New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis optimistic despite more hurdles

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

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Oct 19, 2016 12:10 PM ET

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He is smiling, laughing and joking. His optimism seems intact, much like his trademark brow. This means either Anthony Davis knows something we dont about the New Orleans Pelicans in 2016-17, or that hes still in preseason and the stress and tough nights are weeks away.

All around him, the signs are, shall we say, familiar. Strangely, painfully and ominously familiar. Three-fifths of the Pelicansstarting lineup is out for at least a month, maybe more, and the roster wasnt exactly throbbing with excellence to begin with. A creaky ankle might keep Davis out of the lineup on opening night. Therefore, there are indications the Pelicans could be in for a rough start, which would be depressing for a team that lost 10 of 11 out of the gate last season and won only 30 games, 15 less than the year before.

Oh, and theres this: Davis isnt the leagues darling young pinup anymore.

In NBA.coms annual preseason survey of NBA general managers last year, Davis was the overwhelming (86 percent) answer to the question: If you were starting a franchise today and could sign any player, who would it be? This year, he didnt crack the top three. This year, he wasnt even the best ex-Kentucky center on the list (introducing your beauty pageant winner, Karl Anthony-Towns).

But, just the other day, Davis said: Im excited.

He is. And his mood is rooted in his belief that the worst is over and the Pelicans are ready to trend upward again. For that to happen, though, the Pelicans must have health on their side for a change and Davis needs to re-establish himself among the top half-dozen players in basketball.

He cant control the former, but he strongly believes in the latter. He once finished fifth in the MVP voting and when healthy is one of the few players who can score 40 points and grab 20 rebounds and block five shots in a game. And if Davis is once again a starter in the All-Star Game and makes First Team All-NBA -- he whiffed on both last season -- then there will be some hope for the Pelicans this season.

Before anyone wonders whatever happened to Davis, lets be very clear: Davis remains one of the finest big men in the game, and is only 23, and would be on every GMs speed dial next summer if he was on the market. Last season was considered a downer for him, yet if nothing else, his numbers were impressive; Davis was the only player to finish in the top 10 in points, rebounds and blocks.

He made himself into a threat beyond the 3-point line and can now score from virtually anywhere on the floor. As for defense, Davis can guard multiple positions and his athleticism puts him a cut above the stereotypical shot-blocker, since he can quickly offer help from the weakside.

Weve got a good coaching staff and were moving in the right direction. -- Pelicans' Anthony Davis

Davis is spooked by two issues: An inability to stay healthy for an entire season and a body that doesnt scream physically imposing.He has missed 68 games in his four NBA seasons, and didnt finish two of them. Last season brought shoulder and knee issues. He worked this summer to build strength (15 pounds of added muscle) to help him avoid injuries while careful not to restrict his quickness, which gives him a major advantage over most centers and power forwards.

The fragility isnt limited to Davis. The Pelicans lost 351 games to injuries last season and that spillover is infecting this one. Theyll be without Tyreke Evans until December while he recovers form knee surgery. Quincy Pondexter is also mending from knee surgery; meanwhile, Jrue Holiday is on personal leave due to his wifes health and is out indefinitely. This no doubt feels like Groundhog Day to Alvin Gentry, who hasnt had the benefit of a full deck since signing on his coach a year ago.

Anthony understands that it doesnt matter who you are or what situation youre in, you have to have the players to win in this league,said Gentry. You get three starters out, youre going to struggle. At least we know were going to get those guys back this year. Its not 'if,its 'when.’”

When healthy, Anthony Davis remains one of the few NBA players capable of turning in a 40-20 game.

The reinforcements arent inspiring, though. The Pelicans dont have another star on the roster or a top-shelf shotgun rider to Davis. ETwuan Moore and Solomon Moore arrived this summer yet neither are bringing evidence that theyre anything more than rotational players. Evans is streaky at best and nobody knows how hell return from injury. Without Holiday, the point guard situation is shaky and will be temporarily in the hands of Langston Galloway. Defense could be an issue again (the Pelicans ranked 28th last season) and the team hasnt grasped Gentrys offensive system yet. GM Dell Demps hasnt upgraded this roster since the Pelicans made the playoffs in 2014.

There will be an urgency to the development of rookie Buddy Hield, and he has impressed in spurts during the preseason. However, impact rookies are rare and in a best-case scenario, Hield is at least a year away.

Overall, the roster remains a jumble of odd fitting pieces and few if any valuable pieces other than Davis that could help the Pelicans in a trade. That, plus injury issues, raises serious doubts about their ability to return to the playoffs, especially in a tough conference.

But, Davis seems encouraged.

Thats his nature,said Gentry. He stays positive.

Thats something he needs to keep because hell need it. With the exception of maybe DeMarcus Cousins, no player in the NBA on the level of Davis is surrounded by less talent. Unless you have strong faith in Demps and newly arrived front-office deputy Danny Ferry, Davis could find himself in the same hopeless situation as Kevin Love was in Minnesota, and we all know what happened there.

Unlike Love, Davis isnt in danger of going anywhere; hes signed for another three years beyond this season. Hes also a very manageable star who keeps his ego in check and is coachable. But at some point, unless theres an uptick in the organization, fair-minded folks will wonder if the Pelicans are helping Davis or hurting him, and if hed still choose New Orleans if he became a free agent tomorrow.

Hes saying all the right things now, but its preseason.

We feel like weve made some good acquisitions,he said. Weve got a good coaching staff and were moving in the right direction. I liked how everyone came for voluntary workouts over the summer. I was with this team during rebuilding and we can get back to the playoffs. And Im just trying to focus on what I need to do to help this team get better.

As he spoke, Gentry walked by and said: Thanks for that vote of confidence.

Davis laughed: I said coaching staff, not head coach!

Davis is happy because, first and foremost, he is healthy. And a healthy Davis can cause trouble for the other bench. When his body cooperates, Davis is an elite player, and hell need to return to that level in order for the Pelicans to stay out of the running for bottom-five in the league.
 

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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