GREENBRIER, W.V. — Anthony Davis looks bigger in person as he comes off the court following a training camp workout, which is hard to fathom considering he looks like he could blot out the sun at any particular moment. Previously, AD was defined by his ultra-long, ultra-sleek wingspan. Now, Davis’ wings, along with the rest of him, have been augmented with muscle, said to be a dozen or so pounds worth. He gained that mass over the summer through work with the Pelicans’ new strength and conditioning coach. His core is also stronger, to better withstand the nightly doses of punishment he’ll face this season and the demands of playing at a faster tempo.
The roster is largely the same but everything about the New Orleans Pelicans this season is new, from the coaching staff to the style of play. Davis’ enhanced body is merely the most visible element. He has already appeared on two All-Star teams, one All-NBA squad and finished fifth in the Most Valuable Player voting, but has yet to manage a single playoff win. Statistically, he shares company with LeBron James and Kevin Durant at the same age. He has come so far, so fast and yet there’s a sense that there is still so much more for him to achieve.
He has already experienced the manic high of a crazed playoff chase and the lowest low of a first-round sweep. He has met expectations and surpassed them at such a rapid rate that we have to invent ways to measure his progress. Tracking his development will be no less enthralling, but the assignment is simpler now. If the first part of Davis’ career was about discovering the wonder of it all, then the next phase will be about scaling established summits: MVPs, playoff success, and ultimately, championships.
We are wading into barely charted territory with AD and this season figures to be very different than the others that came before. He’s playing for a new coach and in a new system that seems perfect for him to excel. He’s grown up physically and been hardened mentally by a playoff failure that he carries with him every day. He’s ready to lead, not just by example, but with words as well as actions. This is the season when Anthony Davis truly takes control of the franchise that is so dependent upon him.
“I just want to win and do whatever it takes to win,” Davis says. “Whether guys like me or not, I want to have that thing where they’re always going to respect you because they know where your heart is. Some guys may not like what you say to them, how you say it, or when you say it, but all great teams have a leader where they hold people accountable.”
For the first three years of his career, Davis played for one coach, Monty Williams. To the dismay of his critics, Williams sometimes shielded his budding prodigy from the demands of superstardom. When he was a rookie, Williams held his minutes down. When he felt Davis was taking on too much locker room responsibility, he’d pull him back.
Williams’ reasoning was sound. The coach wanted Davis to progress on his own timetable and for as much as Davis could physically do on the court and as responsible and mature as he was off it, the coach was forever cognizant that his young charge was still just 21 years old. “Everyone wants to push him to be Tim (Duncan) right now,” Williams told me last season. “Tim wasn’t even Tim when he was Anthony’s age.”
You can argue with the methods, but it’s hard to dispute the results. Williams raised Davis from a pup and the two shared an unusually close bond that was less paternal than protective older brother. “He’s kind of like my vet,” Davis said last season. When Williams was fired last spring he texted Davis with a simple message: “It’s the NBA. Just go play. Don’t worry about me.”
Williams replacement is Alvin Gentry, who, like his predecessor, is also regarded warmly by everyone who comes into contact with him. Yet the two coaches employ very different personalities and philosophies. Where Williams was quiet and guarded, Gentry is welcoming and wide open. Where Williams wanted to play at a controlled tempo, Gentry wants to play fast and furious. Where Williams’ defensive scheme was complex and varied, Gentry’s system as taught by assistant Darren Erman is simple and specific. And where Williams first encountered AD as a gawky teenager finding his way, Gentry will coach him him as a physically developed young man and an established superstar.
Gentry is less of a mentor than a guide. He’s coached great players, won a championship and was the architect of some of the best offenses in modern history, including the Golden State Warriors’ blitzkrieg attack. He has his own set of expectations for AD that say more about where he is now than how far he’s already traveled.
“I don’t know if we have the best player in the league, but we have the one player you can trade for anybody in the league,” Gentry says. “You can read into that what you want into; if he’s not the best player then he’s definitely the most valuable player.”
Gentry and Davis had several conversations during the offseason. One of the main things they talked about was the importance of AD’s role in setting the tone for everything that happens this season.
“The one thing that I decided and all along, age has nothing to do with leadership ability,” Gentry says. “You’re a leader or you’re not. This experience will make you a better leader. Magic Johnson was the leader in L.A. the minute he got there. He had more great superstar veterans, but when you’re a leader, you’re a leader. He wants to be that and he embraces that.”
