Stephen Curry was joking when he lavished praise on Anthony Davis, barely holding back a smirk as he sensed his Team USA compatriot looming behind him.
But many a truth is told in jest.
"We’ll be relying heavily on Anthony Davis to pull us through every tough spot," Curry proclaimed in a video on NBA.com. "If he plays well, we’ll be alright.”
Asked if being a prohibitive favorite added pressure for the U.S., Curry went further, hoping to embarrass the video-bombing Brow.
“No. We have Anthony Davis. So we’re excited. He’s the cornerstone, the foundation of what we’re trying to do here, so no. There’s no pressure as long as he’s on the team."
The clip reveals the tone of Curry's words, but even a cursory viewing of Team USA's play in the FIBA Basketball World Cup shows that Davis really is the cornerstone Curry facetiously called him.
Nobody has scored more efficiently than Davis, who connected on a ridiculous 73.7 percent of his field-goal attempts in two games over the tournament's opening weekend. His average of 18 points per game in the first two contests topped Team USA, but he didn't stop there.
Another 21 points and nine rebounds in a 98-71 rout of New Zealand on Tuesday bumped his scoring average up to 19 points per game, and his 7-of-13 shooting kept his efficiency above 65 percent.
Through three games, Davis has been masterful in impacting the game without taking anything away from his teammates.
It's a rare player who can initiate a takeover effort without stealing shots or commandeering possessions, but Davis does it. His buckets come in transition, and even his half-court scoring is never the result of a forced shot.
Often, his high-flying finishes conjure up memories of days from Team USA's past glory. The way he finishes some of those lobs on the break has a tendency to demoralize opponents.
It's been a long time—perhaps dating back to the original Dream Team in 1992, when opponents sought autographs and photos with U.S. players before contests—since a player has left international competition so awestruck.
Nobody's seeking any autographs, but you can sense the impression AD's play leaves on the opposing team and spectators alike.
More practically, Davis' credentials as a leader shone through as he helped dig Team USA out of a hole against Turkey.
Trailing by five at halftime, the U.S. needed a boost. Sensing that need, Davis put on an inspired surge to start the third quarter, earning six free throws and spiking home a dunk in the first three minutes of the second half.
Kenneth Faried received plenty of credit for the U.S. comeback, but Davis' energy was just as important. And it says something that while everyone rushed to praise Faried, Davis didn't get the same acknowledgment: The Brow is supposed to dominate.
We expect it.
It doesn't matter how Davis ended up with this role. We all know that if Kevin Durant—or perhaps even Paul George—had remained on the roster, he might not have needed to assume leadership responsibilities. But those two aren't in Spain and Derrick Rose, the guy many hoped would take over, has looked unsteady.
USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo called James Harden the team's leader, per Michael Lee of The Washington Post. However, it's tough to earn the total respect of your teammates and coaches when completely ignoring one end of the floor.
As good as Harden is on the one end he plays, he isn't nearly as indispensable as Davis.
No other U.S. big is as reliable or talented. With Spain and its hulking front line looming as Team USA's only real competition, that means Davis, by default, is his team's most important player. As such, he'll be counted on to play huge minutes—especially when rotations shrink after group play concludes.
Curry was joking with his hyperbolic talk that equated Davis to some kind of savior. Nevertheless, AD is the leader Team USA needs now, and the way he's put himself in that position speaks to his worthiness. There hasn't been a fight for control or any resistance to Davis' ascent.
His play has made the decision obvious.
If you think about it, that's another testament to why Davis belongs in this role—his teammates seem to be welcoming him into it. They want to see what he can become. They're as intrigued as the rest of us by his unique talent and—dare we say it?—Tim Duncan-esque ability to lead by filling in gaps instead of forcing the issue.
The next step will be the hardest, as Davis hasn't yet been forced to lead vocally.
With presences like Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Thibodeau and Jim Boeheim, there's less of a need for one of the players to be the roster's guiding voice. But if there comes a time when somebody in a jersey instead of a polo shirt has to impart some choice words to a disengaged Team USA, it will be fascinating to see if Davis is the guy doing the talking.
The big man's sudden occupation of such an important role has sped up his development—or perhaps merely made us aware of how quickly he'd been growing all along.
Davis' old coach at Kentucky, John Calipari, spoke with USA Today's Sam Amick about him:
Right now, you look at (Davis) and say, 'Man, in five years, he could be the best player in the NBA.' 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.'
Davis is better than all right.
He's ascending to a new level way ahead of schedule, and Team USA is all the better for it.
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