Anthony Davis May Not Be a Natural-Born Leader, but He's Trying to Act the Part

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterOctober 6, 2016

BOSSIER CITY, LA - OCTOBER 1:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans is introduced before the game against the Dallas Mavericks during a preseason game on October 1, 2016 at CenturyLink Center in Bossier City, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS — A choice is posed to Anthony Davis, who often stirs his teammates up in debate from his spot in the back of the team bus with his "Would you rather…" questions.

Would Davis rather win NBA MVP or the NBA Cares Community Assist Award for charitable efforts and dedication to community outreach?

The question is no joke. Davis takes his off-court projects quite seriously.

Then again, only one of these two awards needs no explanation. Who wouldn't want to be MVP?

Not even a millisecond of furrowing that famous brow can pass before Davis answers flatly.

BATON ROUGE, LA - AUGUST 31:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans participates in a community outreach initiative which had players spend time with residents that have been displaced from widespread flooding regions if Louisiana on August 31, 20
NBA Photos/Getty Images

"Community Assist, for sure," he says. "MVP, that's definitely one of the things that everybody who comes into the league thinks about. But I'm so into the community, man. I love the kids. I love giving back. I want the season-long Community Assist Award. If I had a chance to win that, that'd be big.

"And then we can talk about MVP. MVP's definitely a dream, but I just love the community. It's just me. MVP will take care of itself; I'm not worried about it. If it happens, it happens. But the Community Assist is definitely on my bucket list."

Honest as that answer is, it is a response that will drive some fans of Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans crazy.

The record shows that Davis has not won an NBA playoff game in four years. He's coming off another injury-plagued season in which his team might've been the single greatest disappointment, and the guy is more concerned about having a big year of community service than dominating the league on the court?!

Well, here's where you either accept Davis for who he is or you don't, because everything about him springs from this value system.

He does love basketball—so much that he says he'd be a coach or trainer or "something regarding basketball for sure" if he weren't a player—but the game does not define him.

Maybe it's because he wasn't a longtime blue-chip prep hotshot stuck on himself. More likely it's just the sort of victory in human maturity we don't often herald when we can just refer to the won-lost standings.

Dismissing Davis in the competitive arena for not being a killer would be a mistake, however, because he is just now figuring something out.

It has been a gradual process of learning this complicated life of an NBA franchise cornerstone—Davis is still just 23—but he has learned how to lead.

His way.   

In the summer of 2015 at a Nike event, Davis got some long-desired quality time with Kobe Bryant, a player whom Davis considered more than a decorated rival, but a big brother. It was Bryant who, more than anyone on the gold medal-winning 2012 U.S. Olympic squad, took the most interest in Davis, the lone college player on the team.

Having just signed a five-year contract extension to stay in New Orleans, Davis felt it was time to take ownership of his team. He asked Bryant for advice.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - APRIL 08:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans embraces Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers following a game at the Smoothie King Center on April 8, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Bryant pooh-poohed the notion that a leader is just someone who puts his arm around you. He argued that a leader doesn't care if everyone likes him, which obviously shook the caring Davis at his core. But a leader makes damn sure, Bryant told him, that everyone respects him.

That respect is tied to a willingness to challenge guys for their own betterment and the team's greater good.

"A guy has something in his teeth, and other guys just talk to him and let him be. They're not going to tell him," Bryant told Davis. "I'm going to be the guy to tell you you've got something between your teeth. Then it's on you whether you want to walk around looking stupid. But I am going to tell you."

The message stuck with Davis—even if he wasn't quite strong enough or frustrated enough to act on it until now.

"I was always a guy who was quiet on the basketball floor," Davis says, noting how Kendrick Perkins and Quincy Pondexter were more equipped with experience to be team leaders last season. "Even in high school, at Kentucky, here, I was always a quiet guy. Outside the locker room, we can talk and kid all day. But I've always just been a guy who is real laid-back.

"I know in order for us to win, in order for us to have success, I've got to get out of my comfort zone. That's what I'm determined to do this year."

When you're coming at everything from kindness, however, love for your fellow man can muck things up if it discourages you from healthy confrontation. So Davis has tried to channel his strengths—his work ethic and kindness—to gain his team's attention.

"These are my guys," Davis says, adhering to the true alpha-male lingo. "These are the guys who are out here with me battling every night. So I can't have one guy out here slippin' or one guy joking around when we're all putting in the work."

The voice that other players might develop from being The Man on teams all their lives or by being four-year college guys appears to have arrived for Davis.

"On his head!" Davis bellows brightly from the sideline when Lance Stephenson goes up for a dunk in a scrimmage.

