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Anthony Davis Could Be the NBA's Greatest Player, but Is He Willing to Step Up?

this is a discussion within the Pelicans Community Forum; The blue sectional couch stood empty in Cortez Hale's one-bedroom apartment on the South Side of Chicago . Hale, head coach of Anthony Davis' high school team, couldn't help but stand as he would if he were on the sidelines ...

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Old 03-11-2015, 01:30 PM   #1
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Anthony Davis Could Be the NBA's Greatest Player, but Is He Willing to Step Up?

The blue sectional couch stood empty in Cortez Hale's one-bedroom apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Hale, head coach of Anthony Davis' high school team, couldn't help but stand as he would if he were on the sidelines a few feet away from Davis instead of watching him battle the Oklahoma City Thunder in a New Orleans Pelicans uniform on his TV screen.

As usual, Davis had filled up the stat sheet in remarkably efficient fashion. Not as usual, the ball was finding him as much in the fourth quarter as it had in the first three. With one second left and the score tied at 113-all, Davis had 38 points, 13 of them coming in the final period.

Hale, though, wasn't satisfied.

Davis had been his Mr. Everything at Perspectives Charter School, and it bothers Hale that the Pelicans haven't leaned on Davis as heavily as he did. While the Pelicans used a 20-second timeout to set up a final play, Hale fired out a message on Twitter: "If AD doesn't get the ball here, everyone on the #Pelicans needs to b fired.. #nba"

That Davis' role is even in question drives Hale to distraction, although he accepts that Davis' own attitude is part of the problem.

"He has no ego," says Hale. "He doesn't think of himself as a star."

This time, however, the ball did wind up in Davis' hands. With one second left, the plan had been for Davis to loop around to the backside of the rim to catch a lob from the inbounder, Tyreke Evans, but as Davis began to cut, he saw both Thunder center Steven Adams and Kevin Durant in his way. So he reversed out to the top of the three-point arc, caught the pass from Evans, swung the ball away from a leaping Durant and launched a nothing-but-net 30-footer for the buzzer-beating win.

It was his first successful three-pointer of the season and the second game-winning shot of his career, but the first—as far as anyone can remember—in which he's specifically been given the ball to decide the outcome. His other game-winning shot consisted of a tip-in at the buzzer as a rookie against the Boston Celtics off a missed runner by Eric Gordon.

Three years, one time as the go-to guy, while purportedly being on the same talent plane as LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Hale isn't the only former coach of Davis from Chicago who has a problem with all of that. The men who watched Davis evolve from a defensive stopper and spot-up three-point shooter to the one-man, inside-outside threat who helped Kentucky win a title before being drafted No. 1 in 2012 believe wholeheartedly in two things about Davis.

The first: He can be every bit as dominant as LeBron James is right now.

The second: He won't be unless someone makes him.

For now, Warren Mack has the longest tenure as Davis' coach, having had him on AAU teams from fourth to eighth grade. A disabled veteran, Mack, 44, is retired from his dual role as a physical instructor in the Chicago Park district and a teaching assistant for children with special needs in the Chicago public school system. He remains close to the entire Davis family—Anthony or "Ant Junior"; a twin sister Antoinette and an older sister Iesha; his 6'1" mother Erainer and his 6'3" father, Anthony or "Ant" Senior.

Davis' versatility is no surprise to Mack, since he used him as a long-range shooting guard while his middle school team played him at center.

"He could always shoot it," says Mack, gazing at the Salvation Army gym where he taught Davis to maintain his shooting form even when tired out by running sprints first. "That was one thing he could always do. Even back in fifth or sixth grade, he was one of my best three-point shooters. His shot went down like butter, which was one of his nicknames.

"I was looking at him, thinking, 'This kid is going to be a guard.' We had him work on his guard skills, then he'd go back to school and he'd play center. Then, in seventh grade, he was, like, 'Coach, I'm doing everything. I'm jumping center, I'm playing point guard, I get to do everything.'"

When Mack's Chicago Select squad reached the AAU Illinois state seventh grade championship game, he learned that what Davis could do and what he was willing to do sometimes differed. Across the floor stood a team known as the Student-Athletes, led by a man-child named Rashad Wahab, touted as the next LeBron as much for his ripped physique as anything else.

