Pelicans’ Anthony Davis living up to billing

Associated Press photo by ERIC GAYNew Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis. Show caption
Associated Press photo by ERIC GAYNew Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis.

Pelicans’ young star Anthony Davis earning respect throughout the NBA

Good thing for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver that one of his first actions was adding Anthony Davis to the West roster for Sunday’s All-Star Game.

Otherwise, Silver would have found himself about as popular in New Orleans this week as Roger Goodell at last year’s Super Bowl.

But the selection of Davis, who’s also in Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge, wasn’t just a bone thrown to fans in the host city.

It was recognition of a player living up to the expectation level of being the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft by his second season producing a combination of numbers (averaging at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots per game) unseen in more than a decade, and those were by Shaquille O’Neal.

“He has a real confidence about himself,” Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said after Davis’ 27-point, 10-rebound performance against his team last week. “You can see it growing game by game.

“His shooting perimeter has improved significantly and his defensive awareness is just at another level.”

And if that’s not enough, Davis has been asked to carry the physical and mental leadership role for the Pelicans (23-29) whose playoff hopes have been decimated by injuries but who enter the All-Star break winning six of their past 10 games, the best such run since late November/early December when Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday and Jason Smith were all still healthy.

In fact, Pelicans coach Monty Williams has told Davis that this is his team.

“It means he’s got to be a leader who carries us and he’s got to get used to that,” Williams said. “I’d been thinking about it for a while before I did it.

“I’d rather he get used to it now when the maybe the results of the games aren’t always what we want than wait. I want AD and our other guys that have their backs no matter what.”

Plus, Davis is the face of a franchise still struggling to gain any anything approaching the emotional grip on the area Tom Benson’s other team has.

All of this a few weeks before his 21st birthday.

But it’s all a burden Davis gladly bears.

“I’m ready for it,” Davis said. “I want the pressure to be on me and for my teammates to follow me to whatever we can get. This helps me out for a couple of years from now when winning and losing will really be on me. Right now, we’re just having fun and taking it one game at a time.”

He is having fun.

The usually stoic rookie has emerged into an engaging personality, one who may play with maturity on the court but is still a kid off it.

Witness his Foot Locker Jr. commercial, shot last month in New Orleans with local youngster Caden Swain:

“Alex Taylor” is dribbling in his driveway, saying, “It’s do or die,” when Davis appears out of nowhere to swat the shot away.

Davis then takes over the commentary with, “Rejected by Anthony Davis. The stadium is shaking. The fans have never seen anything like this in their lives.

“The crowd has never seen anything like this before. Davis is unbelievable. The crowd is chanting, ‘MVP, MVP, MVP, MVP. What a hustle play!’ ”

Davis then jumps into his car and drives away, continuing to announce his actions as he does so.

Making the commercial, Davis said, was a hoot.

“The little kid was amazing at how he knew his lines,” he said. “I was ad-libbing a little bit.

“I didn’t want to sound like a robot just following the script.”

Davis is equally animated in fan appearances, such as the scavenger hunt promoting the All-Star game last month were Davis enthusiastically greeted those who figured out the clues to win Fan Jam tickets.

“Some of those people look on meeting players as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “So I want to make the most of it for them.”

Davis’ status as a fan favorite is growing exponentially. Sales clerks in the team store at the Smoothie King Center estimate 75 percent of the numbered merchandise sold is Davis-related.

At a recent home game, Maddie Ricouard of Chalmette was having to referee a fight between her two grandsons, Joseph Ricouard and Dylan Taylor, because both wanted No. 23 tee-shirts but didn’t think the other should get one.

“He just likes to copy what I do,” Joseph Ricouard said of his cousin. “He doesn’t know anything about basketball.”

Retorted Taylor, “I know Anthony Davis is the best player.”

In the end, both youngsters got their tee-shirts.

In the stands during the game, it’s hard to find someone wearing anyone else’s number. Even Drew Brees doesn’t command that large a percentage of jersey-sporting fans.

“I grew up wearing Paul Pierce, and Kobe and LeBron and Carmelo jerseys,” Davis said, showing just how young he is. “And being from Chicago, I knew I never wanted to wear any number but 23.

“When I see all of those people wearing my number with my name on their backs, it really means a lot to me.”

Davis’ growing popularity has accompanied the growth in his game.

From a defense-first player good enough to earn MVP in the Final Four played just across the street in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome despite making only one of 10 shots in the championship game, Davis widened his offensive repertoire to anything short of 3-point range (He’s 1-of-4 this season) with an effective first-step finishing move and getting downcourt ahead of the pack on breaks.

That’s without giving up anything on the defensive end.

“The thing that amazes me about Anthony Davis is his innate feel for the game,” NBA TV analyst Brent Barry said. “When you put his size into the equation his potential is just remarkable.

“The other night against Brooklyn he blocks Deron Williams’ shot, then runs down the court to catch a pass at full speed, takes a dribble and gets the dunk. You can tell that he has absorbed so much from the coaches he’s been around, and that only should continue.”

A player like that, Barry added, is the building block of a championship contender, something the Pelicans have only briefly flirted with since the franchise moved to New Orleans from Charlotte in 2002.

“People want to play with the best centers in the league.” Barry said. “A player like Anthony, because of the havoc they can cause on both ends of the floor, should have others clamoring, wanting to be on his team because he makes their jobs so much easier.”

Just how that manifests over the next few years is the key to the development of the franchise.

Moves to obtain Holiday and Tyreke Evans, designed to get the team back to the playoffs sooner than later with a core of players in their early-to-mid 20s, basically eliminated the draft for the team last year and this year while putting themselves in a stopgap situation at center.

Because of the injuries, it hasn’t worked this season, and in the NBA even a cornerstone player isn’t always enough (see Anthony, Carmelo).

Also with the memories of Chris Paul’s orchestrated exit from the team two years ago still burning, there are rumblings that Davis, when his initial contract is up, may feel that his chances of winning a championship lie elsewhere.

Thus far, Davis has been circumspect about his future.

“I just want to play the best I can every night for the New Orleans Pelicans,” he said when asked about where he saw himself — and the Pelicans — in three years. “If we can continue to grow and play defense, we can be a contender.”

Chances are, if that happens, it won’t take a commissioner’s decision to make Anthony Davis an All-Star several times over.