The rapid rise of Anthony Davis
This story appears in the Dec. 9, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Anthony Davis returned to New Orleans after the best performance of his professional career and discovered that no one had seen it. The local Fox Sports affiliate broadcasts 77 Pelicans games but bypassed the Nov. 22 matchup at Utah, a middling opponent on a college football Saturday. League Pass subscribers could have watched Davis pulverize the Jazz with 43 points and 14 rebounds, but basic-cable viewers were out of luck. The next morning Davis received inquiries from several friends in town, including his barber, wondering what they missed and how they might catch a replay. Davis had to study the video anyway, so he invited a small group to his home in Metairie for a screening.
They sat on an L‑shaped sofa in the living room and relived their pal’s recital: runners off the glass, floaters in the lane, pull-up jumpers and two-handed jams. Davis blew by center Enes Kanter with a furious first step. He put guard Alec Burks on his rear with a block. He led fast breaks, finished alley-oops and converted a putback on a fourth try. Such sights have become common in this, the year of Anthony Davis—2014 A.D.—with all his powers accessible in 48-minute packages. The guests were awed. The host, however, was unmoved. “What do you say in that situation?” Davis wonders. “Hey, guys, check out this play I just made, it’s really good!” He shakes his head.
With little more than five minutes remaining in the third quarter, something finally happened to raise his illustrious eyebrows. Utah point guard Trey Burke ran a pick-and-roll on the right side with power forward Trevor Booker, and as Burke dribbled around the screen, Davis inched toward him. Burke threaded a pass to Booker at the right elbow, under one of Davis’s interminable arms, and Booker rushed unimpeded to the rim for the slam. Davis stopped the video and hit rewind, to the dismay of his audience. “They were looking for the dunks,” says Pelicans rookie Russ Smith, who swung by the postmortem. “He was looking for the mistakes.” Davis kept rewinding. “We were dropping on defense,” he explains. “I stayed up too high and gambled for the steal. That’s why Booker got behind me.”
Every few years the NBA presents a new prodigy, supernaturally gifted and relentlessly driven. Ant—as he is called, sans irony, like a bouncer named Tiny—is listed at 6' 10", 220 pounds (“245 now,” he interjects), with a wingspan longer than Yao Ming stands and a gait that can cover the floor in a dozen cartoonish strides. He is the invention of a God who already built Kevin Durant and decided to get more creative. Teammates compare Davis to a Gumby doll, a pogo stick and a variety of other outlandish toys, all elastic or spring-loaded. “I can throw the ball off the top of the backboard,” says point guard Jrue Holiday. “He’ll catch it.” The league has always attracted its share of acrobats, contortionists and high risers but never a postmodern giant quite like Davis, dribbling between his legs, elevating off one foot, sinking fadeaways and swatting them with equal assurance.
His game is a blend of art and economy. With LeBron James still acclimating in Cleveland and Durant rehabbing in Oklahoma City, Davis was the best player in the NBA through the first month of the season. At week’s end he ranked in the top 10 in points, rebounds, steals, blocks and field goal percentage. His Player Efficiency Rating was 33.3, according to basketball-reference.com, on pace for the highest ever. “He doesn’t take a bad shot,” says Pelicans coach Monty Williams, because for Davis, a leaner in traffic constitutes a clean look. Davis is doing all this, mind you, without anything resembling a go-to move. “He’s not like Kobe or Carmelo, where you put together a [defensive] plan for him and say, ‘If he gets the ball in this area, it’s a bucket,’ ” explains Kings center Ryan Hollins. “He doesn’t hurt you in one place. He hurts you everywhere.”
Davis is 21, a fact printed right there in the program but still met with incredulity around the NBA. “You’ve got to be s------- me,” says a Brow-beaten forward, recently pureed by Davis’s incessant spin moves and back cuts. “I want to check the birth certificate.” In many ways Ant acts his age. He sketches cartoons with Smith (“Russ went for SpongeBob, which is easy,” Davis moans. “I did Dil Pickles, from Rugrats”), regales the Pelicans with magic tricks (“I used to watch Criss Angel and David Blaine on YouTube”) and nicknames his pregame meal, tortellini and chicken breast, the double double. (“My chef is working on the triple double.”) Since New Orleans drafted him first, out of Kentucky in 2012, Davis claims to have never been on Bourbon Street, preferring pizzas to po’boys. During a dinner at Mellow Mushroom last season, the manager invited him to the kitchen, and instead of observing he helped the staff roll pies.