"Good shot, Buddy Hield!" Davis sings to the team's prized rookie on another possession, rising to his feet from the bench.

First-round draft pick Buddy Hield will need to adapt his game quickly to the NBA if the Pelicans are to improve on their 30-52 record last season.
First-round draft pick Buddy Hield will need to adapt his game quickly to the NBA if the Pelicans are to improve on their 30-52 record last season.Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

Davis stops drills to offer instructions. He interrupted the second day of camp when he sensed players trying too hard to impress, praising before criticizing: "We're playing hard, but we've got to slow down."

He brings them together to huddle at the end of each practice.

"He's made unbelievable advancements in the year that I've been here," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry says. "We talk all the time. He has taken on more of a verbal leadership role already. The guys respect him, and I think the great thing about him is that he respects his teammates. He wants to be one of the guys, but I think he has realized that: 'I'm one of the guys, but I'm the leader. So there are certain things I've got to step up and do.'"

Davis does his part to keep his teammates' ears, praising them for letting him talk, for letting him use his throne in the back of the team bus.

"They do a great job of listening to me and wanting to hear my opinion on certain situations," Davis says.

They jumped when he said to come out to Los Angeles, Davis' offseason home, to get a head start with voluntary workouts over the summer. And once they got there, point guard Tim Frazier noticed the workouts weren't simply "about him getting back healthy. It was about growing as a team."

Davis got guys together to go to North Carolina to visit Jrue Holiday, who was nursing his pregnant wife through a brain tumor. He then pushed teammates to arrive in New Orleans in advance of training camp to get more work done together, and they did…three weeks early, in fact, with every single player showing up.

"The thing that I need to make clear is that you don't have to be a hard-ass to be a good leader," Gentry says. "I've been around two of the best leaders in Grant Hill and Steve Nash. I never saw either of them as that hard-ass leader, but I did see [that] when it was necessary and they needed to say something—constructive criticism or whatever—they weren't afraid to do it. And I think Anthony is the same way."

Same as his community, his teammates want to hear from him. That much Davis now knows.

"He's one of the best players in the world, and with that comes a lot of responsibility," Pondexter says. "People are going to listen. And if we don't listen, we'll be gone. It's as simple as that. What he says and does carries a lot weight.

"He's just growing up every single day. He wants to be that guy. Not just for the team. He wants to be that leader for the city, and he wants to be a great role model. He wants to be someone the game is going to remember forever."

Looking back, only Davis knows how much he had to figure out, which is perhaps the biggest reason it has taken years to get to this place.

Anthony Davis saw a rookie season in which he averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks cut short after suffering a concussion and later a sprained knee.
Anthony Davis saw a rookie season in which he averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks cut short after suffering a concussion and later a sprained knee.Elsa/Getty Images

Davis remembers seeing a tweet by someone right after he was drafted by the then-Hornets in 2012. It predicted the team was going to win 50 games because it had Davis.

He shouldn't have cared about that stuff, but he couldn't forget it. Going from his small high school to the stage of an NCAA championship in his single season at Kentucky didn't prepare Davis for the rookie pressure he would feel—and the second-guessing of himself he would do with how many people were counting on him.

Davis wondered: Is this for me?

The lessons have been ongoing for Davis, including last season, when the Pelicans got off to a 1-11 start en route to a 52-loss season.

He settled for too many jumpers. His defensive intensity was sporadic as he allowed teammates lacking conviction at that end to set the tone. He failed to express leadershipto help offset the Pelicans' rash of injuries.

In one late-season game, Frazier was moved to give Davis a look in a huddle—one Davis distinctly remembers now—to prompt the superstar to speak up with something to reassure the team. Davis will never forget the inquiring look on Frazier's face. He spoke up, and going on to win the game helped drive the lesson home.

"I know I wanted my answer to come from him," Frazier recalls.

Nevertheless, it was a disappointing season, especially for Davis, who began it as an MVP candidate but ended it shooting a career-low 49.3 percent while seeing his blocks fall by almost a shot per game. By late March, Davis succumbed to season-ending knee surgery. He paid a price, losing $24 million in a future salary escalator by not being chosen to any of the three 2015-16 All-NBA teams.

And that wasn't even the real turbulence.

Davis had already been deeply hurt when Monty Williams was fired after the Golden State Warriors swept the Pelicans in the first round in 2015, a wake-up call for Davis regarding the business of basketball. Then Williams' wife, whom Davis referred to as another mother to him, was killed in February 2016 by an intoxicated driver in Oklahoma City, where Williams moved for his next job. The tragedy left those in New Orleans to imagine if they had been able to keep their coach from moving out of town.

