In late December, a New Orleans Pelicans assistant coach struck up a casual conversation with Anthony Davis, asking the power forward what gifts the player received for Christmas. In an answer befitting his age, if not his status as one of the NBA's marquee stars, Davis responded, "Nerf guns."
Although the 6-foot-10, 238-pounder has rapidly become one of the NBA's select few franchise players, he still provides occasional reminders that he's only 21 years old. On the court, those reminders are coming with less and less frequency, in the third year of what's been a steady rise to bona fide MVP candidate.
At the exact halfway point of the 2014-15 regular season, Davis ranks third in the NBA in scoring (24.2 ppg) and ninth in rebounding (10.4 rpg). Defensively, he's again topping the league in blocked shots (2.92 bpg) by a wide margin, and is in the top 25 of steals. He's compiled 11 games of 30-plus points this season, along with 23 double-figure rebounding performances (out of his 37 appearances).
Virtually all of those statistics are another noticeable jump from 2013-14, when he finished third in the league's Most Improved Player voting. His teammates, who've seen Davis excel with USA Basketball in the offseason and then on a daily basis since training camp, believe a second straight year of substantial progress is a result of his emphasis on individual improvement.
"He works hard," Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday said. "I don't think he takes anything for granted. He has all the talent in the world, but a lot of guys have talent and don't work hard, so it doesn't mean anything. (He is the) first one in the gym, last one to leave. He works as hard as he can to make himself better. That's why he is who he is."
Pelicans players also say they're impressed by Davis' ability to remain grounded off the court, even though he's been the subject of non-stop media praise and attention since Opening Night. In virtually every road city the Pelicans travel to, he's swarmed by reporters working on stories about him.
"To come in the way he did, and not let things go to your head, is pretty big," Holiday said. "Obviously he has a good support system and good people around him."
"You can definitely forget about his age at times, because he plays older than he is," guard Jimmer Fredette said. "Being in the NBA, he gets a lot of notoriety but keeps a level head. He's always been himself, and that's what makes him a great player."
Monty Williams' staff has often raved about Davis' basketball IQ and coachability, something that also seems to have contributed to his steady development.
"He's the smartest 21-year-old I know," Pelicans assistant Kevin Hanson said. "He gets all of the little things and is very mature, and a lot of it is because of what's been placed on his shoulders. He's had to grow up a lot quicker than everyone else, but he's taken it in stride. That's been able to help his game mature. There's a trust he puts in us and what we work on, and all that's because of how smart he is and how mature he is."
"AD's a good person, and he's mature beyond his years," agreed lead assistant coach Randy Ayers, who has previously coached several other NBA rising stars. "I think he understands the big picture, and that's important. The thing I loved about him is when he first came in, he had patience. I've been around Dwight Howard and Allen Iverson, two other No. 1 overall picks. Before everyone knew them as AI and Dwight, they went through a learning process. The thing I love about Anthony is he's been patient with the process, and I think that's why he's developed into a good player."