In other ways, though, Davis is 21 going on Tim Duncan. After piggybacking Team USA to the gold medal at the FIBA World Cup last summer in Spain, he returned to the Pelicans’ facility within 48 hours. He conducts his individual workouts before practice so teammates see him when they enter the gym. He interrupts timeouts with unfiltered announcements such as, “Can you believe this is what I wanted to do all my life and now I’m actually doing it?” Some look at him sideways, but not Williams, who played for San Antonio in the late 1990s when Duncan used to whisper, “Dude, we get paid to do this.”
Becoming the NBA’s next megastar, Davis’s clear destiny, requires far more than oversized appendages. The Pelicans estimate that he picks off about 10 points per game through sheer activity and intelligence—beating opponents down the court, cutting when they’re stationary, finding open spaces and suctioning up loose balls. “The reads, the timing, the motor, the way he always moves his body with a purpose,” says forward Ryan Anderson. “That’s what’s really special."
The chorus is growing in volume and number. In an annual preseason survey, general managers voted James the player they would select first if starting a franchise, with Davis and Durant tied for second. A popular basketball blog, The Friendly Bounce, launched the “Anthony Davis Alert” to update his exploits. ESPN already flexed another Pelicans game. Davis used to be approached by kids—“I love you, but my mom has no idea who you are,” was a common refrain—and now their parents are joining the crush. The club boosted security protocols around Davis this season to get in line with the league’s elite. He stays home more often, thanks to his new pool table.
Never mind that Davis hasn’t been to the playoffs yet and might very well fall short again. He finds himself in the same sweet spot occupied by Durant five years ago and James 10, where nobody is asking if he can “be a killer” or “win the big one.” The energy-drink commercials, the signature shoes, that’s all to come. At the moment he remains a phenomenon to behold, which is enough for everybody but him. “It makes you smile to see yourself becoming the player you want to be,” Davis says. “When people talk about the greatest ever, I want to be in that conversation. I’m nowhere close to it. No . . . where . . . close. But it’s where I want to go.”
America is littered with instasensations—from Silicon Valley to the sports world—who cannot handle the trappings of a sudden ascent. Davis is different. He’s experienced it before.
Davis grew up on the South Side of Chicago, six blocks from Murray Park, where Derrick Rose was honing his dribble drive. But Davis was not allowed to walk six blocks, much less play at any of the nearby parks, for fear of the gangsters and drug dealers patrolling the Englewood area. Anthony Davis Sr., a carpenter, built a full-length basketball court in the backyard of the family’s three-story house so his son and two daughters could go one-on-one in peace. When the weather turned cold, Davis retreated to the gym at St. Columbanus School, where his uncle was athletic director. First he was just the little kid who sprinted onto the floor at timeouts and entertained the crowd with push shots. Then he graduated to more important jobs: taking tickets at the door, selling nachos at the concession stand, keeping the clock. His uncle rewarded him with a key.
High school and college players held pickup games at St. Columbanus, including one named Antwan Collins, who lost an older brother in a shooting. “I met Ant right after it happened, and for some reason I took to him,” says Collins. “I didn’t know if he’d be great at basketball. I just wanted him to have a good, long life.” Collins, who is 12 years older than Davis, drove him to and from the pickup sessions, which could stretch past midnight. Collins demanded to guard Davis, ensuring that the kid was constantly challenged but never discouraged.
Davis loved to hoop—he’d set up in the corner and launch threes—but he ignored recruiting rankings, quit AAU after eighth grade and attended a charter school with 200 students and no gym. The Wolves of Perspectives High practiced in a church that had breakaway rims and holes in the court before eventually upgrading to a middle school cafeteria. Cortez Hale was the 25-year-old coach with seven players on the roster. When Hale arrived at Perspectives, the athletic director told him, “You do have this one sophomore who wears goggles. He could be pretty good.”
“I’ll look out for him,” Hale said.
