Kansas City, Mo. For the first two seasons of his professional career, former Kansas University guard Mario Chalmers had gotten used to playing with a superstar in Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade.
This offseason, however, the Heat increased their superstar quota by two when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined the club.
Overnight, Chalmers found himself playing on a team with more offensive weapons than he ever could have imagined. As the hero of KU’s run to the national championship in 2008 prepares to kick off his third season in the NBA, the advantages of the new set-up already are starting to show. During the first two preseason games of 2010, Chalmers has recorded 12 assists in just 37 minutes. Five of those came during the Heat’s 103-96 victory against Oklahoma City on Friday at Sprint Centerm and, before the game, Chalmers talked about life with his new running-mates.
“Those guys are real cool cats; they’re real down to earth,” Chalmers said. “Playing with those three players, you gotta raise your game, and it’s just going to make you better, and I think that’s what everybody on this team needs.”
Despite each member of the Heat’s all-star trio having more NBA games than Chalmers on their resume, only Wade has more experience in Miami, which has put Chalmers in more of a veteran role than ever before.
“Yeah, some of the young guys look to me for leadership,” Chalmers said. “And, being a point guard, all the guys are going to look to me as a leader sometimes. It’s just a lot of fun out there. I like being a leader, but at the same time, I’m happy to be a follower, too.”
That attitude is good news if you ask James, who already has identified his nickname of choice for the man many around here knew as “Super Mario.” Not one to waste time, King James refers to Chalmers simply as “Rio.” What he hopes to see from Chalmers on the floor is not much more complicated.
“I expect Rio to get us into our sets. I mean, he’s the point guard, he has the ability to shoot the ball, and his wingspan is really going to help us defensively,” James said. “We don’t expect a lot of scoring from Rio, we don’t expect anything but for him to make sure that we control the tempo, make open shots when they come toward him and just lead the game.”
Chalmers, originally drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the 34th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, was one of just a couple of players from last year’s roster who the Heat retained. In addition to adding the star power of James and Bosh, Miami brought in sharpshooter Mike Miller, former Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, veteran role player Eddie House and a few talented rookies.
Despite the overwhelming talent pool from which the Heat coaching staff has to choose, getting on the same page remains a work in progress.
“We’re in a good spot right now,” James said. “At this point, we are where we should be, maybe a little ahead defensively, to be honest with you. We don’t have our full team yet. E-House is still recovering from shoulder surgery, D-Wade has a pulled hamstring, Juwan (Howard) hasn’t played yet, and Rio, he’s still not 100 percent. He’s still nursing an ankle injury that he had this summer. We’re playing good basketball for what we have now, and then when we get 100 percent healthy, then we’ll be able to see (how good we can be).”
Friday’s exhibition was a homecoming of sorts for eight former Big 12 players, many of whom played Big 12 tournament games at Sprint Center in the past. In addition to the return of former Jayhawks Chalmers, Cole Aldrich and Nick Collison, a trio of former Texas players suited up: Kevin Durant, Royal Ivey and Dexter Pittman, along with former Baylor guard Tweety Carter and former Oklahoma center Longar Longar.
For Ivey, being back in the area brought back memories of playing at Allen Fieldhouse.
“That was one of the toughest places to play,” Ivey said. “Their fans are great. It was loud. It was like a warehouse in there. There’s no place like it.”
Asked if he’d encountered anything similar during his six-year pro career, Ivey said: “No. College basketball’s just a different game. Maybe the playoffs, but even that’s not the same.”
Still, the highlight of Friday’s exhibition for most local fans was the match-up between former Jayhawk teammates. Chalmers got the better end of the battle on the scoreboard, and Aldrich, who had two points, four rebounds and three blocks in 28 minutes, turned in the better individual performance.
“We just had a few words, just talking and whatnot,” Aldrich said of the exchange he had with Chalmers. “We love competing against each other. We competed together for one year when we won it (NCAA title in 2008), but we’ve become really good friends, and we just had a lot of fun out there.”