Anthony Davis is in the do-no-wrong phase of his career, when the promise of a dominant future allows others to hyperventilate over how awesome he will become, when each eye-popping putback dunk or “where-did-he-come-from?” block provides ample reason to gawk and repellent for any flaws.
Davis has been so good through his first two seasons — and is off to such a great start in his third — that few blink or provide much dissent when his name is mentioned as a top five, or better, NBA talent. In the NBA’s annual general manager’s poll, Davis finished tied for second with Kevin Durant behind LeBron James as the player they’d select if starting a franchise today.
The avalanche of praise could be overwhelming and will surely shift if Davis fails to capture a championship by his seventh or eighth season, a phase James had to overcome and in which Durant currently exists. But Davis refuses to get caught up, lest it consume him to impatiently chase what might be unattainable or distract him from what he has already set out to accomplish.
“I just go out there and play. What people expect of me? That’s on them,” Davis said, recently. “I don’t pay attention to all the stuff that they’re saying because that kind of messes with your head and you start getting complacent. That’s for the fans to read it and listen to it. My objective is to help this team win.”
The New Orleans Pelicans reside in the superior Western Conference, in the league’s toughest division, and have won just 61 games the past two seasons, so carrying a franchise that bottomed out after the Chris Paul trade back into the playoffs might even exceed Davis’s other-worldly talents. That certainly won’t stop the 21-year-old Davis from trying, though few players have succeeded when tasked with such leadership responsibilities at a similar age.
“We know we’re a good team. We know it’s stuff we have to figure out, get better at. We know where we want to be,” Davis said, “but it takes a lot to get there. We don’t have any experience as far as going to the Finals or anything like that, so we have to make sure that we come out with that energy every night.”
Davis nearly recorded a triple double in a season-opening win over Orlando (26 points, 17 rebounds and nine blocks) and followed up that performance with 31 points and 15 rebounds in a loss to Dallas. Memphis, in Game 3, kept Davis relatively bottled up but he still managed to provide a breathtaking moment when he darted toward the rim, soared to catch a rebound on an Eric Gordon miss and revealed tremendous agility and dexterity as he avoided Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph’s attempts to box out and dunked on him.
Despite bulking up to 243 pounds – nearly 30 more than his weight when Davis entered the league – the 6-foot-10 forward with the pterodactyl-like 7-5 wingspan remains fleet enough to trap Mavericks guard Jameer Nelson above the top of the key and still track down Chandler Parsons in the corner to devour what should’ve been a wide open three-point attempt.
“I tell him all the time. Tell him about how good he is, what I think he can be, but I also talk about the work that goes into and how he has to be diligent, disciplined and sacrifice. You’ve got to do great things all the time,” Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said. “Everybody has a ceiling. His ceiling is high. What we’ve talked about is trying to achieve as much as he can. Rarely do you get all of it, but he has a chance to get most of it. And that’s rare. Michael Jordan got most of it. LeBron and those guys, they’re getting most of their abilities. And it’s a rare thing. I told him he can’t take that for granted. He’s got to work at it. Let everything else fall where it may.”
Williams tried to motivate Davis before last season by handing him a list of 10 power forwards he felt were better than his budding superstar. Davis responded by making his first all-star team and recording the highest player efficiency rating – 26.5 – of any 20-year-old in NBA history. Compiling another list will be especially difficult after Davis led Team USA to a lopsided gold medal run at the FIBA World Cup in Spain last September.
“He was with the cream of the crop and he was the guy. Those first few days of practice, there was no doubt who was the best player in the gym. And you had Kevin [Durant] on the floor. James Harden. Paul George. Derrick Rose. All of these guys and AD was the guy,” said Williams, a Team USA assistant last summer. “I would imagine he was like: ‘If I could be like that with this crew, man, I can dominate just about anywhere.’ That’s something that you can’t choreograph it. I can’t give him a speech about it. That’s the one thing he learned on his own, that he can be the best when the best are around.”
USA Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski called Davis “our main guy” before the tournament began and the second-youngest player on the team earned the respect of his teammates with his work ethic and humility. “I love his drive to want to be great,” said Rose, a former MVP and fellow Chicago native. “Being around him, talking to him, talking to his family, he’s headed in the right direction.”
Davis also has a national championship from Kentucky and an Olympic gold medal in his possession but he remains grounded by surrounding himself with coaches, friends and family who refuse to let him settle.
“They still tell me I could’ve did more,” Davis said. “Even if I thought I played a good game, there is stuff I can improve on. I’m glad to have them people around to feed me the answers, not that I want to hear but what I need. It’s a lot that we have to do, that I have to do, to get better at. That’s what I try to do.”