The story of Davis’s astonishing growth spurt, from a 6' 2" sophomore who struggled to beat his big sister, to a 6' 10" senior who topped the recruiting lists, has been well told. He embraced his newfound length, after initially declining to dunk, and preserved his innate guard skills. But his profile did not automatically rise with his frame. Although Davis piled up points in the Blue Division of the Chicago Public League, notable teams play in the Red, and he finished his junior season with a single scholarship offer, from Cleveland State. “The plan was to go there,” Davis recalls, “then to the D‑League or overseas.” The vaunted AAU program MeanStreets invited Davis to try out, but he was intimidated during the first practice and informed his father in the car afterward that he would not return. “What are you talking about?” coach Jevon Mamon told Davis. “You have all the talent and ability. This may be different than what you’re used to, but trust us. You can do it.”
In April 2010, Davis played his first game for MeanStreets, in Merrillville, Ind. Daniel Poneman, a 19-year-old Chicago-based scout who lived with his parents in Evanston, showed up at halftime. He recorded the action on a Flip video camera. “I can be prone to hyperbole,” Poneman acknowledges, “but I was seeing things I’d never seen before: block a three, lead the break, dunk it, block another shot, lead another break, lay it in.” Poneman conducted a postgame interview—in which Davis said he intended to be a high school coach someday—then hurried home to upload the footage to his Facebook account. He didn’t have enough material, so he included clips of Jamari Traylor (now at Kansas), under the heading "MeanStreets Monsters." Poneman tagged about a dozen college coaches, most of whom called or texted by morning, with some variation of the same question: Oh, my God, is this real?
Davis was famous overnight, and in a sense, everything changed. When word reached Perspectives, many wondered if there was another Anthony Davis. But instead of transferring to one of the many Red Division schools that called or the prep factories back east, Davis returned to Perspectives. “He became like another assistant coach,” Hale says, recruiting playground all-stars, monitoring players’ grades and admonishing them for missed workouts. “I needed to be more aggressive that year,” recalls former teammate Manuel Whitfield. “Anthony would stand under the basket and make me dunk on him over and over again.” Technically, Davis played inside, but Perspectives was short on point guards, so he often brought the ball up before repositioning down low. He still gravitated toward the perimeter, raining threes at practice, sometimes with his backpack on.
The Wolves prompted punch lines among college coaches. “They won six games his junior year,” says Kentucky coach John Calipari. “But they knocked it out of the park his senior year. They won seven.” Davis, however, graduated with a quality he might not have gained at a powerhouse like Oak Hill: Perspective. “I struggled with the losing,” he admits. “A lot of guys didn’t really want to play, and when something bad happened I’d jump all over them. But I knew it would make me a better leader.” He is informed that Whitfield, on the club team at Division III Babson College, recently dunked over a 7-footer. He claps proudly.
Davis is unusually nostalgic for his age. When he is on social media someone from the South Side inevitably refers to him as the kid who sold nachos, or sends him the MeanStreets Monsters video on YouTube. He opens the link for amusement and inspiration. Last summer Davis drove to St. Columbanus for pickup. This time Collins and Davis were on the same squad, and they won the first seven games running about a hundred pick-and-rolls. Collins works as a counselor at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where he tells troubled children about a brother who perished in Englewood and another who prospered. “My brother would have loved A.D.,” Collins says, “just like I do.”
Those who watch Davis on a nightly basis, outracing guards and outleaping centers, believe he is spurred by an image of himself that’s now nearly five years old. “Anthony didn’t have all the stuff these other guys had since sixth grade,” Monty Williams says. “Everything happened so fast. He still remembers very clearly what people thought of him before. I think he still sees himself that way.”
The lobby of the Saints’ headquarters in Metairie is full of glass display cases brimming with trophies, helmets and footballs. One case is devoted to the Pelicans, who share the facility with the Saints, and the prized artifact is four Ping-Pong balls. In 2011–12, when the Pelicans were still the Hornets, they went 21–45. The Cavaliers finished with an identical record, third worst in the NBA, so a coin flip was held to determine which team would get what four-number combinations in the draft lottery. The Cavs won, and if they hadn’t, Anthony Davis, rather than Dion Waiters, would play for them now. Cleveland entered the lottery with more combinations, but New Orleans owned the only one that mattered, 4967.
General manager Dell Demps had followed Davis for nearly a year, dating to his first practice at Lexington, when he tossed one jump hook way over the rim and slammed another off the backboard. “If we throw the ball to Anthony Davis in the post again, we’re all running!” Calipari hollered. Davis was mortified but motivated. He asked assistant coach Kenny Payne for extra tutoring, and they embarked on a crash course in jump hooks, drop steps and up-and-unders. “You want to stop eating McDonald’s and start eating steak?” Payne asked. Davis averaged a modest 14.2 points in his lone college campaign, but he muted Calipari and led the Wildcats to the national championship. “There were things he did that made me sit down,” Calipari says. “A touch pass, a lefty hook, a Ginóbili layup.”