Davis felt the loss of Monty Williams' wife in a personal manner after he became close to the former Pelicans coach and his wife when he entered the league.
Davis felt the loss of Monty Williams' wife in a personal manner after he became close to the former Pelicans coach and his wife when he entered the league.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

In May, Bryce Dejean-Jones, a young guard Davis had taken to mentoring late in the season, was shot and killed in Dallas after he tried to enter the wrong apartment late at night. Dejean-Jones had become close enough to Davis to garner a visit to Davis' hometown Chicago, an invitation borne of Davis' developing confidence in acting the team leader.

All of his experiences—exhilarating or tragic—have been folded into Davis' growth, and the memories of last season offered the unmistakable reminder not to take time for granted.

Davis has already given Hield a few talks preaching perspective, ones that begin with the words: "Trust me, Buddy…"

Still, Davis is young (he was born the same year, 1993, as Hield), and a confident voice will only take New Orleans so far.

Davis is going to need Hield to make a lot of shots—and maybe win the NBA Rookie of the Year—for the Pelicans to have a good year. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are gone, and the other key guys who helped New Orleans make the playoffs two years ago all will miss the start of the season: Holiday (wife's surgery), Pondexter (knee) and Tyreke Evans (knee).

In response, the Pelicans put an offseason emphasis on adding hard-working, defensive-minded players, such as Solomon Hill, who went from multiple NBA Summer League appearances to becoming New Orleans' headline free-agent acquisition.

To listen to Davis lavish praise and thanks on the organization for doing "a great job putting this team together," you'd think his front office is the one that signed Kevin Durant or added the pieces LeBron James needed to win another title.

"Everybody in this organization loves each other," Davis says. "We feel like we're a family. So the process is just fun, growing from year to year. I'm very confident this year, individually and for our team. I think we'll do big things this year if we stay healthy."

Davis' optimism requires a bit of faith in his teammates' ability to remain healthy and in a front office whose record has been inconsistent. Gordon's salary clogged the team's cap for four years with little payoff.

Yet Davis remains openly committed to New Orleans, telling reporters on media day that "I've never thought about leaving here ... My goal is to bring a championship here."

The words made an impression on Gentry.

"He could have very well left that wide open and said, ‘Yeah, I don't know. I'll see how things go and see what happens.' That's a pretty big commitment for a kid to make."

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry has talked with Davis that the need for him to be a leader is often more important than blending in with the team.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry has talked with Davis that the need for him to be a leader is often more important than blending in with the team.NBA Photos/Getty Images

It's fair to wonder whether Davis would be better served being less considerate and more cutthroat. It's even fair to wonder whether Davis is being wasted by the Pelicans—and just doesn't know it.

But if he's happy, and the Pelicans are happy, should we be questioning their relationship? With all of the unforeseen problems, do both Davis and the team deserve more time?

"I definitely want to be here," Davis says. "I love the way we're going."

It's an open scrimmage in late September at Smoothie King Center.

Anthony Davis Sr. has his hat propped up high to show clearly from whom his son got that distinctive mug. Erainer, who cultivated her son's compassion for others, wears a "Think Pink" outfit in advance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Both now live in New Orleans in a house down the road from their son.

"He's got a tremendous family background with two parents who love the heck out of him and have really brought him up the right way," Gentry says. "His family is his posse."

If this is about what Davis wants—and it is his life to live—then he's going to stick with who he is and build from there.

And he knows how comfortable he feels right now having built up his capacity for leadership and his body, which he retrained this summer to feel more explosive and less fragile by focusing on his hips, knees and ankles.

"I don't ever look at myself as whatever people portray me to be or try to put myself on a pedestal," Davis says. "I never do that."

What others want from or for Davis might still be in the offing. Remember that Steve Kerr predicted in 2015 that Davis "will be the MVP within the next few years"

Davis spent the summer retraining his hips, knees and ankles in an attempt to increase his athleticism.
Davis spent the summer retraining his hips, knees and ankles in an attempt to increase his athleticism.Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

Yet Davis learned something a long time ago when he sprouted six inches before his senior year of high school and was transformed into a top college prospect.

That line on a growth chart we want to be steadily ascending doesn't always go straight forward.

In the same way, success isn't always measured by the standings.

Take it from one of the guys who knows Davis' struggle and gets the point of his positivity.

"He has to go through this stage," Pondexter says. "Once this is over with, we're going to look back and forget about all the years that he didn't win a playoff game or wasn't in the Finals. We're going to forget about all that, because the end of his story will be that great."


Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.