At the time he was selected first overall last June, Anthony Davis appeared destined to be enveloped with overwhelming hype or immense pressure in his rookie season with the New Orleans Hornets. But for a league in which fans are always quick to latch onto something new and exciting or dismiss anything that doesn’t yield immediate results, Davis has encountered neither.
Perhaps because he plays in small-market New Orleans or possibly because Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has been the front-runner for rookie of the year since his season debut, Davis has been able to put up some respectable numbers and learn through his mistakes without having to deal with the same scrutiny as others who entered the league with his decorated resume.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Davis said. “I just go out there and play ball. I just try to have fun and help my team win.”
Davis dominated college basketball in his lone season at Kentucky, leading the Wildcats to a national championship and sweeping every major player of the year award. He then won an Olympic gold medal in London, getting some early lessons in how to approach the game from the NBA’s elite. Despite a steady stream of accomplishments and accolades, the 6-foot-10 Davis never allowed them to cloud his focus or desire to keep working.
“I don’t believe any of that,” Davis said. “The more arrogant you are, the faster everything will be taken away from you. I just try to stay humble, and I came from a household where my family made sure I stayed humble and live by them principles.”
Early season injuries – Davis had a concussion and a stress reaction in his left ankle – and the Hornets’ slow start in his absence removed much of the buzz surrounding him, but even a recent left shoulder injury hasn’t diminished how well he has played. Davis hasn’t been the second coming of Tim Duncan, as some predicted when he arrived, but he continues to improve, using his athleticism, quickness and intelligence to compensate for lack of bulk.
And, based on his current level of production, Davis, who turned 20 last week, could finish with the seventh-best player efficiency rating of any player to enter the league at age 19 or 20. Shaquille O’Neal has the best mark for that age group at 22.9 and Davis is none too shabby at 21.1.
Davis is part of 2012 class that wasn’t expected to produce many superstars but has been highly productive at the top. With Davis, Lillard, Washington’s Bradley Beal and Cleveland’s Dion Waiters, it is the fourth draft class in the past 10 years in which at least four of the top six players are averaging at least 10 points per game. The other instances occurred in 2008 (with Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love), 2004 (with Dwight Howard, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and Josh Childress) and 2003 (with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade).
Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the second overall pick, is averaging just 9.0 points, but has a higher PER than Beal or Waiters. And, Andre Drummond, who might turn out to be a steal for Detroit as the ninth pick, actually has the highest PER of any rookie – and second-highest all-time among players to enter the league at 19 or 20 – at 22.3.
“We’re playing hard,” Davis said of the rookie class. “Guys are finding their niches in this league, through 60-plus games, so it’s been great. But we got to continue to work and get better in order to make sure that we’re able to stay in this league and ultimately be great players in this league.”
The 22-year-old Lillard was the most NBA-ready player taken, going sixth to Portland after playing four years at Weber State, and has been tearing up the league ever since he had 23 points and 11 assists to lead the Trail Blazers to a season-opening win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Lillard leads all rookies in points, assists and three-pointers made and scored at least 20 points in 33 of his first 63 games.
Davis leads rookies in rebounds, blocks, steals and double-doubles but said he isn’t focused on catching Lillard for rookie of the year, especially since he has yet to even beat out Lillard for one Western Conference rookie of the month award.
Like many of the players taken early in the draft, Davis didn’t arrive with the expectations of being immediate franchise saviors. Beal and Waiters both joined teams that had point guards who had been taken No. 1 overall in previous drafts. Beal started to emerge before John Wall returned from a stress injury in his left knee and then started to take off once they shared the backcourt. Waiters will now have the chance to carry the Cavaliers with Kyrie Irving down for possibly the rest of the season with a sprained right shoulder.
Kidd-Gilchrist stepped into one of the more challenging rebuilding projects in the league in Charlotte, where his hustle and intangibles can’t always influence wins and losses. And Thomas Robinson, the fifth overall pick, is already on his second team and never had to deal with being a focal point in either Sacramento or Houston.
Hornets Coach Monty Williams has intentionally brought along slowly the wiry Davis, allowing him to mature physically and develop at his own pace.
“It’s helped me out a lot, to see the game, explore the game, figure out how I want to play the game. I’m progressing each and every day,” said Davis, who expects the franchise to make strides soon after it becomes known as the Pelicans. “We’re rebuilding and trying to figure out what team we want to be. A couple of years, next year or two, we’ll be a threat and you can see we’re moving that way.”