Anthony Davis’ role with USA Basketball makes quantum leap

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

In less than two years, New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis has gone from a 12th man for USA Basketball at the London Olympics, to a prominent face who recently represented the team on a national magazine cover. As a Page 1 subject for SLAM magazine this month, the 21-year-old was bestowed the honor of being the first player to publicly model USAB’s new uniforms.

In August 2012, Davis was easily the youngest member of an American team that captured the gold medal at the Summer Games in London. Surrounded by experienced NBA players, Davis logged the fewest minutes (53 over a total of eight appearances) of anyone, averaging 3.7 points and 2.7 rebounds, primarily in mop-up duty.

Fast forward to today, and the 6-foot-10, 238-pounder is a Western Conference All-Star who is viewed by many as one of USA Basketball’s most pivotal pieces to success this decade.

“I think Anthony had the luxury of his first time with the national team (in 2012) just being a guy who was talented enough to be on the team, but he didn’t have the experience, so he didn’t know what to expect,” said Pelicans four-year head coach Monty Williams, also a USA assistant coach. “I think now he knows what to expect. You want to see him take on a bigger role as a performer on the court. But also understanding what (USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski) wants him to be, as far as becoming a young leader on the team. Obviously there are other guys on the team that have more experience, like (Kevin) Durant, Kevin Love and (James) Harden. But at the same time, I think AD can take on a bigger role this year.”

Part of Davis’ maturity as a player over the two-year span has come from a physical standpoint; he was rail-thin when he entered the NBA after winning a national title at Kentucky, but has progressively packed on muscle and strength.

“I think it’s all been a part of the process,” Williams said, in a Thursday morning conference call with New Orleans media. “He’s been working on his body since Day 1; we’re just starting to see the beginning of the changes, the good weight (and) the natural weight he’s put on.”

Davis will have another opportunity to demonstrate how much he’s developed as a player next week, when he and Williams travel to Las Vegas for USA Basketball training camp. USA invitees will practice Monday through Thursday on the UNLV campus, then play a showcase game on Friday, Aug. 1 (8 p.m. Central, ESPN).

Williams said one recent focus for the Pelicans’ star has been ballhandling – not normally an area of emphasis for a 6-10 power forward, but one that could lead to Davis becoming even more dangerous offensively. Davis has already emerged as one of the premier fast-break finishers in the NBA, consistently beating his defender down the floor for dunks and layups, but additional comfort receiving passes on the move away from the basket might benefit him.

“The thing that I’ve really been working with him (on) personally is his handle,” Williams said. “I think he can be a better ballhandler, especially in the open court. Trying to get him to understand how important he could be if he could catch the ball on the break and make plays. In order for him to be comfortable in those situations, he could improve his ballhandling. Which is already really good, I’m just trying to make it even more sound.”

Davis has also been working on his perimeter shooting – saying he specifically wants to add the corner three-pointer to his repertoire – as well as his low-post, back-to-the-basket arsenal. He averaged 20.8 points per game in 2013-14, scoring a majority of those points while facing the basket. He rarely attempted shots from beyond the arc, going 2-for-9 on three-pointers.

“He’s just trying to get better at what he already had going for him,” Williams said. “He wants to become a better shooter. Obviously he finishes well around the basket; there are a couple of post moves we’ve worked with him on.”

Davis will compete against new Pelicans teammate Omer Asik in the FIBA World Cup this fall; the United States and Turkey are both in Group C and therefore scheduled to face each other Aug. 31 in Bilbao, Spain.

Williams noted that given the two frontcourt players’ busy summer schedule, he may have to scale back their participation a bit when New Orleans training camp begins in the fall. He said he’ll seek the advice of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, who has extensive experience handling international competitors such as Manu Ginobili (Argentina) and Tony Parker (France).

“I’m sure our training camp is going to be a tough training camp, but I’m going to have to be aware of AD and Omer,” Williams said. “The amount of time I have them on the floor may be a bit different than everyone else – and I’m sure they won’t like that – but I’m going to have to make some adjustments. At the same time, it’s still basketball, and even though they’ll be playing overseas (at the World Cup), they’d be playing somewhere else (if they weren’t participating in international competition). In late July, August and September, guys are playing three or four hours a day. It’s not that much of a difference. I think the travel is what can wear you out.”

Concerns about fatigue notwithstanding, countless NBA players who’ve competed in recent Olympics or world championships have noticeably improved, at least partly based on the unique experience. Williams believes Davis and Asik will also benefit from their participation this summer and fall.

“Everyone who’s been in these situations, they come back a lot better,” Williams said. “I’m looking for those two guys to come back better.”