The 21-year-old center may already be the best player on Team USA's young roster. In time, we'll see this stretch as one small step on his journey to superstardom.
CHICAGO — The United Center crowd had waited a long time to roar again for Derrick Rose. It exploded when Rose was the last player introduced. It chanted M-V-P nearly every time he touched the ball. The Team USA-Brazil exhibition initially felt more like a homecoming rally than a serious basketball game
But it didn't take long for Team USA's other native star to steal those cheers. If the United Center popped for Rose, it gasped for Anthony Davis in a way that underlines his chaotic combination of athleticism, length and agility.
FIBA World Cup
FIBA World Cup
It took all of 90 seconds for Davis to get his first slam and that set the tone for a dominant night. He dove out of bounds for loose balls, altered shots with his impossible combination of length and athleticism and threw down multiple alley-oops on top of Brazilian defenders. On one play, he slid around a Brazilian guard trying to box him out, jumped from the far left side of the paint and tipped in a miss on the opposite side with his left fingertip.
On an American team with little depth in the front court, Davis is indispensable. The way coach Mike Krzyzewski sees it, the 21-year-old is just getting started.
"Anthony is one of the emerging stars," Coach K said after the game. "We hope that what happened to a lot of those guys in 2010 will happen to him in this competition, where it just launches what should be a storied career for him."
The dynamic of USA Basketball was changing even before Paul George's leg snapped in Las Vegas and Kevin Durant decided to withdraw because of fatigue. The 2012 Olympic team's top eight scorers from London won't be a part of the 2014 World Cup roster. Davis and James Harden are now the only returning players from the group Coach K last led to gold. Davis was just months removed from college then, so his inclusion at the end of the bench was more a nod to the future than an acknowledgement of his present value.
There's no denying USA Basketball's foresight with Davis has paid off. Davis remains the second-youngest player in training camp with the team, but he'll be counted on more than anyone else for the United States once the medal round starts in Barcelona.
"He's maturing tremendously," USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said at practice on Friday. "Two years ago when we put him on the Olympic team, that was almost like going to graduate school and getting a master's degree. He had a chance to step up and participate with our players and get a little international experience. This is great for him."
Davis' rise to USA Basketball centerpiece is a minor miracle. As a high school sophomore growing up on Chicago's south side, Davis was a 6'2 guard with only a scholarship offer from Cleveland State. A growth spurt one year later changed everything, transforming him into a 6'11 force that was somehow able to maintain his speed, quickness and agility. It's as if he lived a typical teenager's dream of going to bed a normal kid one night and turning into a superhero the next morning.
Even Davis has a hard time articulating his rapid ascent. He credits his former AAU team, Illinois Mean Streets, with giving him the confidence to be a great player. He credits John Calipari and Kentucky for molding that talent into the player he's growing into today. USA Basketball is the next step on a path to stardom everyone sees coming.
"It's definitely different," Davis said of comparing this experience to the one he had with Team USA in 2012. "I think I'm more confident. I feel a lot stronger. I think I'm game definitely improved. I know what coaches want and I'm more comfortable on the floor."
Davis remains the second-youngest player in training camp, but he'll be counted on more than anyone else for the United States
Those are the same empty platitudes athletes routinely offer up, but how else to describe his rise? As Krzyzewski acknowledged after the win over Brazil, the World Cup (formerly known as the World Championships) has already played a role in turning young players into superstars. Rose used it as a launching point for his MVP season in 2011. Davis is next in line.
Translating Team USA success into NBA superstardom will nevertheless be Davis' biggest obstacle yet. Davis' New Orleans Pelicans have won only 37 percent of their games during his first two seasons in the league. The team is set to have a quality supporting cast around Davis this season, with center Omer Asik acting as the biggest summer acquisition. Still, the Pelicans will only fly as high as Davis takes them. Even if this is the season he turns into one of the five or 10 best players in the league, there are no postseason guarantees in a Western Conference that's tougher than ever. The entire world sees greatness in Davis, but no one is going to hand him or the Pelicans anything.
Regardless, Davis will gain invaluable experience in Europe leading a young USA squad through the World Cup. If all goes according to plan, it will be a footnote in the making of one of the game's best players.
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