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Paul Flannery | February 8, 2015

Sunday Shootaround

Ready or not, Anthony Davis is taking over

Ready or not

NEW ORLEANS -- Stuffing himself into an oversized easy chair that has no chance to contain his outsized frame, Anthony Davis looks wary as he settles in for yet another interview. How many of these has he done lately? "Man, too many," he answers. Is he getting bored of the hype? "It’s always the same questions," he counters with a laugh.

It’s a fair point. By now everyone is familiar with AD’s origin story. They know how in less than five years he grew -- literally grew -- from anonymous high school player to top recruit to national champion to MVP candidate. Comparisons have been thrown around from Tim Duncan to Kevin Garnett, but no one truly knows what he will become because no one has ever seen anything like him before.

"Whenever you have someone who puts in the time, not only on the court but in the weight room, the nutrition aspect, you don’t put a ceiling on expectations," general manager Dell Demps tells me an hour before the Pels ended the Hawks 19-game winning streak behind yet another remarkable Davis performance. "We’re watching this guy grow up. We’re watching him become a leader. We’re watching him take over games. It’s been fun."

And the attention that comes with it?

"I don’t know if there is a blueprint for that," Demps continues. "He’s getting a lot of accolades that he deserves and I think he’s handling it very well. His parents have done a great job of raising him and keeping him grounded. We’re lucky to have him in our organization."

His teammates love him: "It’s like NBA 2K and you just created the best player," Dante Cunningham says. "Tallest, longest, most athletic. Everything you want in a player is right there. Awesome teammate. Happy go lucky guy, always very constructive and leader-oriented. Very rare for a 21-year-old. He’s way above his age. "

And everyone in the organization swears by him: "He’s a guy that you don’t mind your children idolizing," says David Wesley, the team’s television analyst. "Now that I’m on this side I watch how these guys interact with their fans and with the public and he does it as well as anyone. To be that big of a star, you can still see the connection and that’s fun to watch."

Davis is a young man with a young man’s sense of the world, but he takes his responsibilities seriously: from improving his game to the countless media demands -- he warms up quickly during our session -- to his community service work. Through his Flight Academy program, Davis treats local kids to outings and has been known to drop in on area schools.

"Most guys worry about MVPs and scoring titles and all that," Davis says. "For me it was the Community Assist award. I was kind of pissed when Steph (Curry) won. That’s my brother, you know, but man I really wanted that award. Second’s not bad. This year I wanted to do more. I feel like I needed to do more and embrace the situation that I’m in."

On the court, of course, Davis has been spectacular. His numbers are so absurd it’s hard to even know where to begin, but here’s one: His 31.7 Player Efficiency Rating puts him in company with Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only players to crack the 31 barrier, and none of them were 21 years old at the time they reached that level. AD’s still good for a half-dozen ohmygod plays a night, but he’s also scoring more efficiently and growing as a defender. If you were to take an MVP straw vote right now, he’d be in the top five, if not higher. Still, it’s a lot to carry a franchise on your young shoulders, even on blades as broad as his have grown.

"Most guys worry about MVPs and scoring titles and all that. For me it was the Community Assist award. I was kind of pissed when Steph won." -Anthony Davis

"It is a lot to be 21, so much is expected of you and you’ve got to do it," Davis says. "You’ve got to live up to it, that’s the hardest thing about it. I talk to my friends and they’re graduating school and about to have parties and all this stuff. I’m like, ‘I’ve got to work.’ It comes with the territory."

Davis laughs easily as he says these things, as if he can’t even believe this is all happening himself. But one shouldn’t dismiss his easygoing nature, for it hides a ferocious competitor who broods long after losses, replaying moments and plays in his head. He’ll often text coach Monty Williams and take responsibility for the defeat.

"He’ll call me," Davis says. "He won’t text back, he’ll call me and say, ‘It’s not on you. It’s on us.’ He knows how I can get because I hate losing more than I like winning. It gets to me. He tells me, ‘In a couple of years then it’s going to be on you. But right now just focus on basketball and let me handle the rest.’"

