Among 13 players who are on the current New Orleans Pelicans’ roster and under contract for 2017-18, four of them are former Kentucky Wildcats, a list that includes Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Darius Miller. With essentially one-third of the team’s personnel having played college basketball in Lexington, we checked in with Dennis Varney for his unique perspective on that quartet of Pelicans, as well as the state of Kentucky’s growing interest in New Orleans’ NBA franchise.
Varney is the assistant sports editor for the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper and Kentucky.com website. He has worked at the Herald-Leader since 2003 and has managed the @ExCats account on Twitter since its creation in 2012. Varney is a Kentucky native who graduated from Western Kentucky University and has also worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Times of Northwest Indiana near Chicago.
Pelicans.com: You operate the popular @ExCats on Twitter, an account that details the accomplishments of former Kentucky athletes in professional sports. From that perspective, how would you describe the level of interest fans in your state have in how former players fare after they leave college?
Varney: Last season there were 26 former Kentucky players on NBA rosters, the most in the league, at one point. And the number might make it to 30 this season. Kentucky fans are certainly proud of that. Their fandom doesn’t reach the level of when they’re on campus, but it’s big. And it’s not just the NBA, though that’s where the bulk of the interest lies. In addition to NBA stars such as Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and Karl-Anthony Towns, there’s plenty of UK success stories in other sports that attract a big following – world-record holder Kendra Harrison in track and field, Randall Cobb in the NFL and J.B. Holmes in golf, just to name a few.
Pelicans.com: When the Pelicans play on the road in various NBA cities, but particularly in Indianapolis and Memphis, there are often a number of fans wearing Anthony Davis jerseys, sometimes more from his Kentucky career than his current New Orleans uniform. How much do you hear about fans making road trips or even Louisiana to watch former Wildcats play in the pros?
Varney: We have some fans and @ExCats followers that will tweet photos when they watch them play. I’ve got to be honest, it was probably more so last season from fans in Phoenix since there were four former UK players there. We have a lot of Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis fans, for sure. And having multiple former UK players on one team does attract some extra attention.
Pelicans.com: In the case of both Davis and Cousins, they only spent one season in college at Kentucky before becoming lottery picks, but seem to be wildly popular in Lexington and among the fan base. What do you think accounts for why those two players are so beloved?
Varney: DeMarcus Cousins’ outgoing personality and being part of John Calipari’s first class of Kentucky players are two reasons he’s so well liked. And Anthony Davis led the Wildcats to a national championship. He’s a lot of things, including one of the best players in the league, but nothing beats winning the national title here. They both do a lot of charity work and interacting with their communities. I think that’s big, too. Maybe not all fans notice that, but a lot do. And they both tout their UK experiences and come back to Lexington from time to time. Keeping that connection with the fans going is important.
Pelicans.com: How much does it add to the desire of local fans to follow the careers of Rajon Rondo and Darius Miller based on that Rondo and Miller are also native Kentuckians, hailing from Louisville and Maysville (population 8,866), respectively? By the way, according to Basketball-Reference.com, the only other Kentucky-born active NBA players are D’Angelo Russell and Shelvin Mack.
Varney: UK fans love their former players, but being from Kentucky AND playing for Kentucky can take it to another level. And Miller was also a part of that national championship team, so he has a huge following. Fans are happy to see four ex-Cats on the Pelicans’ roster, but key minutes and significant contributions from Miller would go a long way to making the Pelicans “Kentucky’s team.”
In addition to the four players you mentioned, there are two rookies who can add to the list of Kentuckians in the NBA. Derek Willis, from Mt. Washington, and Lexington native Luke Kornet have both signed contracts this summer, with the Pistons and Knicks, respectively.
Pelicans.com: In 2014, the New York Times released a fascinating NBA “fan map” that determined the favorite teams for every zip code in the United States (based on Facebook likes). It essentially showed that there was no dominant team in Kentucky, with near equal splits in popularity at the time between, probably in this order, a top three of the Celtics, Lakers and Heat. Is it fair to say that if the same study was done today, the Pelicans would be atop the list?
Varney: Kentuckians’ NBA fandom is up for grabs at this point. For now, it’s kind of like fantasy sports – fans follow players more than teams. What would change that is winning. If the Pelicans reach the playoffs and win a first-round series or more this season, they’d certainly stake a strong claim. Having multiple former UK players on the roster, with stars or potential stars, is also essential and the Pelicans have that with Davis, Cousins, Rondo and Miller. The Suns (with Booker, Ulis, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight) and Sacramento Kings (with De’Aaron Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere) are also in the conversation, but all three teams need to win a lot more to sway the UK fan base.
Pelicans.com: From your vantage point of going back to well before many New Orleans people had any connection to any of the four UK players here now, what’s one thing about each of them off the court that we might be surprised to know?
Varney: With social media being what it is these days, I don’t know that there’s much left to surprise people with. A common thread for Davis, Cousins and Rondo is definitely their charitable efforts and that they don’t flaunt that. Their love for the communities in the cities they’ve played in is sincere. As for Miller, I’m not sure fans in general remember just how much he contributed to Kentucky’s success when he was there. He averaged 8.2 points and 24.9 minutes and shot 37.8 percent from three-point range during his four-year career. And he averaged more than 21 minutes per game all four seasons. Playing that much every season is rare for a four-year player at Kentucky these days. One more thing about Rondo: his hands are huge. We once did a page in the newspaper that had one of his hands at life-size, so fans could compare their hands to his. That’s a big reason he made the league’s All-Defensive teams four straight seasons from 2009 to 2012. That was a fun project to work on.
Most people realize that Kentucky players are treated like rock stars when they’re here, but one thing they might not know about is that once their careers are over, they all do signing tours across the state. A LOT of people show up for those and they spend A LOT of money on autographs and pictures with the players.
Pelicans.com: Based on what they showed on the court as college players, what has surprised you most about each of their NBA careers? Conversely, what have they done in the league that you could’ve most easily predicted when you were covering them as Wildcats?
Varney: What has surprised the most about Davis and Cousins is the losing. They’re both super talents and don’t have much to show for it so far (one playoff appearance combined). I know that hasn’t been easy on either of them. I don’t think fans here in Kentucky thought it would take them this long to turn their franchises around. The surprise with Rondo is how far out of favor he fell in the league so quickly. He’s only 31. I think there’s a lot more left in the tank for him, and playing with Davis, Cousins and Jrue Holiday could be just what he needs. We’ll see on that. Miller’s three-point shooting in Germany was off the charts: 51.6 percent his first season, then 46.9 and 41.4 in the seasons after that. That’s not the same as doing that in the NBA, but it’s still impressive.
It was easy to expect Davis, Cousins and Rondo to go to the league and become stars quickly, and they did that. I didn’t expect Miller’s first run in the NBA to last because I didn’t think he’d get the minutes a three-point specialist needs to succeed. That proved to be true. Miller has the talent to play a strong supporting role in the NBA, so it’s going to be interesting to see this time around if he gets enough playing time to show what he’s capable of.