In pregame bull sessions and off-the-cuff conversations, they talk in almost hushed, reverent tones. These men of basketball who have seen them come and seen them go are reduced to whispers whenever his name comes up, as it often does in these circles.
"He’s going to revolutionize the game," one says. "We’ve never seen anything like him," another offers. When asked the time honored question: Who would you take to start a franchise, a third responds, "You mean, besides Anthony Davis?"
His games have become must-watch League Pass events among true NBA heads, and every night Davis offers up something different for those glazed-over eyes. Like his now legendary double-block against the Blazers in which he not only rejected LaMarcus Aldridge’s unguardable fadeaway, he also recovered in time to get a piece of Wes Matthews’ jumper a split second later.
To describe his game is to lapse into already dated cliches about the wingspans of pterodactyls, and it may be more accurate to note what he’s not at this point.
He is not a scoring virtuoso like Michael Jordan. He’s not Kevin Durant firing up 25-footers like layups. Although blessed with a freakish body and build, he doesn’t have the massive size and advanced skill of LeBron James. If there’s an on-court comparison that make sense, it’s a young Kevin Garnett. But Davis’ offensive numbers have eclipsed KG’s at a similar age and their style and temperament couldn’t be more different. Where Garnett was ferocious and loud, Davis is smooth and subtle.
If anything, his game is still in the rudimentary stages with a developing jump shot and a small package of post moves out of the Hakeem Olajuwon starter kit. That’s the most amazing thing. We have no idea how good Anthony Davis is going to be because he’s only scratching the surface of his talent. What he offers is a tantalizing mix of length, athletic ability and timing. He needs to be seen to be believed.
What makes Davis such an object of fascination is that his reputation has been allowed to take root organically with little marketing push or national television exposure. His crowning achievement as a pro was leading a U.S. squad that was without LeBron, Durant, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Paul George to a FIBA World Championship, a late-summer event that ranks somewhere between golf and preseason football in the mainstream consciousness.
Davis is a throwback to a time when we had to make an effort to watch a phenomenon, like Jordan’s early days in Chicago or even Dr. J in the ABA. As such, his exploits take on the characteristic of myth. One person tells another, who tells another and then word spreads and builds to a crescendo that transcends marketing hype. That this can still happen in 2014 is part of the appeal. He is the last great secret in sports and all of that is about to change.
Davis will make his first network appearance of the season on Dec. 4 in a TNT game against the Golden State Warriors. Less than a week later, he and the Pelicans will be on ESPN for a game against the Mavericks. The original schedule, set last summer well before the season began taking shape, featured the Knicks and Spurs in that spot. That’s how good Davis has been: He bumped a game featuring the defending champs and a team from New York.
"We’ve been keeping an eye on him," says ESPN’s Doug White, the senior director of programming and acquisitions. "His performance for USA basketball over the summer in the FIBA World Cup solidified and crystallized in our minds; he really emerged as leader this summer. We had some inkling that his star was on the rise. You could obviously see the maturity in him in terms of his game and also his leadership skills. That’s translated on the court and into the performance of his team."
When the national television schedule was announced last summer, there was a bit of an outcry from NBA observers who wanted to know why Davis wasn’t featured more heavily. In addition to his one TNT appearance, there was one ESPN game and eight on NBA TV. (NBA TV is available in about half of American homes. ESPN and TNT are far more ubiquitous.)
The TNT schedule is locked in with exclusive Thursday games, but ESPN’s arrangement allows for more flexibility in concert with the league. They were waiting, like we all were, for Davis to put his mark on the league and in the standings.
"We scrutinize every single one of our game windows," White says. "The name of the game for us is ratings. That’s something we have to balance day in and day out. The beauty of it is that if a team is playing well, we do have the ability of showcasing them on our schedule. At the end of the day we do have to make sure we’re putting games on that will rate for us. New Orleans, while they’re an up and coming team, they still have to prove themselves as a ratings winner, as they did with Chris Paul. The good news with New Orleans is I think they’re on their way to doing that."
It’s not as if Davis was a total mystery -- he was the No. 1 overall pick from Kentucky, fresh off leading the Wildcats to a convincing national championship -- but there has always been an air of intrigue about him. Unlike LeBron, who was known to everyone before he even set foot in the league, or Durant, whose college games had an appreciable buzz among NBA fans, we were unsure what to make of Davis when he joined the NBA.
The Kentucky narrative was built around the idea that this was a whole team full of future pros. Davis was clearly the top prospect, but big men take time to develop and his learning curve was steeper than most, having grown eight inches during high school. Even in Chicago, that hotbed of prep basketball, he was a hidden gem and didn’t become a high-level recruit until the summer before his senior season. That was all of four years ago.
His first season, while promising, was spent with an otherwise forgettable New Orleans team that won only 27 games. Portland’s Damian Lillard was the clear pick for Rookie of the Year. His second offered steady improvement, but a wrist injury cost him 15 games and injuries to Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson wrecked any hopes the Pelicans had of competing.
Not even an All-Star berth with the game in his franchise’s city was enough to make him the star of the show. Davis was a late addition, chosen to replace an injured Kobe Bryant who nonetheless commanded the spotlight with his own packed press conference an hour before the game. Davis was more of a local curiosity on media day, but his fellow All-Stars knew.
"He’s going to be here for a decade, plus," Dirk Nowitzki said. "That’s how good he is. He’s going to be in the All-Star Game every year. He’s long, he’s skilled, he plays defense and rebounds. He’s the future of power forwards."
Team success was the missing ingredient and while it’s early, the Pelicans have been off to a solid start. The offseason acquisition of Omer Asik allowed Davis to move to his natural big forward spot. Freed from the physical responsibility of banging heads with other low post giants, he can cause havoc all over the court.
The price for bringing Asik to New Orleans was a first-round pick, just as it was for Holiday the year before. With Davis in place, GM Dell Demps has eschewed the Oklahoma City model of building through the draft and instead gone after sign-and-trade deals for free agents like Anderson and Tyreke Evans.
But OKC does offer a parallel as far as national exposure is concerned. As long as Durant plays there, the Thunder will be on the map. That’s what Davis is doing for New Orleans and that’s why he and the Pelicans are graduating from League Pass cult status. Our secret is out and about to go mainstream.
"It’s a great opportunity for us to showcase him," White says. "It’s a great opportunity for him and the New Orleans Pelicans to showcase their team to the basketball world. It’s a great opportunity for all of us."