Williams has taken criticism for everything from his strategies to his rotations, but he’s been consistent with what he terms his ‘responsibility’ to coach Davis. A father of five and a deeply religious man, Williams doesn’t obsess over what people have to say about his young star or their expectations.

"I don’t listen to it," Williams tells me in his office after a practice. "When I turn the TV on I turn the volume down. I never read the stuff that people write because to me it clouds your focus. We have a gameplan, we have a list of things we’re trying to do with our team, with Anthony from an individual standpoint, we stick to it and we talk to each other about what we need to do, and we leave it at that. The other people, they’re not here every day.

"My first year with Anthony everyone thought I was crazy because I wouldn’t play him in certain situations. They didn’t know that he was 212 playing against guys that were 250 and 260. Now everybody thinks this just happened overnight. Like, all right. Think what you want."

As AD’s star has ascended, he and Williams have developed a strong bond. ("Coach has kind of been like my vet," Davis says. "Schooling me on the game.") For his part, Williams remains cognizant of the pressures facing his young star.

"He’s still 21," Williams says. "I’m mindful of that. I let him be 21. I’m not trying to get him to be 30 right now. Everybody wants to push him to be Tim (Duncan) right now. Tim wasn’t even Tim when he was Anthony’s age. He wasn’t even in the league, so why would we push him to be Tim right now? That’s not fair to him. I think the guys get way too much pressure to be great early. If you push it too fast it can do some harm."

Davis still has areas to improve on the court, although Williams says he picks things up faster than any other player he’s been around. But how do you prepare for everything that’s come his way?

"Mentally he’s had to deal with stuff every year that’s different," Williams says. "The first year he had to deal with being a No. 1 pick. The second year he had to deal with, Wow he’s gotten a lot better and people realizing that. Now he’s dealing with, OK this guy is the guy. So, dealing with that every night, knowing that you’re the focus of the game plan, you’re the focus of the media, I’m sure his life has changed. Five years ago he was in high school. Now he’s looked at as one of the top five players in the world. I try to take responsibility back from him so he doesn’t have to deal with as much anymore."

Those responsibilities include little things, like being the guy who calls his teammates together in the huddle. As the best player, Davis has taken on a leadership role and his teammates have gravitated toward him. It’s a natural step in his development, but Williams wants to make sure it happens organically.

"I never ask a player to do my job," Williams says. "If there’s something going on that needs to be addressed, we don’t have a lot of old vets on our team so I do that stuff. He would try to and I thought it was putting too much pressure on him to perform and do that stuff."

An obvious comparison is Kevin Garnett, who took the league by storm as a teenager and became one of the game’s great team leaders. There again, is the question of what Davis can be and what he is right now.

"Garnett didn’t do that early in his career," Williams points out. "He had Sam (Mitchell) and Malik Sealy. (Davis) doesn’t have Sam Mitchell and Malik Sealy, so why would I do that to him? He’s got Jrue (Holiday), who’s like 25. Tyreke (Evans) is 25, Eric (Gordon’s) 26. That’s not fair to him. I think he’s grown this year because he doesn’t have all that to deal with all that. He can just be himself."

This is the tricky balancing act the Pelicans are walking at the moment. Davis has been brilliant and the team has started to come together, but neither he nor they are a finished product. We all want it right now, but time has its own agenda and it doesn’t have to play in the Western Conference.

"I think the guys get way too much pressure to be great early. If you push it too fast it can do some harm." -Monty Williams

The Pels were constructed with Davis’ evolution in mind. Demps has gone after what he calls, "young vets," talented players like Holiday and Evans who would be ready to play with Davis when Davis was ready to take flight.

