During the first week of May, Kevin Durant received dozens and dozens of congratulatory text messages. Word had leaked, and then officially announced, that he had won his first Most Valuable Player award, and kind words were sent to him from all angles—family members, friends, peers, coaches. But the one that came in from Anthony Davis elicited a far different response from KD than the others.
The reply read: “You on your way to get it.”
“When that type of guy tells me that,” Davis says now, his head shaking from side to side, “it’s like, man, it’s just amazing.”
Amazing? Sure. But a reach? Not really, no.
Because just two years into the Pelicans’ center’s budding career, Davis’ potential matches or tops that of anyone currently signed to an NBA team. That, too, is amazing.
Look at the evidence: There are the stats, the 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game in only his second season in the League. There’s the body, that slim but athletic 6-10 frame with arms that technically measure 7-4 from fingertip to fingertip but look as though they could legitimately Stretch Armstrong from sideline to sideline of an NBA court.
Then there’s the game: a force on the defensive end, patrolling the paint to ensure all floaters and lay-ins are wholeheartedly rejected, and a work-in-progress but true difference maker on the offensive end, where he has the handle to drive by slower forwards and centers and the reach to throw down over all of them.
Oh, and there’s the age: an absurdly young 21, barely old enough to order a beer.
And, most importantly, the work ethic, that endless desire to reach the status of the aforementioned KD and his superstar ilk.
“I know he wants it,” says Carlos Daniel, the New Orleans Pelicans Director of Athletic Performance, who works closely with AD. “I think he can be great. There’s a difference between being elite and being great—there’s quite a few elite players in this League, but you’ve gotta have a different sort of dedication in order to be great. He has that in him.”
On a cloudy mid-June afternoon, Davis sits on the bleachers along the side of a small gymnasium tucked within Chicago’s Park Manor neighborhood talking about the city he was raised in and what he hopes to accomplish over the next few months. There’s not much in the St. Columbanus School’s athletic center beyond a basketball court and a couple locker rooms, but it works well for what we’re here for, the shooting of some digital video spots for Nike and the photos you see in this magazine.
About seven miles away rests the Josline Campus of Perspectives Charter School, the high school where—in the span of barely two years, between his sophomore and senior seasons—Anthony transformed from a run-of-the-mill 6-2 guard to an absolute beast of a 6-10 center. “When I saw him his junior year after he shot up to 6-7, I didn’t recognize him at first,” says Cortez Hale, who had arrived at Perspectives the year before as an assistant and was the basketball squad’s head coach AD’s junior and senior years. “I walked up to him and was like, Who is this kid? He was like, ‘It’s me, Anthony.’ I was like, Wow, this kid is actually going to make it.”
Davis was an overnight sensation, rocketing up the national rankings as a senior and becoming a local star in the process. Which became a problem for Perspectives—the school hadn’t even existed for a decade at the time, and its basketball history was virtually nonexistent. The administration had no idea how to handle a star athlete of any sort. “They kept asking me, ‘How do we handle this? How do we handle that?’” Hale says. “It was just me, the Athletic Director and some of the leaders in the school just trying to figure it all out because it happened so fast. After a while, we started getting used to it, and were telling [Davis], this is gonna keep happening forever.”
Without a single gymnasium in the school, the team practiced down the street at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “We technically never had a home game,” Hale says. “All our games were away games because we were getting bused everywhere.”
Davis, though, handled the newfound attention just fine. Though he had options to go play ball elsewhere, he elected not to transfer, staying at Perspectives with the friends he grew close with many years prior. A perpetual Honor Roll student, Davis would willingly visit students at the campus’ middle school who had gotten in trouble and lecture them about the importance of staying on the right track. “They kinda looked up to me, like, Anthony Davis is this rising star and he plays ball,” he says. “I tried to tell ’em, If you want to be who you’re saying you want to be, all this stuff you’re doing—getting in trouble, getting detention, getting suspended, kicked out of class—all that has to stop. Dropping knowledge on them, I thought it can help them get them to where they wanna be. I did that not because I had to but because I wanted to.”
“We used to say, Oh, he’s doing his NBA Cares stuff now,” Hale says with a laugh. “That was just him being him, honestly.”
If that was the beginning of Davis’ positive effect on the Chicago youth, the end has yet to be reached. Minutes before we spoke with the laid-back big man in the St. Columbanus gym, Davis walks across the street into Meyering Park to take some flicks for a Nike photographer as a handful of neighborhood kids go absolutely berserk at the sight of a Chi-Town-bred hero.
A wide-ranging group of people at a nearby barbecue are the first to notice Davis, chanting “Wassup Ant!” and “What’s good, man!” as he strolls toward the park’s court. Once he gets there, every kid within eyesight rushes to the court’s perimeter, iPhones pointed in the NBAer’s direction by the dozen.
“I wanna see him dunk!” one kid yelps.
“He probably gonna be MVP next year,” another declares.
Davis, decked head-to-toe in fresh Nike Sportswear, stays mostly stone-faced throughout, but every few minutes he cracks a quick smile, a clear sign that he realizes the importance of his ability to enamor a group of random Chicago kids with only his presence. In an area where everyone knows at least a few people who are no longer with us, victims of the inner city’s catastrophic violence, the effect a positive role model like Davis can have doesn’t seem to be lost on him.
