CHICAGO — The night started as Derrick Rose’s homecoming. It quickly turned into Anthony Davis’ coming-out party.
Both Chicago natives took the court at the United Center during Team USA’s 95-78 exhibition win over Brazil in a prelude to next month’s FIBA Basketball World Cup. Emotionally, the night was all Rose; he gave the pregame address to a crowd heavy on Bulls fans, and he got the loudest cheers by an order of magnitude. But once the action tipped off, the night belonged to Davis, whose unmistakable unibrow is going to be the face of the NBA sooner than later.
Every incarnation of Team USA is headlined by its established superstars, but defined by the ones it makes. 2010’s FIBA World Championship tournament was a transformative event for Rose, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. All three used it as a springboard to play the best basketball of their careers the following season, becoming household names in the process. In the wake of Saturday’s tune-up ahead of September’s World Cup, it was clear that it’s Davis’ turn.
For basketball freaks, Davis’ otherworldly talent isn’t exactly news. Still, since his 2012 NCAA championship run with Kentucky, he hasn’t spent much time on the national stage. New Orleans has missed the playoffs in each of his first two seasons and played just a handful of games on national TV. But it’s not going to be too much longer until he singlehandedly becomes appointment television the way LeBron, Durant and Blake Griffin have.
“He’s one of the league’s emerging stars,” Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “We hope what happened to a lot of those guys in 2010 will happen to him in 2014, where this launches him.”
This isn’t Davis’ first stint with the national team, but it’s his first time with this kind of responsibility. He was a member of the gold-medal-winning squad in the 2012 London Olympics, but he was hardly a first option. The Anthony Davis who played for that team was a kid with no NBA experience deferring to the LeBrons, Carmelos and Chris Pauls on the roster; the Anthony Davis who was on display Saturday was the main event, and he was impossible to ignore.
“I learned a lot right away,” Davis said of his first Olympic experience. “What the system was about, what Coach K wanted from me. It’s quite a process. I wasn’t afraid that I didn’t play or anything. I was just 19 years old. I’m just happy that I finally get my shot now.”
That shot isn’t only to help Team USA win gold at a fourth consecutive international tournament. The World Cup title would be great, but for Davis, it’s an opportunity to grow on his way to even greater heights.
There was no facet of the game that Davis didn’t dominate on Saturday. In 25 minutes, he finished with 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting, along with eight rebounds and five blocks. He threw down a couple of highlight dunks and consistently knocked down mid-range jumpers. He was the best player on the floor for either team, and it wasn’t particularly close—no light praise for a man sharing the floor with Rose, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.
Throughout the week of training in Chicago, Davis’ teammates and coaches have raved about his development since the London Olympics, particularly his filling out a once-lanky 6'11" frame.
“I saw him in London when he was a young guy getting ready to go into the NBA,” Krzyzewski said after a team practice Thursday. “He’s about 20 to 25 pounds heavier. He’s more of a man now.”
That added bulk will be hugely important for Davis on a team with few other big men. The Brazil team he faced on Saturday featured three physical, NBA-level bigs in Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter. To capture the gold medal, Team USA will likely have to go through Spain’s front line of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka.
Davis’ competition isn’t going to let up when the NBA season kicks off in October. The Pelicans face a steep uphill climb to make a possible playoff run, and Davis will have to reckon with a revolving door of superstar big men on a nightly basis in a crowded Western Conference. It won’t be an easy task, but it becomes much more palatable for Davis if he’s coming off a World Cup tournament still holding his own against those names like he did Saturday.
Even if it takes Davis and the Pelicans a few years to become a playoff mainstay, the FIBA tournament that kicks off in two weeks is going to be most fans’ first taste of the future of the game. He’s coming into his own in the buildup to the FIBA World Cup. Soon, he’ll be everywhere.