by Brian Boyles / @BrianWBoyles
The New Orleans Pelicans new practice facility still smells of wet paint. Gleaming under new lights, the court begs for scuffs. An angry bird with impressive wingspan stares up. As they emerge one-by-one on media day in late September, the players rock ivory uniforms emblazoned with the NBA’s newest name. From the logo to the walls of their gym, the franchise feels…fresh.
Look around the court. A recently-acquired former Rookie of the Year speaks into a camera. An All-Star point guard nods and says he likes the city so far. A smooth-shooting 2 guard smiles and promises us that he’s back and ready to be a full-time member of the squad. The trio of Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon represents significant firepower, a three-headed cause for offensive optimism. Like the front of their jerseys, they signal change for a team forever searching for an identity.
Outside, just across the parking lot, sits another facility, the headquarters for a profranchise with a distinct identity, rabid fans and barely faded memories of a championship. Today is Monday and that team, the NFL’s Saints, plays a nationally televised game tonight. This morning reporters caught a glimpse of both teams’ owner, Tom Benson, as he entered the Saints’ offices with his wife. With deep pockets and an expressed impatience for mediocrity, Benson gives the Pelicans something the Hornets never had: real leadership at the top. Since buying the team in 2011, the 84-year-old has declared repeatedly that, like the Saints, the Pelicans will win a championship. Such confidence is a crucial difference.
And you know what? None of it matters.
Because you can stack money, résumés and redesigned jerseys to the peak of the Superdome, and they still get overshadowed by the last player to speak today. Anthony Davis is that talented, that central to the Pelicans’ destiny. The most important changes in New Orleans this season are the ones displayed by the 20-year-old big man when the real games begin. If you’ve paid any attention to the Brow’s career arc, you know things change quickly.
“You go now.”
That’s what Pelicans coach Monty Williams told Davis this summer. Williams shares the monotone directness—if not the highly evolved sarcasm—of his mentor, Gregg Popovich of the Spurs. Asked to describe his offensive vision for Davis in this season, he’s as giddy as his deadpan delivery will allow. “Last year I tried to make sure he was brought along at a slower rate,” Williams admits during his season-opening press conference. “I think this year, it’s his opportunity to go out there and play and explore.”
Going into his fourth season as head coach, Williams has struggled to instill on-court discipline in a team that’s watched one owner (George Shinn) turn the franchise over to the NBA, which then shipped out a superstar (Chris Paul) in a much-maligned trade. You’d be hard pressed to find a rockier tenure for a highly regarded, low-key coach. This summer, though, Williams caught a break: Anthony Davis stepped up.
“There have been things that he did this summer that I didn’t ask him to do,” Williams says of the second-year forward. “He was at almost every summer league practice, and he closed every practice. He brought the guys in, he talked to them about what we did in practice, how we can improve. I didn’t tell him to do that. That’s just who he is.”
Of course, that’s what Davis should do. He’s a former No. 1 draft pick carrying the hopes of a battered fan base on his shoulders. That’s his job. Thing is, that guy organizing off-season workouts? He’s been in the basketball spotlight for all of four years. Not since the prep-to-pros era has a player moved so quickly from unknown to face of a franchise. Even then, most of those talents were heavily scouted since their tweens, run through national camps and tracked by YouTube scouts. Four years ago, Anthony Davis was invisible.
In the spring of 2010, Davis completed his junior year at Perspectives Charter School on Chicago’s South Side and accepted an invitation to join the Meanstreets AAU team. He’d grown from 5-9 to 6-7, remaining under the radar amid the weaker competition of the city’s second division. At that point, no DI program had knocked on his door. Meanstreets was an opportunity to test himself. Davis laughs at his initial reaction. “It was very tough, the running, guys that were hurting you. I never experienced anything like that.”
After a rough first practice, says Meanstreets coach Javon Mamon, Davis never looked back.
“Once he realized we were there to help him get to the next level, he took it into his own hands,” says Mamon. “He took ownership of everything, asked questions, had a great work ethic, a willingness to learn.” Davis was a terror during his brief AAU era, combining defensive quickness and playmaking abilities and rocketing to the top of many recruit rankings. As his growth spurt continued, says Mamon, Davis maintained the footwork and tools of a smaller player.
