LAS VEGAS – The first time Anthony Davis was invited to participate with Team USA two years ago, it was merely supposed to be an introduction to the system, the staff and the superstar talents as they prepared for the London Olympics. Davis had no NBA experience, having been drafted No. 1 overall out of Kentucky only a few weeks earlier, but was an intriguing talent, given the shortage of American big men.
But the skinny 19-year-old was unable to do much more than observe because of a sprained ankle. Davis left camp and headed back to New Orleans to prepare for summer league with the then-Hornets when he got a call and was told to report back because Blake Griffin had suffered a knee injury. The fluky setback catapulted Davis into an unlikely roster spot and he spent the next few weeks mostly watching, learning, carrying bags, fetching towels and making food runs while earning an Olympic gold medal.
“I had to try to learn everything fast,” Davis said this week at Team USA training camp at Mendenhall Center on the campus of UNLV. “Something I was never used to doing, which is not playing. I never had to sit out of a game before, when I was ready to play. It was new to me, but I learned a lot with that experience and it boosted my confidence.”
“I kind of got an early advantage, being around all the superstars,” Davis, now 21, said. “Coming out, seeing how they work and what they do. I definitely think that put me ahead of the game.”
As he makes his return to USA Basketball, Davis is a star in his own right, the youngest player in the NBA with all-star credentials and someone expected to take on a huge leadership role with the team. Davis joins Kevin Durant and James Harden as the only players on the roster with Olympic gold medals.
Once again, Davis has been pushed into an unexpected position because of happenstance. With Griffin dealing with a stress fracture in his back and Kevin Love’s decision to back out as he awaits getting dealt by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Davis has the most international experience of any big man on the roster and will likely be the starter when the FIBA World Cup begins on Aug. 30 in Spain.
“We were fortuitous that he was on the Olympic team, because he had a comfort level coming in here that he knew us and USA Basketball,” Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Davis. “But he wasn’t going to be on that Olympic team. That worked out, even though at that time, you’d rather have Blake because he was already established and this was a young kid. The experience of just doing that was outstanding. He’s going to be one of the best players … He is one of the best in the league.”
Davis already got the ultimate endorsement from the league’s reigning most valuable player Kevin Durant, who said this week that Davis is an “MVP-caliber player” and is “next in line.”
His accelerated ascension to stardom began with that incredible eight-inch growth spurt the summer before his junior year at Perspectives Charter School in Chicago that turned him to the top recruit in the country. Two years later, he was named an all-star replacement for the injured Kobe Bryant with the game being played in New Orleans. But Davis has never been ill-prepared for the moment because of his dedication to improve and his knack for consistently making his presence felt.
“He just affects the game in so many ways,” New Orleans Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said this week. “Offensively, defensively, in transition. Unbelievable effect on the game. Blocking shots, distracting shots. He can score in a number of ways. And he’s unselfish.”
The league, and USA Basketball in particular, has leaned heavily on LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade for several years and is currently relying on Durant, Love, Griffin, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry. But Davis is starting to distinguish himself as the face — and unibrow – of the next wave of players, those born in the 1990s and coming into their own, such as Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal.
“I’ve heard that story, honestly, since I’m old,” USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said. ‘When Russell and Chamberlain and Baylor and Oscar and those guys were the guys, well, who is going to replace them? There is always a wave to come in and we know that the Michaels and the Birds and the Magics, all these guys came along. It’s no different today. If anything, there’s more depth with the players today. They just keep coming. Start with Durant. The guys who represented us in the Olympics who are the stars today. Anthony Davis is definitely one of them. I’m the last one to say we’ve got a problem because there are no more stars coming. I mean, there are kids in the eighth grade right now, who are coming.”
Davis would rather not concern himself with his place among the league hierarchy, with so much still left to accomplish, namely leading the Pelicans into the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference.
“I’m just trying to play. Whatever it may be. I’m just trying to go out and play the best of my abilities,” Davis said. “I let the media decide if I’m that guy or not. I just go out and play.”
After Thursday’s light practice, Davis soaked his jammed left middle finger in a cup of ice. He said the injury wasn’t serious but USA Basketball is once again in the delicate situation of being loaded with perimeter talent and lacking in size. Krzyzewski said the team will “need to have more than Anthony Davis” and Colangelo joked, “I don’t know if it’s in the water or what, but we just can’t seem to grow a lot of bigs in our country.”
Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and Detroit’s Andre Drummond came to Las Vegas looking to claim a spot at center, but Brooklyn’s Mason Plumlee was plucked from the select team and could stick around. The situation is so flimsy inside that Colangelo told Comcast SportsNet that the all-star Love could be added to the final 12-man roster, despite not training with the team, if his situation as a trade chip between Minnesota and Cleveland clears up before the tournament. Davis would already seem to be slated for a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro but he didn’t want to look beyond this summer when asked if he expected another invitation.
“I don’t want to jinx myself. I don’t want to say yes and then in 2016 I don’t get that call,” Davis said. “It’s definitely an honor to be asked multiple times to play for Team USA. Hopefully I keep getting invited and I get a chance to represent.”