Playtime's Over

THE SIXTH-GRADE girl with the fluttering ponytail is twirling nearly eight feet off the gym floor. Her eyes widen in equal parts terror and delight as Anthony Davis spins her through the air.

At last, Davis lowers her to the ground and is quickly engulfed by a gaggle of middle school girls, who bury the NBA's next iconic player in a group hug. One playfully tries to steal his shoe. Davis finally breaks free from their clutches, shrieking "Save me!" and collapses in a chair, chest heaving with laughter and fatigue.

"And to think he was actually a little grumpy when he got here," says a grinning Lindsey Mitchell, the Pelicans' staffer charged with wrangling the players for the event.

Moments later, Davis is leading the kids in a chant of "Au-stin! Au-stin!" until Pelicans guard Austin Rivers complies with a dunk. Next, he's teaching two boys a finger-wagging handshake. Davis delays a round of photos because he's busy sneaking down the hall, popping his head into classrooms. He even takes time to ponder life's great questions: "When a baby is born, is he already 9 months old?" he asks a couple of team employees. "Think about it."

It is easy to grow cynical after viewing yet another NBA Cares commercial, or to snicker as a team unveils its latest alternate-color jersey -- wow, red! -- at a local school, as the Pelicans have done on this afternoon in late September. But as Davis interacts with the kids, it suddenly resonates he is closer in age to the students at St. Catherine of Siena than to John Salmons, his 34-year-old teammate.

"I'm only 21," Davis says. "I still have that inner child in me. I think that will be there for life. You don't want to grow up too fast."

Peter Pan complex or not, as Davis enters his third season in the NBA, his age and his franchise's irrelevance will no longer shield him from sky-high expectations. Not after a season in which he averaged 20.8 points and 10.0 rebounds, led the league in blocks with 2.8 per contest and earned his first All-Star selection. Not after a summer in which he anchored Team USA en route to the gold medal at the FIBA World Cup. Not with an exceptional set of abilities that make those accomplishments seem like nothing more than an amuse-bouche. There is a palpable sense that Davis is about to serve up a nine-course tasting menu of awesome.

The Mag recently polled one representative from all 30 teams -- either a coach, executive or scout -- and asked those reps to choose the NBA's third-best player behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Davis scored the most votes with 10, one more than Chris Paul. Many respondents stressed, though, that if queried at the end of this season, Davis would win in a landslide. And if the voters had been asked to build around a player for the next decade, Davis might have been a unanimous choice.

That's how high the bar is for Davis this season: If he doesn't butt his way into the conversation with LeBron and KD, there will be disappointment, from NBA front offices to Internet message boards to the Twittersphere. As unfair as it may be, popular opinion demands linear progress. And Davis will be expected not only to raise his own game, but also to lift up his team, which has won just 61 games over the past two seasons. In the loaded Western Conference, that task will be nearly impossible: The best-case scenario for New Orleans likely ends with a low playoff seed and a first-round exit.

The strength of the Pelicans' opponents is beyond Davis' control, as is the quality of his teammates. Even if Davis excels personally but the team falters, judgment could still be swift and severe. Just ask Kevin Love how that goes. History shows that the basketball world does not often take excuses. As one GM says, "He needs to be able to transform his team."

Fair or not, that's a tremendous amount of pressure for a 21-year-old. So how will he handle it?

SO MUCH WOULD not be expected of Davis if not for his outlandish talents. Even a guy who watches him play every day still gets distracted.

On this late-September morning, Dell Demps, New Orleans' fifth-year general manager, is seated at a conference table that overlooks the practice floor through a window, where several Pelicans are going through voluntary workouts in advance of training camp. As he expounds on the process of building his team, his attention keeps shifting. "You see that?" Demps asks. "He just came on the fast break, in-and-out crossover, then went down the lane and dunked it."

