Two years ago in London, an enthusiastic and still innocent Anthony Davis entered the world of international competition by way of the Olympics. The youngest member of a United States Olympic team intent on winning another gold medal, Davis was the one with the unibrow and 0 professional games on his resume. He was also the one with the deep voice ala Barry White and super long arms. Anthony Davis was 19 years old then, fresh off of a NCAA championship, a 6-10 forward who could block shots, rebound and hit a mid range jumper.
As he exited the plane in London in 2012 his eyes glittered like sunlight on water and his boyish smile barely left his face and for good reason. USA Basketball had selected him as the only rookie to be included, not to play necessarily but to absorb lessons. So it made sense that Davis vacillated between awe, nervousness and giddiness, not because he wasn’t used to big talent. He played at the University of Kentucky. But this was as different as rock was to paper, this was a different league altogether. This was Kobe and Lebron and CP3 and Carmelo, players he emulated and admired from afar; he only knew them through the television lens and now here they were sitting close to him.
How could Anthony Davis be anything but humble and gracious and happy and perpetually asking himself what he did to deserve all of this? At the same time his new teammates were the older brothers who adopted Davis into their elite club, teaching him by example, by work habits, by competitive intensity, by achievement, by togetherness, by intelligence. If you didn’t know any better you would think they were preparing Davis for 2014 when none of them would be around. Not Kobe. Not Lebron. Not Chris Paul. Not Carmelo. Their message was subtle: you are going to have your turn. Remember what you saw here.
He is still the youngest player but now it is his turn. He has 131 games of NBA experience. The United States Olympic team, with all of their talent, will only go as far as Anthony Davis takes them. He is the most complete player on the roster. His defense around the rim is without flaws. He protects the paint, he has good footwork in the post, he is athletic enough to rotate and then recover. He was a 20 point scorer last year in the NBA so his offense will fit in with the multitude of lob passes and dunks he will receive on the break. In the half court he can hit a consistent mid range jumper. With his wingspan he is just taller and more athletic than most of the players he will be guarding. He is a willing passer on the wing.
Two years ago he was coached by Mike Krzyzewski but now he is being coached by Mike Krzyzewski as the centerpiece of the United States team.
The U.S. roster is very young and their tournament experience is their vulnerability. James Harden (25 years old) and Anthony Davis (21 years old) were in the Olympics. Steph Curry (26 years old), Rudy Gay (28 years old) and Derrick Rose (25 years old) were on the World Championship team in 2010. But the rest? Andre Drummond (21 years old), DeMarcus Cousins (24 years old), Klay Thompson (24 years old), Mason Plumlee (24 years old), Kenneth Faried (24 years old) have never been All-Stars nor have they played internationally. Kyrie Irving (22 years old), DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond have never been in the playoffs.
Coach K has lauded James Harden for his leadership, a reversal of identity to those who have watched Harden these last two years. Basketball people believe Harden is what he is, a cold blooded scorer but nothing else. Even if Coach K is onto something about Harden and it’s not just psychology from a master psychological warfare artist, it doesn’t change Anthony Davis. He has the smartest game on the U.S. team. He has the size, skill, athleticism, defense and all those tutorials from Kobe, Lebron , CP3 and Carmelo.
Two years ago in the gold medal game when the United States played Spain, Anthony Davis was on the bench wide-eyed. He watched Pau Gasol’s brilliance with face up jumpers and at the rim, his moves to free him of Lebron James and dunk the ball. So spectacular was Gasol- and comfortable playing the international game- he nearly pulled off the upset on his own.
In 2012 the United States didn’t have a player with the combination of size, athleticism, confidence and skill to pair with Gasol, to keep him from the rim. All that has changed in just two years because at 21 years old Anthony Davis is where Pau Gasol used to be; he is one of the NBA’s top power forwards.
A lot is expected of Anthony Davis in the World Cup the least of which is thinking about how far he has come from that young rookie kid who had the summer of a lifetime in 2012. Kobe and Lebron and Carmelo and CP3 introduced Anthony Davis to achievement, preparation, focus, drive and persistence. It was a series of notes and lessons he is removed from two years later even as he is attached to them.
Anthony Davis is no longer awkward, no longer a 19 year old kid, no longer an afterthought on an extraordinary team, no longer clueless to the rigors of playing against men. When Anthony Davis takes the court these next two weeks, he brings the greatest NBA players along in absentia. They are his ghosts of brilliance past. For it is Kobe and Lebron and Carmelo and CP3 who helped elevate who we will see on the court in Spain.
Because after all is said and done and when the gold medal hangs around his neck, Anthony Davis will remember London and remember what happened to him there and remember who his teachers were and how for two weeks in 2012 he was the luckiest 19 year old on the planet.