Facing a rare halftime deficit Sunday in Spain, Team USA needed a spark. So they turned to the youngest player on the roster.
Anthony Davis, the team's starting center, answered the call, scoring all 19 of his points in the second half while adding six rebounds, two steals and two blocks as the U.S. outscored Turkey 63-37 to pull away for a 98-77 victory at the FIBA World Cup. Davis made eight of his nine field-goal attempts after halftime, tallied 11 points in the first four minutes of the third quarter and later in the fourth quarter used a personal 6-0 run to push the game out of reach and keep Team USA perfect in pool play.
It was yet another impressive performance for the Chicago native, who despite having just two years of NBA experience is considered a veteran of USA Basketball, having been part of the 2012 Olympics team that won gold in London. Through two games Davis is averaging a team-high 18.0 points, has made 73 percent of his field goals (14-for-19) and has gone to the charity stripe (10 FTA) more than anyone, despite having played fewer minutes than five of his teammates.
[FIBA WORLD CUP: Rose, Team USA survive scare vs. Turkey]
It seems as though each time he steps on the court the 21-year-old Davis shows improvement, both raising the floor of his current game and the ceiling of what his potential could be just two years removed from his national championship season at Kentucky. He's provided an invaluable presence as a more traditional international center, with the ability to shoot from 15-feet, run in transition and defend as well as anyone in the tournament at the rim -- though he's blocked just two shots, both Finland and Turkey went nowhere near the paint on offense with Davis in the game, and for good reason.
It's been an eye-opening summer for Davis, who was selected to his first All-Star team in February (as Kobe Bryant's replacement) after a superb second season before taking over at USA Basketball training camp. He continued that progress in Chicago and later New York at Team USA's intrasquad scrimmages, and now he's become the foundation of a USA team eyeing gold.
He's got plenty of work left to do in Spain as the calendar flips to September, but his play might as well be a preview of what's to come when his New Orleans Pelicans begin their 2014-15 campaign later this month. It's both exciting and scary to think about just how much better Davis can become, and his collegiate head coach John Calipari believes he may not only be considered one of the greats with LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but also holds the potential to be the league's brightest star.
"Right now, you look at (Davis) and say, ‘Man, in five years, he could be the best player in the NBA,'" Calipari told USA Today. “And this USA Basketball stuff pushes that date sooner. Again, here’s what it does for him: how to work, new things to add to his game, and confidence like, ‘These are the best in the world, so I’m all right.'"
Calipari has always been vocally complimentary of his former players - Derrick Rose included - but he may have be on to something with Davis; in five years James will be 34 years old, and while Kevin Durant will be in his prime at 29 years old, Anthony's trending toward something truly special.
Take, for instance, last season. Davis averaged 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, led the league with 2.8 blocks per game and still managed 1.3 steals and 52 percent shooting from the field. Those numbers from a 21-year-old were historic, at least in this sense: Since 1946, only nine other players have averaged at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 1.0 steals per game over an entire season. Eight of those players, including the likes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and Elvin Hayes, are enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Also, none of the 32 times the feat was accomplished before Davis had it been done by anyone under the age of 22; Davis turned 21 in March.
The 6-foot-10 power forward's unique blend of athleticism, timing, outside touch and basketball IQ have made him one of the game's most versatile frontcourt players that makes dents in every column of a box score. It also made him a perfect candidate to man the center position on Team USA, which he has done extraordinarily well in the early going.
Calipari also could be exactly right that Davis' play with Team USA may expedite his progress as one of the game's best.
One of Cal's former players, Rose, was also also a 21-year-old preparing for his third NBA season while playing for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup. Rose was a crucial piece to that team winning gold, much like Davis is now. Davis' NBA head coach Monty Williams is also one of Mike Krzyzewski's assistants with Team USA, and he told the Pelicans' official website over the weekend that Davis, a USA "vet," has been making strides as a leader, too, which should pay dividends when the NBA season gets underway this fall.
"He’s understanding that he is a lead dog among a number of alpha dogs. Mentally, he’s taken it up a few notches. I think Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) has been a big part of that, pushing him to be a leader and be ‘the guy’ on the team. When you think about the names on this team, and think about the impact on the game that (Davis) has, you seldom say there’s a better player on the floor than Anthony," Williams said. "That’s got to help him from a confidence standpoint. I think that’s where he’s improving. He’s always working on his game and his shot, his handle, a few more post moves, but mentally he’s getting more confidence. That’s going to help us going forward.”
It won't be easy sledding in the Western Conference. Davis' Pelicans won just 34 games a year ago, which had them 15 games out of the final playoff spot in the West. But with Ryan Anderson playing just 22 games before undergoing cervical spine surgery, and point guard Jrue Holiday missing nearly 50 games of his own, a healthy Pelicans team, with Davis leading the charge, should be much improved. Depending on just how much better Davis gets the rest of the summer in Spain, the playoffs may not be out of the question.
Just how good can Anthony Davis become? Lucky for us basketball fans, we're about to find out.