When Pelicans All-Star power forward Anthony Davis reported to the USA basketball team last month, he was expected to have somewhat of a leadership role.
Davis had played on the gold-medal 2012 Olympic team and was one of the team’s few players with international basketball experience. However, after NBA MVP Kevin Durant, a 2012 holdover, decided not to participate as the team prepares for the FIBA World Cup, Davis has emerged as perhaps the leader of the team.
“I think my role definitely got bigger when Kevin left and when Paul (George) got hurt,” Davis said Thursday, with Team USA set to take on Finland Saturday as the tournament gets underway in Spain. “I think me and James (Harden) being the guys who were on the Olympic team, we’re trying to do the job of leading the team.”
Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski pushed for Davis, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, to take that leadership role and also be the guy on the team, said Pelicans coach Monty Williams, a Team USA assistant.
But Davis, 21, has lent much credibility to his status with his play on the court. He led the team to an impressive string of victories in exhibition games in preparation for the World Cup, and in the final one, Tuesday vs. Slovenia, he had 18 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and four steals in 18.5 minutes.
Williams said the experience of daily practices against elite players, working with the team’s other coaches and playing in the games have enhanced Davis’ development, which was expected.
“He’s getting more and more experience,” Williams said. “He’s understanding that he is a lead dog among a number of alpha dogs. And I think mentally, he’s taken it up a few notches.
“When you think about the names on this team, and you look at the impact on the games that he has, you seldom see that there’s a better player on the floor than Anthony. And, that’s got to help him from a confidence standpoint.”
Krzyzewski acknowledged even before the team began preparations that it would stress defense more than past USA teams he has coached. Davis made big strides offensively during the 2013-14 season. But being a leader on defense appears a natural for Davis. He set records for blocking shots as a freshman at Kentucky and last season led the NBA in blocked shots at 2.82 per game.
“I think probably the only way you can be a good defender, is you have to (communicate),” he said. “I know that the team leans on me for defense — especially when (opponents) drive the ball — looking for me to block shots and rebound the ball.”
Players who participate on the national team often follow it with improved NBA seasons. Aside from the mental aspect and growing as a leader, Davis appears to have developed his mid-range shot. Williams has worked with him on a few more post moves and his ball-handling, which he had begun doing even before the pair left New Orleans.
Davis is focused on helping the USA successfully defend the gold medal it won in 2010, but the Pelicans’ season hasn’t been lost on him.
“The good thing about it is that I have Coach with me,” he said, “so the things we have to work on for the season and the team, I’m kind of getting ahead right now.”
And trying to stay ahead with work that he says will help him in World Cup games, which are known for physical play. Spain and Lithuania are considered threats to the U.S., and both have big, strong frontcourts.
“I’ve been working with (strength and development coach Carlos Daniels) to make sure I keep the weight on and stay strong, knowing I could get injured or pushed around because I wasn’t strong enough,” he said.
George breaking his leg during the team’s scrimmage game near the start of training camp has been a hot topic. Many have questioned whether basketball world supremacy is worth the risk of career-threatening injuries to elite players.
“The whole thing with the Paul injury, that was a gruesome injury,” Davis said. “It was so much on our minds to see one of our brothers go down like that. But now that we know that he’s doing fine, we got to keep moving forward and win this gold for him.”
Davis said the concept of NBA stars playing for USA basketball is a good one.
“I love playing for USA Basketball,” he said, “and any time I get the chance to represent my country, especially for all the servicemen and women who do so much for us, I think it’s a great opportunity to show your appreciation.”