NEW ORLEANS -- The NBA franchise in New Orleans, which has looked mostly moribund in recent seasons, underwent a facelift over the summer. A new team name in the Pelicans, in place of the Hornets, gave it a new identity. A brand-new practice facility and major renovations to the home arena gave it a chance to compete for free agents. A burgeoning superstar in Anthony Davis gave it reason for hope after looking rudderless following the Chris Paul trade.
Simultaneously, former New Orleans player Xavier Henry has undergone an equally dramatic transformation of his own.
Henry, who never averaged more than 5.3 points or 16.9 minutes per game in his first three seasons (one with Memphis, followed by two in New Orleans), rolled into town Friday as a new man with the Los Angeles Lakers.
He started two out of the Lakers' first six games, averaging 10.8, 2.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists coming into the matchup with his former team.
"I just think he’s healthy," New Orleans coach Monty Williams said. "In the time we had him here, he struggled with so many injuries. It looks like he lost some weight, so he’s in better shape. You always felt like he can play, but he could never get himself healthy. It’s just good to see somebody who looks like they’ve found a home and looks more comfortable on the floor than he did here. I’m happy for him."
Henry had an injury-plagued final year in New Orleans -- dealing with foot, knee and ankle problems at some point in the season -- and come time for exit interviews, the team made it clear it was no longer interested in him.
"That’s hard for anybody," Henry said before the game Friday. "When your health isn’t right, you’re battling yourself and battling your teammates [for playing time]. It’s hard to battle injuries and to battle everybody else ahead of you day in and day out. Whenever you can get healthy, it’s good to focus just on basketball instead of what’s hurting and how to work around it."
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said that Henry's mental health has improved as much as his physical well-being.
"A lot of times that’s just confidence for a guy," D'Antoni said. "It comes from them, most of the time it’s the players. Every coach is looking and you have certain windows of opportunities and if you don’t have that confidence and you don’t hit it quite right, then the coach could go to somebody else. It’s a tough league. A lot of guys can play and when he did have the little window [in L.A.], he really played well. Not just a little bit, but he ran through the window. He’s got to keep it there and hopefully he will."
Henry said he simply was ready when the time came with the Lakers.
"It was where I wanted to be," said Henry, who scored 29 points in his first preseason game with L.A. and 22 in his first regular-season game. "I wanted to make sure I made an impression when I got on the floor and I did. I made sure I stood out somehow, no matter what I was doing, I was doing something productive for the team."
There is still improvements to be made, of course. Henry was shooting just 37 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from 3-point range and 57.1 percent from the line coming into Friday.
And D'Antoni is still trying to get him to improve his feel for the game.
"He attacks too much now," D'Antoni said. "We’ll try to correct that. He’s putting his head down a little too much. He’s just got to find a balance of when he can drive and he’s got to rely on his shot some. Then he’s got to hit the open guy once he collapses the defense. He’s learning."
But overall, the feelings are all positive.
"I’ll take responsibility for that," Williams said when asked about Henry's ill-defined role in New Orleans. "It was a little bit of that ... Like I said, I’m just glad he’s doing a lot better."
There's no hard feelings from Henry. Just appreciation for a new day.
"I don’t blame him," Henry said. "I don’t blame him for anything about last year."