It’s the opening day of training camp and thus way too early to make any kind of prediction or say with any kind of certainty how all of these new expectations will play out this season. And yet, Davis feels confident; about himself, his team, the new coaching staff and most importantly, his place in all of it.
“I’m going to be more aggressive,” he says. “Sometimes in the game when I’m not aggressive … I think all that’s going to change this year. I want to say more in control, but I feel like I’m more of a leader. I just want to be the guy the team can lean on and count on in certain situations.”
Davis is intent on asserting himself and not just on the offensive and defensive end. His lone playoff experience last season left him frustrated. It wasn’t just the sweep at the hand of the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors, it was the way his team lost Game 3 at home. The Pelicans were cruising to a galvanizing victory and then it all spun rapidly out of control once Steph Curry hit an impossible corner three over Davis’ outstretched arm to send the game to overtime. In losing a game they’d once led by 20 points, their failure was complete. Davis’ Pelicans were both physically drained and mentally fried.
Wingspan and mere physical tools hadn’t been enough. There were missed assignments on the defensive end and interminable droughts offensively. The Pelicans failed to execute in the final minutes, from missed free throws to botching Williams’ instruction to foul Curry on that shot.
Late in the overtime, they still somehow had a chance to salvage the game. Davis was again brilliant, as he had been all series long, but his lack of a go-to move was exposed when Andrew Bogut forced him into an awkward attempt that could have tied the game with seven seconds remaining in overtime. Months later, the disappointment still lingers.
“I got a taste of that playoffs last year and it just made me hungry and made me want to go back there even more,” Davis says. “I feel like I have to be more assertive on the floor with this team and try to help as much as I can. Everyone has to lose to learn from their mistakes so next time they know. When you’re in that position you don’t think about, alright, if we lose it will be OK because you have to lose to grow. Now that you sit back and look at it, there’s so many things that you can learn from it.”
The biggest lesson Davis has taken from the setback is that he needs to do more. Not more in the sense of putting up bigger numbers, but more in the way the true greats do more. He needs to be more active and vocal defensively. He needs to continue to develop his game, adding go-to moves and maybe even a long-discussed corner three of his own. Mainly, Davis needs to do more before the ball is even tipped. That’s his mandate this season. The MVP? “Not even in my mind right now,” he says. Playing the five? “I don’t care. It’s basketball.”
“I want us to get back to where we were last year, but better,” Davis says. “I want to make sure that everyone is coming in on the same page, focused, and playing with that intensity that we need to get back to the playoffs and get out of the first round. That’s what I expect from my team. I’m going to try to be a better leader.”
Their first workout of the new season over, Kendrick Perkins takes a seat next to Davis on a folding chair alongside the practice court. The big man has been around the block more than a few times and in recent years he’s led a charmed, albeit peripatetic, existence. Once he was an eager young pup soaking up wisdom in both life and basketball from Kevin Garnett. Then he imparted those lessons to Kevin Durant. Last season he found himself next to LeBron James. Now it’s Davis.
“You try to teach guys, I always tell them, ‘It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,’” Perkins says. “It’s what you do on the court and what you do off the court. It’s all about being a professional. You’ve got to come in and handle your business. Everybody wants the glamour and all that outside of the basketball, but you’ve got to make sure you take care of what got you here.”
Beloved by teammates and scoffed at by critics, Perk has a keen understanding of who he is and his place in the game. He’s the vet that AD has never had during his short career; the one who can tell him what’s real and what’s not. Perk doesn’t impress easy, but he can already see what he has sitting next to him.
“He has a KG game with a KD mindset,” Perkins says. “That’s the type of guy he is. Just a cool, laid-back humble type of guy. But then when you get him on the court, he’s going to grind, he’s going to work. He’s got all the skills, the athletic body type, tall, long. Whatever you want in a basketball player, he’s got it.”
And the leadership? Perk nods.
“Since I’ve been here the last month and a half, he hasn’t shown me anything different,” Perkins says. “To me, he’s already embraced that role. Even being him around right now, I forget that he’s only 22 years old. The way he carries himself, the way he carries himself on the plane, just all around the practice facility, it’s tremendous. It’s hard to find a guy like that.”
There is no one else in the NBA like Anthony Davis. There is no one else with his talent and athleticism. He has the body now and he clearly has the game. He has a coaching staff and a style of play that should bring out the best of his natural gifts and abilities. He’s been hardened by the playoffs and driven by the experience. We’re about to see a whole different side of AD and the league may never be the same.