Demps and Williams, who both played and worked for San Antonio, saw how the Spurs built around Duncan. New Orleans acquired Anderson in 2012 to space the floor for Davis, Holiday in ’13 to set him up and center Omer Asik in ’14 to ease his defensive burden. Some of the moves were debatable—Demps sent draft pick Nerlens Noel and a future first-round choice to Philadelphia for Holiday—but the Pelicans sought players whose primes would coincide with Davis’s. The plan was not always easy to understand, even for Davis. Williams limited his minutes as a rookie and bypassed him in late-game situations, protecting his confidence and his body.
When Davis got to New Orleans, he was 215 pounds and could not lift his own weight. “We’re going to move iron, brother,” Carlos Daniel, the team’s director of athletic performance, told him. Daniel’s program was old-fashioned, heavy on curls and squats, bench presses and leg presses, but it was effective. Davis started wearing sleeveless shirts to the training room and stealing glances in the mirror. As a rookie Davis tried backing down 250-pounders, to no avail. He bent like a willow tree. Williams gave him a mantra, “Pick-a-spot,” which reminded him to face up, drive and fire. But by Year Two, Davis was able to hold his position inside, and Williams said, “I’m taking the cuffs off. You’ve got to play.”
Davis was an All-Star last season, still fast enough to lap centers, but suddenly sturdy enough to muscle power forwards. He beefed up to 240 pounds for the World Cup, using the event as a dry run, and appeared unstoppable. The NBA braced for Year Three, when so many immortals arrive. Davis is getting his first glimpse of defenses geared entirely to stop him. They front him in the post, tag him on pick-and-rolls and leave the weakside corner to double him. When he catches at the elbow, where the Pelicans like to isolate him, opponents step back and give him the 15-footer. “You’ve just got to knock that down,” Kobe Bryant told Davis after a game against the Lakers this season. He can hit that 15-footer, thanks in part to player development coach Kevin Hanson, who successfully raised Davis’s release. He can also hit it because he used to take that shot all the time, before he ever dreamed of jump hooks.
His hero back then was his cousin Keith Chamberlain, a St. Columbanus regular who plays for the Reno Bighorns of the D-League. On Nov. 18, Chamberlain and a teammate drove two hours from Reno to Sacramento because the Pelicans were visiting the Kings. “We looked up at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter and he had 25,” Chamberlain recalls. “We didn’t notice. But there were so many tip-ins, putbacks, energy plays, instinct plays, dives, lobs. It’s scary to think about what he’ll be when he figures everything out.”
Davis misses family badly, so he was thrilled to see his cousin in Sacramento, and his parents a week later in New Orleans. The Pelicans were facing the Kings again, but this time Davis did not have 25 in the fourth. He finished with 14 on 4-of-12 shooting in a dispiriting loss. Afterward his mother and father waited for him in the hallway outside the family room at Smoothie King Center. Anthony Sr. and Erainer look like a regular couple, 6' 2" and 5' 10", instead of genetic engineers. “I hear people comparing him to Hakeem Olajuwon,” Anthony Sr. says, raising his own eyebrows. Anthony Sr. played at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago and still texts his son before every game: “Have fun. Get the team engaged.” He frets over free throws, which is hardly a problem for Davis, who is shooting 80.4% from the line.
Eventually Davis emerged from the locker room and strode briskly down the hallway in a hoodie and jeans. He looked annoyed, bordering on angry. It was just one early-season dud, amid a raft of highlights, but he continued past the family room. His dad did not stop him, or remind him of all the stunning things he had already accomplished, because suffering is another part of star-making. Ten years ago, while everybody fawned over James, he fumed as the Cavaliers struggled. Five years ago it was Durant’s turn to stew, each time the Thunder fell in the final minutes. Now, the mantle is passed to Davis, who will continue to earn plaudits and endure disappointments. The Pelicans are a .500 team, in a brutal conference, and Davis can console himself with the knowledge that he is young and gifted and adored. But the great ones never do.
He kept walking.