Davis is playing three-on-three with New Orleans' other big men. He is the best ball handler of the bunch, so he is moonlighting as the point guard, a task that appears startlingly natural. At one point, Demps stops midsentence, as Davis crosses over between his legs, pulls his dribble behind his back, shakes his man with an in-and-out move and uses his left hand to throw a wraparound bounce pass into the post. The play ends with Davis receiving a pass back out to the perimeter and smoothly knocking down a 17-foot jump shot.

"How many 6-11 guys can do that?" Demps asks.

Plays like that capture only a sliver of Davis' vast array of gifts that so captivate fans and players alike. In a league of specialized big men -- rim protectors and stretch-4s, elbow facilitators and designated rebounders -- Davis embodies virtually every archetype.

When asked to name Davis' best attribute, Pelicans coach Monty Williams pauses like a parent forced to choose his favorite child. Eventually, Williams settles on Davis' ability to run the floor, but he just as easily could have picked the power forward's quickness and reach as a shot-blocker, his rebounding acumen (which will only be aided this season by his newly chiseled shoulders) or the touch and grace he displays in finishing plays near the rim. Plus, Davis can dribble, pass and knock down face-up jumpers, and it won't be long before he displays 3-point range. "His strength," says one GM, "is that he has no weakness."

The story of how Davis grew 7 inches before his junior year of high school is now common knowledge. It remains illustrative in understanding how Davis can retain guard-like speed, skill and coordination in a frame that seems to extend from the foul line to the rim. Mike Krzyzewski, who coached Davis on Team USA this summer, was practically giddy in describing Davis' rare ability to protect the rim and defend the pick-and-roll. "It's a separator," Krzyzewski says. "He has unbelievable feet. He's smart. And he wants to do it. He makes multiple plays during an exchange."

His potential appears limitless. And that's the problem.

EVER SINCE THE first peach basket was hung on a post, scoring has been the conventional measure of a basketball star. In truth, it is not Davis' best skill. Oh sure, he can get buckets in a variety of ways -- off tip-ins and lobs, on drives or via his increasingly accurate jump shot. He scored nearly 21 points per game last season, despite an offensive repertoire that is not fully formed. But because of his lanky build, defenders are able to push him off the block, limiting his effectiveness as a post-up scorer, which is also the least instinctive aspect of his game.

Davis is the rare player, though, who can dominate without ever putting the ball in the basket. That's how he won the national championship in his lone season at Kentucky: Although Davis would become the No. 1 pick the draft, he ranked just fourth on that team in field goal attempts. But he blocked 4.7 shots per game, grabbed 10.4 rebounds each night and filled in countless other gaps as the Wildcats' version of a skeleton key.

Williams is keenly aware of that lesson and says Davis could average 15 points a game this season if teammates like Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans are healthy. "And people are going to ask what's wrong," the coach says. "He may not score 20-plus a game, but he could still be the most dominant player in the game averaging 15, 12 rebounds and four blocks."

He could be far more valuable to the Pelicans in that way too. The team has amassed a fairly impressive collection of young talent, but it consists mostly of offense-oriented players. Davis has the capacity to cover for many of their weak spots on defense, while drawing an opponent's attention away from those scorers on offense. Williams points out the value in something as simple as the way Davis runs the floor after blocking a shot or snaring a rebound. That speed sometimes leads to easy dunks, but just as important, it sucks the defense into the lane, creating open 3-pointers in transition for the Pelicans' guards.

"The game is about scoring." Davis says. "They say that you're not the best player if you don't score this amount of points. But none of that bothers me. I could score two points, and as long as we win, I'm happy."

It's easy to imagine the howls if Davis' scoring drops off. It's also easy to imagine the howls if the Pelicans struggle, as they well might: Davis and Holiday, the team's point guard and only other true two-way player, have played just 27 games together. Anderson is returning from cervical spine surgery. Gordon hasn't played more than 64 games since he was a rookie. Not one Pelican could be considered a starting-quality small forward.