"Anthony was terrified to play against him," Mack recalls. "He faked a foot injury. To this day, he says, if you ask him about it, he'll tell you he was hurt. You ask me about it, I'll tell you he was scared. Because I used to do this thing, I'd grab them and feel their heart. His heartbeat was like doom-da-da-doom-da-da. You could feel it through his chest. He was scared."

Davis' replacement, a kid named Kahlil, got a tooth knocked out trying to defend a pick-and-roll play. He ran to the bathroom, stopped the bleeding and returned to the game, but "at that point he wasn't Kahlil anymore," Mack says. Kahlil's attempt to play, however, provided Mack with leverage on Davis.

He walked down to Davis at the end of the bench, pointed to Kahlil and said, 'This kid right here is trying his heart out and he just got his tooth knocked out. You mean to tell me you're going to sit at the end of the bench and talk about your foot [being] hurt?"

Chicago Select was down by about 20 points with six minutes left when Davis hobbled onto the floor. "I don't know what happened," Mack says. "I didn't give him any special instructions. That kid got nearly every damn rebound. We were like, 'Do it for Kahlil!' But it was the Anthony Davis show.

"We ended losing that game by about six points. And I'd always tell him, 'Imagine Anthony, we lost the state championship because you played scared. Now look at what you did in six minutes. Can you imagine what you'd done if you'd played that way the whole game? Played with that mentality the whole game? Nobody could stop us.'"

Chicago Select steamrolled its way to the state title the following year. Davis faced Wahab but never lost to him again.

"That day was the day I knew you couldn't let him mentally do whatever he wants to do," Mack says, who was forced to disband Chicago Select after that due to a lack of funds. "You have to push him. The more you push him, the more you get out of him. That's when I learned he was the real deal. That's why I think he can be greater than he is."

Hale has his story as well. Perspectives plays in Chicago's lesser Blue division, while the city's top teams are in the Red division. As a freshman, Davis was little more than a three-point specialist on a team full of seniors. The following season, Davis was all they had, resulting in a six-win campaign that head coach Jerry Butler couldn't endure.

The team was returning from a Christmas holiday tournament when Butler abruptly stopped the bus, said goodbye to the team and walked away. Hale, his assistant, took over and immediately started imploring Davis to play a bigger role.

"It was hard for him," Hale says. "He and I used to battle about it because he just didn't understand. He'd say, 'Why can't I just sit here and shoot threes like I did my freshman year?' Going to his junior year and senior year, that's when he started maturing and realizing, 'OK, I have to be the leader. We're only going to go as far as I'm going to take us.' He started coming around in practice and trying to get them better, but when players aren't good there's only so much you can do."

The competition and surrounding talent was so bad that when Davis was a senior and the opposition tried to trap, Hale would have him drive the ball up the floor until he was double-teamed, then throw it off the backboard and go get it—more than once.

Anthony Davis Sr. and his wife were very judicious about where and with whom their son played basketball. Developing him into a good person ranked ahead of making him a good player.

He was a fifth-grader playing for Chicago Select when Anthony Sr. happened to walk past the team's locker room at halftime. The coach filling in for Mack was apparently "giving the team the business"—Mack's words—and Anthony Sr., appalled, pulled his son off the team. Mack, whose wife is Anthony's godmother, begged Anthony Sr. to change his mind and promised no coach would address the players on the team that way again.

Indeed, Davis grew up as sheltered as anyone could in Chicago's notorious Englewood neighborhood, where gang-related deaths and violence are a daily occurrence. Though living near Murray Park, a well-known hoops run, Anthony Sr., fearing for his son's safety, limited him to shooting on a basket in the backyard. When Davis wasn't getting up shots in view of home, he went to the gym attached to St. Columbanus, a Catholic grade school that drew public attention when a gang-related shooting took place at a funeral inside the church three years ago.

The gym hosted leagues from grade school to men's adult. High school and college players routinely played pickup games there as well while Anthony Jr. floated around the perimeter, shooting on the side baskets.

