At 19 years old, Anthony Davis already was an accomplished eavesdropper.
That’s what Carmelo Anthony remembers about the Pelicans star when he was fresh-faced and just out of Kentucky in the summer of 2012. As the youngest member of the U.S. Men’s Olympic basketball team, Davis was a sponge.
He’d ask his veteran teammates for advice in London, but he’d also observe interactions and listen in on conversations. He’d soak in all he could.
“I wish I had that type of experience (at that age),” said Anthony, who’s been a cornerstone player for the Nuggets and now the Knicks. “Coming out of college, being able to be on one of the best teams in the world with the best players in the world and just be a part of that. Seeing guys’ work ethic, seeing what they do and don’t like to do, conversations that were being had over there. I think he learned a lot.”
Those were simpler times for Davis. He had yet to play an NBA game and was coming off a decorated season in which he’d been college Player of the Year and an NCAA champion.
But the lessons he learned in London — and the bonds he formed there — are serving him now as his NBA life grows more complex.
At 22, Davis is the face of a franchise mired in disappointment. A season after making a late run to a playoff appearance, New Orleans has been one of the NBA’s biggest disappointments, struggling to stay afloat in the standings.
The Pelicans enter Sunday’s game at Detroit 21-33 and as of Saturday night were six games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 28 games to play.
Davis is having a strong fourth season, averaging 23.6 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, and the Pelicans have been ravaged by injury, with players combining to miss 158 games.
Two projected starters — point guard Tyreke Evans and small forward Quincy Pondexter — are out for the season with knee injuries, Pondexter without having played a game.
Still, there is blame falling on Davis’ shoulders, and his peers can relate.
“Everybody’s going to point the blame to (Davis), and it’s something you’ve got to be able to take,” said Wizards point guard John Wall, who has faced considerable scrutiny for his franchise’s struggles. “When you’re doing well, they’re going to praise you. When you not doing well, they’re going to talk bad about you. It’s a part of the game, and it’s a part of the job and the business.”
Davis is experiencing that part for the first time, and as he tries to navigate it, he’s turning to the NBA’s elite for guidance.
“I have guys who are top players in the league and future Hall of Famers who I can go to — Kobe (Bryant), LeBron (James), Melo — and say, ‘What happened when you were in this situation? What did you do? How did you handle it? What things would you change? What did you change?’ ” Davis said. “It’s good to have somebody that’s been through that situation like we’re having and try to figure out what to do.”
That’s still a work in progress.
But Davis is learning lessons he hopes can help put the Pelicans back on track this season and make him a stronger leader moving forward.
Making a leader
When it comes to leadership, Davis doesn’t have all the answers. It’s not for lack of asking questions.
He’s turned to Pelicans teammate Kendrick Perkins, a 12-year NBA veteran, to ask how former teammates from Kevin Garnett to Kevin Durant handled team-specific situations.
Davis has had conversations with James and Anthony about their role as franchise players, discussed with them the responsibilities of a job only a handful of the NBA’s best can understand.
But even as he’s sought input, Davis has learned that he has to put his own spin on a leadership style. He took that lesson from the Lakers’ Bryant, a 20-year veteran who will retire at the end of the season.
Bryant told Davis, “Do what you do, and other people are going to follow,” Davis said.
What Davis does is rooted in positivity.
Because pushing buttons sometimes backfires — “Some guys, you piss them off, they get in their little shell and stay to themselves,” Davis said. He’s more energizer than enforcer.
That approach takes commitment, and it’s not always easy, Davis said, when a team is struggling the way the Pelicans have this season.
“Of course your attitude changes when you lose…,” Davis said. “You basically can’t show the team that you’re frustrated. That’s the toughest thing. When you’re a competitor and you want to win so bad, you start to show those things instead of masking them.”
This season Davis also has learned the importance of shutting out what he calls “white noise.” For the first time in his career, outsiders are asking if he’s doing enough to help his team win, and he admits that can lead to self-doubt.
“Now you’re thinking too much, and you’re doing things you don’t normally do,” Davis said. “It can take you away from your game.”
Leading the way
Leadership is an elusive quality, coaches will tell you. There’s no one way to guide a team, no single blueprint for a franchise player.
It’s crucial, though, that a player faced with the role wants to embrace it. Davis appears to.
“Him having all that pressure on him, that’s what he lives for,” Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday said. “That’s what he wants. That’s what comes with the job. That’s what comes with the paycheck.”
Despite the Pelicans’ struggles this season, there seems to be little doubt around the league that they have the star in place to tackle a turnaround. Davis remains among the league’s most productive players, and one of its best-respected.
“He is a legitimate franchise-type of cornerstone for a program,” Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “You don’t anoint somebody freely like I just did there. That is a select group, and he is amongst it.”
But one cornerstone alone isn’t enough.
Whatever Davis learns this season about leadership, his guidance won’t put New Orleans on track for championship contention. There are personnel holes to address, improvements to be made in the offseason.
“Obviously he’s going to get better and he’s going to get better, and hopefully we’ll be able to put the necessary pieces around him for him to be successful,” Gentry said. “At the end of the day, there’s never been one guy that could do it (alone) in this league.”
No matter what kind of leader Davis learns to be, the process will take time.
He has that.
“He still has a lot of years ahead of him,” Anthony said. “He’s a great player, man. It sometimes comes a point where great players got to figure things out. He’ll figure it out.”