"We studied what a number of teams have done in the past," Demps says. "Everybody says you should do like San Antonio did, but we didn’t have a Hall of Famer waiting on him like David Robinson to help him through the process. Everybody says, do it like Oklahoma City. Well they drafted two Hall of Famers in a row. That’s hard to do. What we really wanted to do was understand what kind of player he was going to become. Coming out of college he was a great defender and rebounder. He’s scoring more points in the NBA than he did in college. That’s a credit to him and the coaches and player development staff. We wanted to get good players who could play with him when he was ready to play."

The Pelicans have moments of amazing clarity when everything works and they look like one of the best teams in the league. And others where they are still clearly finding themselves. After losing to the wayward Nuggets, they gutted out a win over the Clippers without Davis and Holiday, who has been out with a leg injury. A few days later they dominated the Hawks, ending their 19-game winning streak. They have a strong record against some of the best teams in the West, but they’re also not far removed from losing games to Boston, Philly and New York on a recent road trip.

"We’ve obviously improved, but I also think that we’ve shown that our ceiling’s been raised," Demps said. "Because of some games that we’ve played against some pretty good teams and we’ve done well, we’re starting to establish an expectation level and that’s good. I’m confident that we can get there."

In addition to AD’s dominance, Evans has stepped up during Holiday’s absence and become more of a playmaker. Since returning from his own injury, Gordon has recaptured his form while averaging better than 15 points and 5 assists per game. In an effort to shore up his team’s depth and add a veteran influence, Demps signed Cunningham and traded Austin Rivers for Quincy Pondexter.

Over the last month or so, the Pels have tightened up on the defensive end and gone 10-6 with Cunningham in the starting lineup. Their January surge has them locked in a three-team race with Phoenix and Oklahoma City for the final playoff spot, but no one wants to talk about the postseason yet.

"We just got to keep doing what we do," Davis says. "We can’t take nights off, we’ve got to share the ball and everybody’s got to play for one another. We do those things, we’ll give ourselves a chance to be in the situation we want to be. We’re not even talking playoffs right now. We still have 30-plus games left. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves."

In many ways, this is the season they wanted to have last year, when Holiday and Evans arrived and Davis began to come into his own. Injuries decimated their roster and short-circuited their progress. They’re making up for lost time, but there is still a learning curve.

Two nights after beating Atlanta, they dropped a home game to an Oklahoma City team playing without Kevin Durant. That game was there to be won, but the Pels couldn’t pull away early and Russell Westbrook made them pay late.

"I like our group," Demps said. "I like the versatility. You see the growth. There’s times when you want to see it more, but then there’s times they show up for the big games. The team has been resilient. They’ve been knocked down a couple of times and they go into a game where you think they have no chance of winning and they win. That’s a good sign."

Never was that more true than in the rematch in OKC on Friday. The Pels traded blows with the Thunder all night, building a lead late in the game that they inexplicably gave back with a number of head-scratching plays. And then, 21-year-old Anthony Davis sank a 30-footer at the buzzer.

Ready or not, it’s all happening.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

Five of the 25 players selected to this year’s All-Star Game will be making their first appearances next weekend. Some, like Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, are long overdue. Others, like Golden State’s Klay Thompson are just coming into their own. Here’s a look at five players under the age of 25 who have the potential make it to the showcase event.

Nikola Vucecic: The Magic big man had a legitimate case for inclusion this season. He ranks fourth among centers in points (19.6) and sixth in rebounds (11.6) per As a defensive big man, he’s a really good offensive player, but there’s time for improvement. He’s still just 24 years old and about to enter his prime. As the young Magic attempt to transition from infancy to competency, Vucecic is the building block of that effort.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: Steady improvement from first to second year? Check. Getting big minutes for an emerging team about to get into the playoffs? Check. An intriguing game that feels evolutionary? Check, plus. We don’t know what the Greek Freak will eventually become, but as he continues to develop, he has all the making of being an impact player for the next decade.

Andre Drummond: The East is loaded with intriguing big men who have not yet reached their potential. Drummond is already a monster rebounder and shot-blocker who can learn from one of the best in Stan Van Gundy. If Drummond can become SVG’s Dwight in Detroit, he’ll make multiple All-Star appearances.