But that's the curse of potential. Two years ago, Kyrie Irving was widely anointed the league's next great point guard, a transformative talent with the Uncle Drew persona to match. But last season, his third in the NBA, his stat line flattened, the Cavs kept losing and he appeared unable to coexist with teammate Dion Waiters. Many of the same people who had heaped praise on Irving only months earlier suddenly questioned his ability to elevate his team's play. Last February, a scout even told ESPN's Chris Broussard that Irving was "overrated" and compared him to -- shudder -- Stephon Marbury. Only LeBron James' decision to return to Cleveland this summer changed that story. Everyone knows that Irving's other new teammate, Kevin Love, has faced that same narrative for years. Plenty of players can share similar stories.

Kevin Garnett is probably the closest comparison to Davis in terms of body type and range of skills. For most of his career -- at least until he won a title with the Celtics -- critics slighted him for not scoring or winning enough to be considered truly elite. If Davis were to take on a role similar to that of a young KG and the Pelicans' results were similar to those Timberwolves teams, it's easy to foresee Davis being similarly disparaged.

"I'm trying to prepare him for that," Williams says. "There's going to come a day where I can't protect him, where everybody's going to say, 'You've got to do this, you've got to do that.' And he's got to understand that there's a heavy responsibility with that."

DAVIS IS AWARE. He saw what happened to his friend Irving. "I'm still trying to figure out how to lead," he admits. Later, he adds, "You can't control the outcome of the game."

At the same time, Davis understands the responsibility that he must embrace: "I want to be one of those guys where we're going to win or lose on me."

If those statements seem to contradict each other, or at least show some form of internal conflict, that's because they do. Davis is both ready to seize the moment and anxious about the process of doing so. In other words, he is 21 years old. And as he talks about his worries and hopes, he is refreshingly self-aware, sounding more like anyone else his age than someone trying to project NBA-level machismo.

Just look to Davis' USA Basketball experience for evidence. In 2012, fresh off a national championship at Kentucky and just 13 months removed from his high school graduation, Davis learned he'd been selected to the Olympic squad. He almost didn't make it to London, though.

"I didn't want to do it," he says. "I was nervous. You see LeBron, Kobe, Melo ... and you've got to go in and be on the level with them. It threw me off."

Davis' fears subsided when those icons embraced him as a little brother. "That started building my confidence," he says. The following summer, at Team USA's minicamp for younger players, he asserted himself, particularly as a vocal defensive leader. This summer, as other top players withdrew because of injury or fatigue, Davis became the team's fulcrum.

He returned to New Orleans with newfound swagger and is saying all the things you'd expect from a player poised to embrace a leading role. But talk, as Davis knows, only goes so far. The fans who pay big money for tickets and the media that stamp him as the league's next megastar are waiting for Davis to show that he actually can lead.

Still, he is unlikely be swayed by others' opinions. Davis is the same person who, as an 18-year-old college freshman, watched as grown men fixated on the few follicles of hair that connect his left and right eyebrows. Davis didn't just ignore the taunts on the unibrow. He trademarked the damn thing.

"The media's got to put players on pedestals that they're probably not ready for," Davis says. "Fans as well. Everybody does it. Sometimes, it takes guys years just to get to know what the game is really like. It's all about development, and coaches see that."

That's the approach Williams maintains with his prodigy. For instance, Davis' level of execution in stopping the pick-and-roll hasn't yet matched his potential. According to Synergy Sports Technology, which tracks and labels every play from every game, Davis ranked only in the NBA's 37th percentile in pick-and-roll defense last season.

"He has one thing that we're working on that I'm not going to say," Williams says, "because I don't want anybody to know about it."

One NBA GM says that Davis plays "too straight up and down" on defense, instead of keeping a low center of gravity. He relies too much on his length rather than proper positioning and footwork. "And everybody knows it," the GM says with a laugh. But at the same time, the GM expresses little doubt that Davis will eventually lick that problem, just as he will improve his post moves on offense.

That's the exciting thing about Davis: As good as he is, there's still room to grow. But as he said, development takes time. It's up to all of us not to rush him. Chances are, it'll be worth the wait.