in San Antonio and why it's so humid in New Orleans in August. "It's a great way to incorporate the fans," he said of using Twitter and Instagram. He's also the guy who, in response to the Internet's obsession with his unibrow, went out and trademarked the distinct hairline above his eyes.

  He's barely taken off any time since leaving London and told Gambit he hasn't even had a chance to settle down in New Orleans. Davis said he saw firsthand how hard NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James work and seeks to emulate them. And playing with the likes of James, Bryant, Kevin Durant and Tyson Chandler in London has given him confidence. "I actually played with them and now I won't be scared to talk to them [on the court] or talk trash with them," he said.

  Of course, there are no guarantees in the NBA — since 1984, only two big men have won championships with the teams that drafted them (Hakeem Olajuwon with the Houston Rockets and Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs). But the consensus among scouts is that Davis' size and athletic ability will make him one of the best defensive players in the league in his first season. Pair that with the Hornets' still-developing offensive game and you can forgive fans for getting giddy.

  

For those who have spent more time following the New Orleans Saints, the bounty scandal and the misfortunes of the 2012 season, you may have missed all the news following Benson's purchase of the Hornets. During his introductory press conference as the new owner of New Orleans' NBA franchise, Benson said he wanted "to change [the team name] tomorrow. We have not gotten that approved, but we're not letting up on it, either."

  This was all said within earshot of NBA commissioner David Stern, who joked at the time that Benson was getting ahead of himself since the official paperwork giving Benson ownership of the team had not been completed. It also should be noted the NBA has set guidelines when it comes to name changes and team rebranding that stipulate the change happen gradually over the course of two seasons.

click to enlarge Eric Gordon - PHOTO COURTESY OF NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

  But the Hornets name change and rebranding is imminent, and could come as early as next season if the league allows the team an accelerated rebranding. The good news for the Hornets is that the team can point to a similar situation that occurred in Washington with the Wizards. When Ted Leonsis purchased the team in 2010, he secured a new color scheme for his team after just one season. If we're lucky, the Hornets will truly become New Orleans' team in the same timeframe.

Even without a name change, Benson already has put his mark on the Hornets. The team's games will no longer receive spotty coverage from Cox Sports Television. In June, the team announced a 75-game deal (a franchise high) with the new Fox Sports New Orleans. The team's radio broadcast also has moved, heading over to WWL-AM radio, radio home of the Saints. Benson also is planning a renovation of the New Orleans Arena and the construction of a state-of-the-art basketball training facility next to the Saints' complex in Metairie.

  Which brings us back to Davis' press conference. In the past, these events were held at the Arena or at the Hornets' old training facility at the Alario Center on the West Bank. Davis' press conference was held at the Saints' training facility in Metairie, even though there wasn't a basketball court anywhere nearby.

  This seems a minor detail, but it shows just how quickly the Hornets are moving to sever ties with their past. This is no longer the George Shinn-owned team that left Charlotte, N.C., in disgrace and struggled to find footing in the Crescent City. In many ways, the first Benson-owned season will serve as a litmus test to how the team will operate in the future. Saints and Hornets staff have already begun to merge, with front office and marketing personnel doing double duty. On the basketball side, the Hornets face an uncertain season with a roster filled with rookies, second-year players and veteran role players but no proven talent. This could be a lost season like last year's, where the only purpose is to provide the Hornets with a high draft pick to help build for the future. On the other hand, though, this could be the Hornets' most exciting season in years, with the arrival of Davis and constant speculation about where the franchise goes from here.

  Meanwhile, New Orleanians have rallied behind the Hornets as a matter of civic pride, with 12,000 season tickets sold before the season starts — despite no indication the team will be successful this year. Head coach Monty Williams and general manager Dell Demps enter their third year in charge of the Hornets' basketball operations and they have seen their team regress since making the playoffs in their first season together.

click to enlarge Al-Farouq Aminu - PHOTO COURTESY OF NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

  But Demps and Williams are executing a complete overhaul of their roster to fit their plan for the team's future, and they've had a positive influence on their players. In his first year, Williams took a team on the verge of imploding, with a disgruntled superstar playing out a contract, and coached them to the playoffs. Last year, despite an abysmal record that helped the Hornets win the draft lottery, Williams' schemes gave the team the eighth-best defense in the NBA.

  Williams also is lucky to have a general manager in Demps who knows how to spot the right talent to execute his coach's game plan. Drafting Davis with the No. 1 overall pick was an obvious decision, as was taking Austin Rivers and Darius Miller in the second round; all three players were the best talent available at the time.

Despite flying a bit under the radar, Demps was one of the busiest general managers in the league during the off-season. If you haven't been paying attention, you will have a tough time recognizing most of the players on this season's roster. Many players who — for better or for worse — were the faces of the franchise are now gone, among them Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor, Jarrett Jack, Marco Belinelli and Carl Landry.

  This is Demps' roster, and it carries nothing left over from the Byron Scott/Jeff Bower era — which, though it involved some great playoff memories, was ultimately unsustainable. Demps builds around young talent and solid role players as opposed to overpaying for free agents and players developed by other teams for other purposes. It's the same blueprint employed by the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, Demps' former team. With Davis and Eric Gordon — considered one of the best young scorers in the league — the goal is to mimic the success the Thunder found with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

  More important, Demps seeks to find success with the dozen or so other players who have been signed to complement his two young would-be superstars. Enter second-players Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick, both acquired through sign-and-trades with the Phoenix Suns. Both Lopez and Warrick will bring youth and, the team hopes, depth and stability to the Hornets' front court as Davis develops. This also allows Gordon to more easily fit into his role as the team's top scorer.

click to enlarge Greivis Vasquez - PHOTO COURTESY OF NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

  None of this will happen overnight. It took Oklahoma City five seasons from the moment they drafted Durant until the team made the NBA finals. Of course, New Orleans may prove different. Gordon could turn out to be the best scorer in the NBA and Davis the best defender. The Hornets could luck out and draft another superstar or have one fall into their laps via a trade or free agency — or not.

  But the Hornets have established a solid foundation on which to build a championship contender in the coming years. Williams just signed a multi-year contract extension that will likely keep him in New Orleans as Davis, Gordon, Rivers and the other young talent develop.

  The city will once again have a relevant basketball team for which to root — under whatever name. We just have to get this season out of the way first.

Catch the Buzz

The New Orleans Hornets play their first preseason game Sunday, Oct. 7, against the Orlando Magic at the Mexico City Arena in Mexico City.

The first local preseason matchup will be Tuesday, Oct. 9, at 7 p.m., when the Bees take on the Charlotte Bobcats in the New Orleans Arena.

The first home game of the regular season will be Wednesday, Oct. 31, at 7 p.m., with a matchup against the San Antonio Spurs.

For a complete schedule, visit www.hornets.com.

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