Those observations continued to ring true in Las Vegas this summer. In July, Davis worked with the USA Select Team, the next generation of players vying to represent the country in Brazil in 2016. Davis unveiled an elevated game, putting up 22 points on 10-12 shooting in the camp-closing showcase. The former guard showed off his handle in a sequence where he suffocated an alley-oop attempt, then went coast to coast for a soaring dunk. He also dropped two three-pointers. A late addition to the 2012 team that took home Gold in London, Davis impressed the most important man in the arena.
“I think as good as Anthony was, he’s stepped it up another couple levels and that was exciting to see,” USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters. “One of the reasons he was on the team was because we see he’s going to get a lot better.”
Two weeks after the Pelicans’ media day, Davis travels to his alma mater, the University of Kentucky, to face fellow alum John Wall and the Wizards. The memories of his close-knit 2012 team hang in the air like their National Championship banner above the court. Davis reminisces about the title game. “When the horn went off on that fourth quarter and we stood in a circle and hugged each other, that’s the thing I remember most.”
That season, AD distinguished himself on a squad with four other future first-rounders, averaging nearly 5 blocks per and collecting the Naismith Award and the MOP of the tournament. The velocity of his ascent was clear to teammate Marquis Teague, who’d faced Davis during the now legendary AAU season.
“He got so much better,” recalls Teague, currently with the Chicago Bulls. “When he first came in, we just saw his defense and as the year went on, we just saw more offensively from him. He was showing his outside game, inside game, all that. He pretty much can do everything. He’s got a lot to his game that he hasn’t shown yet.”
This year’s homecoming trip ends fittingly: Davis blocks a lay-up attempt by Bradley Beal of the Wiz to seal the win.
In their only pre-season home game, the Pelicans face the Champs. LeBron and Co. emanate focus, as if Game 7 was yesterday. But on their newly redesigned court, the Pelicans match the champs for three quarters. Holiday provides a quick draw swagger at the point, Gordon reminds us why he received a max deal and the bench flashes scary range with bombers Ryan Anderson and Anthony Morrow. Still, Evans doesn’t play and a central question remains: Who fills the banger-shaped hole next to Davis?
Entering the game as the NBA’s pre-season scoring leader, Davis matches up against Chris Bosh. It’s a good test. Packing 10 pounds of new muscle, Davis appears more aggressive. In the second quarter he spins off Bosh and catches a Holiday lob, then blocks two of Bosh’s shots on the other end. After halftime, the vet bests the youngster with several slick moves. The champs are the champs, and a fourth quarter blitz ends with a 108-95 NOLA loss. AD finishes with 18 points, 8 boards, 3 assists and 3 blocks, good stats for an uneven performance. Team and young captain remain a work in progress.
In the renovated locker room post-game, Bosh provides perspective from his own time as the new face of a franchise in Toronto. “He’s in that position where there’s going to be a lot of growing pains, but that’s a part of it,” Bosh says. “The pain makes you who you are. He has to understand that. And I’m sure he wants everything now. But it’s a slow process and he just has to keep a positive attitude. Hard times are going to be there and that’s when you have to grow the most.”
Down the hall, Davis is upbeat but realistic. “We played good, we just turned the ball over. We had 24. They got a lot of open shots. We weren’t putting pressure on them. They were putting their hands on us, and we weren’t doing the same.” On offense, he says, “I’m taking it slower, not trying to rush things and getting my shot when it comes.”
Ask him what he expects out of his team and he points to chemistry. “I’m just trying to make everybody better, on the floor and off the floor. Whatever it is. Our team is vocal. Whatever guys say, we take it as a man. Most teams don’t have that.”
Most teams don’t have a selfless 20-year-old juggernaut—averaging a powerful 22/12/4 through the first two weeks of the season—either. “I know that it takes a lot of hard work and determination, but we can become the team that everybody wants us to be. I’m trying to win.”
If he maintains the pace of the last four years, Anthony Davis won’t have long to wait.