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