Gordon Hayward: If he played on a better team, or in the lesser conference, Hayward would have merited consideration. His numbers (19.3 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, .580 True Shooting Percentage) are not that dissimilar from Thompson’s (22 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3 assists, .610 TS). Breaking through in the West will be difficult, but Hayward is having a strong season after two years of middling results.

Kawhi Leonard: He had no shot this year because of an injury, but Leonard figures to be an All-Star fixture soon. We’ve all seen what he can do in the postseason, but he hasn’t had the chance to put up big regular season numbers playing on a team with three Hall of Famers. Not yet, anyway. His time is coming.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Film Room All-Stars

Mike Prada’s always great Film Room All-Stars highlights several players whose contributions have gone under the radar.

The dynamic duo

Kyrie Irving and LeBron James have been terrific together this season. David Zavac from Fear the Sword takes a deep look into their play.

End of the cranky coach

Coaching is a tough racket. You’re with the players all day, but you’re not one of them. You’re not exactly management either. Ziller wonders if the cranky coach is going out of style.

Jahlil's big question

Duke’s Jahlil Okafor is widely-regarded as the top prospect in this year’s draft. Okafor has a polished offensive game, but can his defense be trusted? Ricky O’Donnell has a look.

The rise of the Hawks and Warriors

In a game that lived up to the hype, the Hawks and Warriors gave us what may be a Finals preview on Friday. Tim Cato examines how they got here.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"Committed or not committed, I don’t think we have any other choice. Numbers would dictate–anyone can look at them–that we’re very likely in the luxury tax and very likely very substantially, next year. And you know what? We’re OK with that. I tell Bob (Myers) all the time; he keeps asking me, ‘Are you sure?’ We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to win a championship; I’ve said that before. You want to do it when the timing is right. Maybe the timing’s right, right? We’re pretty good. And so, I think we need to take advantage of that and go for it." -- Warriors owner Joe Lacob in an interview with Tim Kawakami.

Reaction: The scenario exists whereby the Dubs can keep their team together after this year, even if that means taking a painful tax hit for a year or two. Timing is everything in this league and while not perfect, the Warriors are better positioned than most to keep their core together. The onus is on ownership, especially an ownership that wants to build a new arena across the Bay.

"No matter how (the season) ends, I think Timmy (Duncan) is going to look at (retirement) again. And if you ask me, my guess is that he'll go for another one because he has been so consistent this season." -- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to USA Today’s Sam Amick on his center’s future.

Reaction: Death, taxes and Timmy. The only constants in our ever-changing world.

"Like nothing I’ve seen before. So far, my experiment has fallen flat on its face." -- Knicks president Phil Jackson to Harvey Araton.

Reaction: Yes, and no. If Phil thought he could mold the Knicks into winners simply by applying some magic pixie dust, then yes, his experiment has been a disaster. But if Jackson is committed to building the team the right way through the draft and with a smart free agent signing or two, then this season -- while painful -- is exactly what’s been needed. Savvy Knick fans simply want a grownup in charge of basketball operations. This is what they’re asking Phil to do and the key question is whether he has the will to see this through to the end.

"I want to be back out there playing. That's just my competitive side. Again, I know it's not a likelihood at this point, but I'm definitely pushing it and working hard to make it possible." -- Pacers forward Paul George on a possible return.

Reaction: The Pacers are currently 2.5 games out of the final playoff spot, which is not impossible, but not likely given their current roster. If you added a healthy George to the mix, their odds would go up exponentially. For all their issues, they still have a top-10 defense and it’s not like the teams ahead of them are running away with anything. The Pacers with PG -- again a healthy PG -- would present a far more interesting first round challenge to the top teams in the East than the Nets.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

We finish where we began, with the legend of AD.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editors: Tom Ziller and J.R. Wilco

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.