In ninth and 10th grade, with no AAU programs recruiting him and the Davis family unwilling to pay for him to play on a team, he spent his summers doing drills with his uncle, Keith Chamberlain Sr., who served as the school's athletic director and whose son, Keith Jr., played for the Pelicans' 2014 summer-league team.

Their pickup games often consisted of Keith Jr., his younger brother Jarvis, who played at Kentucky State, Anthony Jr. and Iesha, who plays at Daley College.

"He was just an average 6'3" guard who could shoot," says Keith Jr., explaining the general lack of attention his cousin received. "He always had a good feel for the game. But when you can do all that and you're 6'10", well, that's what sets him apart."

St. Columbanus is also where Davis met Antwan Collins, a counselor for troubled kids at the Cook County Detention Center and Butter's unofficial guardian angel. Collins is part of a small circle of young men from the South Side known for choosing a healthier path than many and looking out for young South Siders who want to do the same.

He befriended the young, skinny kid who had graduated from glasses to prescription goggles to contact lenses, and soon the Davis family entrusted Collins to get Ant Jr. to the gym and back safely, especially after Davis started to sprout. Height meant basketball stardom, which meant possessions to take. In the average neighborhood, an unusually tall kid would be just that. Not on the South Side, where height might mean basketball stardom, which might mean possessions to rob.

"You have knuckleheads everywhere," Collins says. "At this time, he's about 6'6", he's a gang target. Kids his age might see him and think he has money or jewelry. I'd take him home instead of having him wait for the bus."

That Davis is reluctant to impose his power and influence to play a bigger role on the Pelicans doesn't surprise Collins, either. It wasn't until the summer before his senior year, when the then-6'8" Davis returned to playing AAU basketball, that he suddenly had the attention of every big-time prep basketball program in the country.

Insisting that their son continue to play in what they felt was a healthy environment, Davis' parents pushed Anthony Jr. to remain at Perspectives, where he won only six games as a senior. That didn't deter some of the biggest college programs in the country.

"He's still that kid, 16, 17 years old," Collins says. "He literally went from an unknown to high school superstar in a matter of months. We went from talking Wright State, Cleveland State to Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina. But he's not, 'I'm Anthony Davis, I'm untouchable.' I sit back and am, like, he's a freakin' superstar. To this day I tell him, 'You're the best power forward in this league. There's no 4 who can stick you. Just go dominate the game.'"

Still, Collins knows this is the same Davis who wouldn't dunk in pickup or summer-league games because he was afraid he would miss. Even in his final years in high school with far inferior talent around him, Davis wasn't comfortable taking over. Collins would shout at him from the stands, "Just play!"

For all of Davis' success, he still needed constant reminding, both then and now. Even the summer before his senior year, when he returned to the AAU circuit with a star-studded Chicago squad, Meanstreets, he remained reluctant to take over games. Jevon Mamon, then the Meanstreets coach and now the 33-year-old head coach of Richards High School (Oak Lawn, Illinois) had to convince Davis it was in the team's best interests that he shoot at the end of games.

"We'd have to tell him, 'You need to take more shots down the stretch; we're looking to get you the ball to make something happen, find a way,' Mamon says. "He wasn't the main guy when he joined us, but it didn't take long to figure out he would be. After games, I'd tell him, 'You have to be more aggressive. You have to take more shots.

"That's not who you are as a kid, but we want to be one of the top summer club teams in the country; we need you to do that for us.'

"I don't think it was him being reluctant. It's just not who he is. He's a team-first guy."

Mamon, Hale, Collins and Mack all understand, though, that making good on the full breadth of his talent in the NBA will require a degree of selfishness. They all spend time in their respective living rooms goading Davis to be just that.

"I'm saying to the TV, 'Go get the ball!'" Collins admits. "So it's frustrating watching.

"But I can understand what he's thinking and feeling: 'It's only my third year. I can't be that vocal.' But I tell him, 'Scratch that. They're building the team around you. Not any other person. Speak your mind, man.' I don't know what it's going to take to finally get it out, but he's getting better. He's one of those guys that says, 'Well, I'll let my play do my talking.' He'll have to learn that it's a cutthroat league. Closed mouths don't get fed."

