MIAMI -- Taking the court for the first time as foes, Hornets big man Anthony Davis walked over to LeBron James before Friday’s tipoff, gave him a hug and said something that made the reigning MVP crack a smile.
James and Davis are good friends. They were teammates on the Team USA squad that took home Olympic gold this past summer in London. But this was the first time Davis, the top overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, would face off against his childhood idol James, the 2003 No. 1 overall pick.
All told, the 19-year-old from the University of Kentucky finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and a block in the Hornets’ 96-89 win in Miami. Safe to say Davis made quite the impression.
“He’s going to be a heck of a player,” said James, who finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists in Miami’s final preseason game. “He showed it tonight.”
Want to feel old?
When James graced the cover of Sports Illustrated back in 2002 as “The Chosen One,” Davis was in second grade. James first watched Davis eight years later when Davis was a sophomore at Perspectives Charter School in Chicago. Davis was a 6-foot-5 guard then, about a half-foot shorter than he stands now.
The Davis and James connection grew deeper after that. Although James grew up as an Ohio State Buckeyes fan, he developed an affinity for the Kentucky Wildcats and coach John Calipari. One of James’ close friends from high school, Brandon Weems, is on Calipari’s staff in Lexington. Davis, of course, won an NCAA title playing for the Wildcats.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra won’t ever forget the first time he saw Davis play. Actually, he didn’t even know it was Davis at first.
During the 2011 lockout, Spoelstra had more time on his hands than he knew what to do with, so he set out to visit Calipari and attend one of his practices in Lexington. Spoelstra had heard the hype about a 6-10 phenom freshman named Anthony Davis, so he kept his eye out for a bruiser underneath the rim.
Spoelstra couldn’t find him, so a scout who sat behind Spoelstra had to point out Davis. It was the guy who was bringing the ball up and down the court.
“That’s him?” a stunned Spoelstra asked.
“Obviously, I was really impressed,” Spoelstra recalled before Friday’s game. “He’s very, very, very skilled. You noticed that right away.”
Spoelstra didn’t take long to compare him to one of the all-time greats.
“He’s got the whole package,” Spoelstra said. “A lot of qualities that were similar to Tim Duncan when he was young.”
Early in the first quarter, Davis showed his unique skill, going coast to coast, splitting two Heat defenders off the dribble and laying it in for two points. Then, a putback dunk. Later, Davis rose up from the left baseline directly toward James, who elevated to block it. Davis changed direction midair and kissed it off the glass with a swooping lay-in. Another two points.
While Davis jumped around like a human pogo stick underneath the basket, James was busy getting kicked in the face. Literally. James checked out of the game with 2:17 left in the third quarter after somehow catching an inadvertent kick upside his head from the foot of Robin Lopez while they grappled for a rebound. James did not return.
“I don’t think that’s ever happened before,” James said after the game. “I took a foot to the face, sprained my ankle on my first drive, missed eight layups. I’ve had better nights.”
While James sat out the fourth quarter, he said he’d be ready to play in Tuesday’s season opener against the Boston Celtics.
There was no question this was Davis’ night.
“He is 19,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said. “If he plays that hard and defends like that, he is going to have a pretty good season.”
After the game, James approached Davis and gave him a little chat before heading into the locker room. No one could have seen this moment eight years ago.
“He grew and grew and continued to grow,” James said. “He’s a special player. New Orleans got a good one.”