Davis appreciates 2012 title now more than ever

Anthony Davis didn’t always like what he saw from last year’s Kentucky team. If he had his way, the next crop of UK freshmen would have done exactly what his class did.

But if there is one thing the humbling season of 2012-13 taught everyone, especially Davis, it’s that the 2011-12 team was every bit as special as it felt during the championship run.

For as easy as it looked for Davis and Co. during their 38-2 domination of college basketball, the struggles of this past year confirmed what Davis knew all along: His team didn’t just show up and win because it was better than everyone else.

They worked hard. They sacrificed for each other. They came together. As 2012-13 proved, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

“It’s not as easy as people think,” Davis said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “People say all the time, ‘You guys had this person, this person, this person, so you were supposed to win.’ That’s not how it works. We just all came together as a team from day one and said this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it. We stuck with that game plan throughout the year and ended up winning.”

Davis was in Lexington last week to visit the friends, coaches and support staff that saw him grow from the No. 1 recruit in the country to the 2012 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and an Olympic gold medalist.

His lone season at Kentucky was a bit of a blur because of how quickly everything developed for him – remember, it is still just a few short years ago that Davis was a 6-foot-3 guard no one had heard of – but he’s grateful he spent his one year in college in Lexington.

Although Davis was considered the top freshman in the country when he arrived at UK, there were questions about his game and his ability to make an immediate all-around impact.

Everyone knew Davis possessed the potential to block shots, but it took time for him to become a legitimate offensive threat. By the end of the season, as Kentucky dominated its competition in the NCAA Tournament, there was absolutely no doubt who the best player in the country was and who would be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Davis said he has John Calipari and UK to thank for his rapid development and preparation for the NBA.

“(UK) really prepared me a lot,” Davis said. “I think the benefit of Kentucky is Coach Cal actually coached in the league. I think that helps with the way he runs things here in terms of getting guys prepared for the league. I think that was the biggest plus. He tells guys the truth. He keeps it real with you and tells you how he feels and what he thinks. If you can’t take that, you really won’t be able to take the league.

“The coaches in the NBA do the same thing. They try to get you better just like Coach Cal tries to get you better. Just going up and down, playing against each other here makes you better. Every practice (at UK) is physical and it gets you in shape. All that stuff helps because it leads you into the NBA. I think they do a great job here because it just makes the NBA a lot easier.”

If there is one thing that Coach Cal told Davis that stuck with him before he made the decision to jump to the pros, it’s that once you leave college, it’s now your job to play basketball.

Anthony Davis finished the 2011-12 season with 186 blocks, the new NCAA single-season record for blocked shots in a season. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

For as serious as the game is at Kentucky, and for all the expectations, pressure and responsibilities that comes with being a player at UK, they’re still kids and student-athletes when they’re in Lexington. Once Davis made the decision to turn pro, he quickly realized that basketball wasn’t just a hobby anymore – it was his livelihood.

“Everything you do is basketball,” Davis said. “It gets tough sometimes because you forget some days and show up and relaxed, but you can’t do that. It’s just like college, but now you’re getting paid to play, so they expect you to show up and perform every night and come in and work hard every day in practice. You do the same thing in college, but some colleges can’t say this is your job. In the NBA, you are just here to play ball. Everything you do on and off the court is geared towards ball, and it can get tough. It can wear your body down, but it’s your job; you have to do it. You’re getting paid to do it.”

Those expectations were intensified by becoming the No. 1 overall pick and essentially accepting the role of the face of a young franchise and city. Davis said his new head coach, Monty Williams, did a good job of taking some of that burden off his shoulders.

“Being a No. 1 pick, everybody is watching me,” Davis said. “I just went out there and played. I didn’t worry about anything because (Williams) said the pressure was on him, not me. He said later on, ‘Like five or six years down the road, people are going to expect you to do more so it’s going to be on you, but right now it’s on me, so just go out there and have fun,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Davis’ first season in the NBA with the New Orleans Hornets was, as most anticipated, pretty successful. Despite some nagging injuries that limited him to 64 games, the human eraser averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals in 28.8 minutes per game.

There is a two-man debate for 2013 Rookie of the Year between Davis and Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, for which Lillard has a pretty good case going for him, but Davis led all rookies with a player efficiency rating of 21.8, 15th overall in the league.

Davis said his experience with Team USA in the 2012 Summer Olympics helped ease the transition to the next level. Although he didn’t play much, he rubbed elbows with superstars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony.

“I wasn’t star-struck because I had played with them before,” Davis said. “I didn’t get to play a lot with Team USA but I learned a lot just sitting back and seeing how hard they worked, how they carried themselves on the floor, what they do in their workouts and how they apply it to the game. All that stuff helped me out a lot. They taught me about the game.”

The injuries – the concussion, the shoulder injury, the sprained ankle and the sprained medial collateral ligament – took a toll on Davis both mentally and physically, but they also allowed him to take a step back and see the game from a different side.

“It was hard sitting on the bench because I’ve never had to sit on the bench before,” Davis said. “Watching the games was tough, but I did get to see a lot of things you don’t see when you’re playing. That’s a benefit of it, but at the same time you always want to be on the floor. I probably had five injuries this year that I thought I would never get. It kind of pushed me back.”

The scariest of the injuries was the final one he suffered, a season-ending injury on April 10 against Sacramento. Davis stepped in to take a charge from Marcus Thornton only to end up crumpled on the baseline as he held his left knee.

At the time, Davis said he was worried the injury was severe, but the Hornets – now renamed the Pelicans – decided to shut him down for the final three games for precautionary reasons. Davis said his knee feels fine now and he could play today if he needed to. He worked out at nearly full speed in the Joe Craft Center while he was in town last week.

If the injuries taught him nothing else – other than that’s the way it goes sometimes in professional sports –it’s that he needs to put more muscle on his frame to cope with the physicality of the NBA.

“I was 19, 20 and I’m playing against 30-year-olds who have been in the league for several years,” Davis said. “I had that growth spurt in my body and haven’t had the chance to fill out yet, so it was tough for me. I have to stay in the weight room and get my body stronger, get my legs and upper body stronger. That’s all it is just making sure everything is tight so I can cut down on the injuries.”

Davis believes the future is bright in New Orleans with the young cast management assembled, and he believes the same is in store for his former teammates at Kentucky. While some of them spent time in the NBA Developmental League this year, Davis said he called them to tell them to keep their heads up and keep fighting.

Davis said he was blessed to go into the NBA with someone he knew in teammate Darius Miller.

“I think it was good for both of us to have someone come down there that we already knew to keep us on track,” Davis said. “Honestly, if he wasn’t down there, I would probably be different. He just tells me to keep working, keep playing, and I tell him the same things. It’s good for us.”

As for the guys that came to UK after him, Davis isnt’ sure why they struggled to make the NCAA Tournament. If he was guessing, it was that the new crop of freshmen put too much pressure and too many expectations on themselves to live up to his team and didn’t just go out and have fun playing ball.

But based on the recruiting class Calipari has hauled in, the core of returners coming back next year, and the appreciation that everyone now has for how tough, how demanding and how special it is to win at this stage, Davis believes Kentucky is going to return to the top with a vengeance.

“It just didn’t happen this year,” Davis said. “I wasn’t here this year and didn’t get to see them practice so I’m not really sure what the problem was, but they battled, they tried. It was just a tough year, but hopefully we come back next year even stronger.”