None of this is news to Pelicans coach Monty Williams or Davis. Williams invited both Davis and point guard Jrue Holiday to his hotel room midway through last season and told them that as leaders, "You're not ready and you won't be until you don't care what people say or write about you." The "people" included their teammates.

Davis concedes that he has to get tougher. He aspires to be more like Kevin Garnett. "I used to think to be great you had to please everybody," Davis says. "I want everybody to like me, so you do things to please them. Kevin has that dog in him. I'm working toward it. I'm pretty sure Kevin doesn't care what anyone says about him."

Perhaps because of his own bouts with confidence, he's not inclined to take it too far. "I think you can be a nice guy, but if someone messes up, you have to let them know," he says. "If Jrue takes a bad shot, I have to be, 'C'mon now, Jrue, we can't have that.' But at the same time, you don't always have to beat 'em down. I have to get them to focus on the next possession."

Veteran Ryan Anderson described the Pelicans' locker room as one full of equals. "There's so much mutual respect," he said earlier this season. "We don't have that one guy who whips us into shape."

No matter how nice Davis might be, superstars who don't have their teams in the hunt for a title ultimately get criticized. And at some point, for all the talk about Davis' undeniably supreme talent, someone is going to raise the question:

Shouldn't a team with one of the top three players in the league at least make the playoffs?

Some executives and talent assessors in the NBA already question whether Davis can be a No. 1, as in the player who leads a team to a championship. "No. 1 talent, no question, but No. 2 or 3 as far as mentality," said one assistant GM.

"Third-best player in the league? If he's that good, he has to get his team to the playoffs and win some playoff games," said a Western Conference scout. "I don't think his stats are much different than DeMarcus Cousins'. And one of them is clearly more aggressive."

That kind of assessment is drowned out by the many platitudes thrown Davis' way, and the Pelicans' clutch stats—those recorded in the last five minutes of any game decided by five points or fewer—suggest they are looking to him more down the stretch. Only Tyreke Evans takes more clutch shots (1.8 to 1.6), but Davis averages more free throws (1.1 to 0.8) and more points overall (3.3 to 1.8).

Taking over and taking over successfully are different. If the Pelicans continue to fall short, one of two narratives is almost certain to emerge: Either Davis will be dissected for failing to make good on the lofty status already bestowed upon him, or the Pelicans will be hammered for failing to put the necessary pieces around him.

LeBron, of course, had to endure both. How he reacted cost him a likability from which, for all his success in Miami and return to Cleveland, he may never fully recover. At least, though, he found a mentor in Dwyane Wade who taught him how to lead and an organization in the Heat that taught him how to climb to the very top of the mountain.

Those who cherish Davis as much for who he is as a person do not want to see him forced to become someone else simply to succeed. His famous eyebrow and height give him a naturally imposing presence, until he opens his mouth or smiles and the kid just happy not to be wearing glasses emerges. "If he walked into the room right now, everybody would be, 'oh s--t, it's Anthony Davis,' Hale says. "He'd probably walk out because he had so much attention on him. But if it was nobody in here but us, he'd be the loudest person in the room, cracking all the jokes."

They are aware, though, that neither they nor Davis have complete control of his circumstances.

"My biggest fear is that the pressure gets to him, that it's another Kevin Love situation," says Hale, referring to the Timberwolves power forward who forced his way out of Minnesota after six years of failing to make the playoffs. "Anthony becomes the bad guy because he has to force his way out of New Orleans. That's my biggest fear—that everybody turns on him."

Mamon recognizes that, ultimately, it's up to Davis. "At some point, whenever it is, he's going to have to say, 'This is my team right now, this is what we need to do' and call guys out."

As much as all his former coaches have their stories about Davis having to be coaxed into grabbing games by the throat, all are convinced he has the ability.

"He has the dog in him," Hale says. "If Monty told Anthony the next game, 'You score the next 30 points. Don't pass the ball to anybody else,' Anthony is going to do that. He'd be, 'Damn, you have that much confidence in me? I've got to prove you right.'"

For now, though, those who know Davis best will shout encouragement at their TVs, text him the same and tell him directly over the summer just how much more he could be—all the while hoping that it happens before the rest of the world decides what he's doing is not quite enough.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

Read more New Orleans Pelicans news on BleacherReport.com

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