“[Those kids] definitely need someone to idolize and someone that they can look up to,” says Davis, who grew up a Bulls fan obsessed with Michael Jordan. “It’s unreal, because most guys had the fame since they were kids. Look at Austin [Rivers]—he was Doc Rivers’ son, and then he became his own person. He’s used to that. I’m still new to it. So when I hear kids say, I’m about to go play 2K right now and play with Anthony Davis, it’s like, Man, it’s still all surreal to me. I’ll never take that for granted.”
Minutes after the photo session at Meyering Park, during which Davis acknowledges his past by standing tall in front of a south side Chicago basketball hoop not unlike those he practiced on as a young child, he walks back into the gym to confront his future. He immediately changes out of the Nike sweats and into a Team USA jersey, posing for pics in front of an American flag while clad in the same red, white and blue uniform he’ll be wearing when he proudly represents his home country at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain this August.
Before he suited up for a single NBA game, Davis was a member of the 2012 Gold-winning USA Olympic team, earning the role as the token up-and-comer on a roster laden with established names like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Chris Paul. He says he kept his ears open during the experience, soaking in knowledge wherever he could find it. “I picked all of their brains,” he says. “Kobe took me under his wing and told me you’re gonna be fine, just keep working. I was hanging out with him a lot, just trying to see who Kobe is and why he is Kobe. I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot from all of those guys. Those guys just told me to go out there and be yourself. Have fun.”
This summer, on a team expected to feature Davis, KD, Kevin Love and a few others—approximately half of which will likely represent Team USA at the 2016 Olympics—AD will certainly play a bigger role, one he’s preparing for. “I just wanna get better, and I think USA Basketball is gonna help me do that for the upcoming season,” he says. “I’m just excited to get started. I’ve been looking forward to this all summer. I didn’t play as much in 2012, and I feel like I’m gonna be a key contributor to the 2014 team and go out there and do my thing. Guys don’t get paid for playing USA Basketball, but it’s a real honor, going out there and playing other countries with the mindset that we’re not settling for anything less than Gold. That’s what America expects and that’s what we expect.”
In addition to a few weeks with USA Basketball, Davis figures to have a productive offseason amidst his journey to become one of—if not the—NBA’s best. When we get up with him in Chicago, he appears to have clearly put on some weight; per FOX Sports, he’s already added the always coveted 15 pounds of muscle this offseason. (Word to MUSCLE WATCH.) “I want him to be able to not just get big for the sake of getting big, but gain muscle that he feels confident with and that he can use and that doesn’t have an adverse effect on his game,” Daniel says. “The focus is staying in the game and using the muscle.
“He has to live a little bit differently than he used to,” Daniel continues. “Instead of waking up in the morning and eating whatever he wanted to eat or doing whatever he wanted to do, now he has to dial it in so we can get him the proper carbohydrates, the proper protein, the proper fat, to one, recover from the workouts, and two, be effective on the court.”
To be effective on the court he’ll need to stay on it—Davis missed 18 games his first season and 15 his second—but assuming he can manage that, there’s little chance he shouldn’t be taking the next step in 2014-15. Think about how fast he’s progressed over the past four years: From barely noticed to the No. 1-ranked player in the nation his senior year of high school; to leading the Kentucky Wildcats to the National Championship as a freshman during his only year of college; to becoming the No. 1 Draft pick and subsequently finishing on the All-Rookie First Team and amassing the second most Rookie of the Year votes during his first year in the L; to upping his averages above 20 and 10 and getting voted to the All-Star team as a reserve in his second.
That 20 and 10 looks good on paper, but a deeper dive into the numbers proves that they’re no fluke. Davis’ block percentage—a figure that measures the percentage of 2-point attempts blocked by that player while he was on the floor—was 6.7 percent in ’12-13, the single highest in the NBA. Among players who use at least 25 percent of their team’s possessions and were on the court for at least 600 minutes, Davis was the single most efficient center, scoring 1.19 points per possession, a figure that ranks him behind only KD, LeBron, Dirk Nowitzki, Love and James Harden among all positions. And think about where he goes from here. Davis’ shooting range will expand as he becomes more comfortable spotting up, and his ability to finish down low should improve as he spends more time working on post moves and adding muscle to his gangly frame.
“I think with strength comes confidence,” Daniel says. “The things that he knows he’s capable of doing, that he could do at Kentucky or at different places, now his body is allowing him to pull those moves off and make those plays in NBA games. I think that comes from him gaining more confidence, from him gaining more strength, like, They’re not gonna push me around and they’re not gonna push me off this spot.”
“I’m trying to get better every day,” Davis says. “Whether it’s film, weight-lifting, basketball drills—whatever it is.”
And though he’s working daily on the little things, Davis admits he keeps the big picture in the back of his mind, occasionally thinking about the way in which he’ll ultimately be remembered as a basketball player: “I want guys to say how hard I worked and what I did to help my team,” AD says. “I want guys to say, He wasn’t just a great basketball player—he was a for-sure Hall of Famer. I don’t want it to be, Anthony Davis scored X amount of points, yada yada yada. I want it to be, He helped his team win. That’s what I want.”
He’s on his way to getting it.
Adam Figman is the Editor-in-Chief at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @afigman.
Portraits by Ahmed Klink