Anthony Davis has never been shy about owning things.
He owned the paint in college at Kentucky. He owned the glass throughout the NCAA tournament. He owns the fact that three years ago, as a 6-foot-3 high school junior shooting guard, Cleveland State was the only school recruiting him, and that was solely because he had a connection to the Vikings’ hoops program through a local referee. And believe it or not, he proudly owns that Frida Kahlo unibrow above his eyes (quite literally, actually — he got it trademarked earlier this week).
On Thursday night, Davis became the brand new owner of a burden so many imposing big men have been asked to carry in the past: the hopes and future of a struggling NBA franchise. As the first overall selection of the 2012 draft, Davis donned a flat-brimmed New Orleans Hornets cap above his now trademarked ‘brow, and did so with pride and enthusiasm.
“To be drafted No. 1 overall means a lot to me, for a 19-year-old freshman, now professional,” Davis said. "The city of New Orleans was great; I had a great time when I went to visit. I just can’t wait to get down there and start to play."
The Hornets finished with the worst record in the Western Conference a season ago and averaged 89.6 points, good for 29th in the league. In Davis, they get a 6-foot-10 big man who’s played for both good teams and bad.
In his one season at Kentucky, Davis was an NCAA champion, averaging 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds while leading the nation in blocked shots, averaging 4.7. He was a “one and done” star; a no-brainer for the first pick.
But it wasn’t always that way. Before the growth spurt, before he dominated the AAU circuit playing for Chicago’s Mean Streets squad, before the unibrow was something he embraced and protected with legal rights, he was just a guy on a bad high school team.
In the span of a few months in 2010, according to recruiting experts far and wide, Davis went from an unknown player not even considered a top prospect in his city to the hottest recruit in the nation.
A crazy growth spurt will do that.
Davis grew eight inches over the course of a year, with the spurt culminating in a dominant 23-point, 10-rebound performance at the Nike Global Challenge in the August before his senior year. Suddenly he was a soft-shooting 6-10 power forward with an insatiable desire to block shots and rebound. He came out and averaged 32 points, 22 rebounds and 7 blocks as a senior.
"I look back at the last couple of years in my life — if I hadn’t done this, would this have happened? If I didn’t play AAU, would I have gone to Kentucky? If I didn’t go to Kentucky, would I have been a national champion? If I wasn’t a national champion, would I still declare for the NBA?" Davis said. "I just try to look back at everything and see what my next move would be."
In high school, Davis didn’t play for a national champion. His Perspectives Charter high school squad had a 6-19 record his senior year. He’s been through some bad days and been on some bad teams. He’s been the overlooked kid. This isn’t a big man who’s been handled for years and fed compliments his entire life. The success and attention is all still relatively new to him, making Davis’ humble demeanor a genuine and refreshing one.
“I tried to sleep today. I couldn’t sleep,” Davis said minutes after being selected. “I couldn’t eat lunch. We had lunch with the commissioner. I couldn’t eat lunch. I was just anxious. Just ready, I kept looking at my suit, putting it on, had it on one time before that and took it back off. Just ready for the day. Now it’s finally here.”
He joins a franchise and a city eager to embrace him. "We’re thrilled to welcome Anthony to the Hornets family," General Manager Dell Demps said in a release issued by the team. "Anthony is an incredible person and very talented basketball player. We look forward to him being a part of the sustained success of our franchise."
In his visit to New Orleans last week — Davis’ only team visit during his pre-draft preparation — he toured the team’s Alario Center practice facility, met with new owner Tom Benson and chatted with coach Monty Williams. Said Williams on Thursday: “We have added an incredibly talented, athletic big man with great length who is also a proven winner. In getting to know him, he’s also a high-character kid and someone I look forward to help develop further."
Davis joins an intriguing roster of young, blossoming talent in New Orleans. Restricted free agent Eric Gordon is coming off a knee injury that cost him much of the 2011-12 season, but is just 23 and still considered one of the NBA’s future stars. With the 10th pick, New Orleans snagged Duke’s Austin Rivers, the son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers and the former No. 2 overall high school recruit. Jarrett Jack, Al-Farouq Aminu, Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez all are under contract and make up a solid core of contributors under the age of 30.
This team could be good, or at the very least, extremely entertaining in 2012. The future’s bright.
Davis’ approach to the game fits Williams’ coaching philosophy, too. "I just want to come in and do the best I can," he said. "I know Coach Williams is a great coach and he’s got the best intentions for me. So when I go down there, I’m going to do whatever he wants me to do and try to be a team leader. [Williams] is very excited. He’s excited about the team, ready to get back in the gym. He loves basketball. Great guy. He’s a great guy, great Christian guy, and I think he can take us a long way.”
His shot-blocking skills make for a good fit in the Big Easy, as well. "It’s going to be very difficult,” Davis acknowledged. “Guys are very crafty and use a lot of ball fakes. They’re professionals and they do this for a living. So I’ll just try to get used to what a guy’s tendencies are, and try to block them then."
John Henson, the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round selection selection out of North Carolina at No. 14 overall, went head-to-head with Davis twice in college. “He’s such a presence in the paint that you have to account for him each time down court,” Henson said. “A lot of lobs. That’s what we tried. Lots and lots of lobs.”
It’s been a whirlwind week for Davis. He did Jimmy Fallon’s show on Monday, he did ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” program the next morning, and he’s had the cameras on him since his flight landed in New York City. He also found the time to get the trademark on the unibrow done before Thursday’s draft.
“Seems there’s no point of other guys making money off what’s yours,” Davis said with a laugh on Thursday. “So I thought it was a great idea and we decided to go through with it.”
There’s going to be high expectations for Anthony Davis in New Orleans. He’ll own the opportunity and make the most of it.