Commentary

'The Kid' keeps Team USA soaring

Anthony Davis shows his alley-oop prowess in blowout win over Tunisia

Originally Published: July 31, 2012
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LONDON -- Against the only opponent they'll see in these Olympics without a single NBA player on its roster, virtually nothing played out Tuesday night as the tournament's overwhelming favorites planned or envisioned. This was about as nervy for Team USA as a 47-point rout could ever be.

Never did the Americans imagine they'd be trailing after nearly nine minutes against a Tunisia team that, in its Olympic debut two days prior against Nigeria, scored all of 15 points in the first half.

You likewise wouldn't have found, in anyone's red-white-and-blue script, anything about young Anthony Davis rushing in to finally get some earlier-than-usual playing time because Kevin Love had to hobble off with a knee injury.

Eventually, though, Team USA managed to get what it wanted out of a thankless, no-win assignment against the African champions, who are destined to finish in the Group A basement. The 110-63 thumping left the Yanks just a basket shy of of matching the biggest win posted by the 2008 squad that took gold in Beijing, with Love shaking off the knock to his right knee that initially looked so worrisome to return in the fourth quarter and Davis reveling in the extra playing time he was supposed to get in more pleasant circumstances by ringing up a quick 12 points in a quarter-plus of living at the rim.

And when a Polish reporter at the postgame news conference pronounced Mike Krzyzewski's name with a proficiency no one else in the room could touch, Team USA's coach could scarcely contain his approval.

"You brought sunshine to my day," Krzyzewski said to the man.

It was a mood-lightener Krzyzewski clearly welcomed amid the unavoidable questions about Team USA's flat start, that first-quarter deficit and the dramatic lineup change Coach K introduced both late in the first quarter and the start of the second half. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler were all shuttled out -- in both cases -- and replaced by Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Andre Iguodala and Love.

The final margin turned it out to be so lopsided that some of Tunisia's players were asking for postgame autographs from their conquerors, just like the vanquished used to do during the Dream Team days. And Tunisia's coach, Adel Tlatli, announced afterward through an interpreter how grateful he was that the NBA stars had too much "dignity" to run up the score.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images Anthony Davis found the direct path to the basket en route to 12 points.
Yet Krzyzewski, before the splash of figurative sun, was inevitably asked about what's missing from this group, compared to the Dream Teamers, that would allow it to find itself in the throes of a 13-12 deficit with 2:49 to go in the opening quarter. Or an 0-for-8 start from 3-point range.

"Michael Jordan, probably," Krzyzewski said. "I would start there."

Then turning serious, Krzyzewski reminded his audience yet again of the vast improvement worldwide in Team USA's competition over the past two decades, before adding: "You can nitpick and do whatever. People (want to evaluate) quarter to quarter, minute to minute. But that's not the way you develop a team."

He did acknowledge legit initial concern "when Kevin [Love] went down," but that was the extent of Team USA's internal fretting on this occasion. Especially when Spain appears to have far more serious injury worries -- with star guard Juan Carlos Navarro forced to miss Spain's win over Australia earlier in the day with worsening foot issues -- and with Davis providing a promising counter to the hiccups by making sure at least one section of Tuesday's game plan was carried out.

"I was just having a ball," Davis said after flushing home memorable alley-oop feeds from both Chris Paul and Kevin Durant.

If it seems as though everyone on Team USA want to lob it to the kid, it's because they all do. Dream Team 12th man Christian Laettner stopped by practice this week and told ESPN.com that, contrary to legend, "all of [the original Dream Teamers] were pretty good to me after the first practice." The reverance from Davis from all his new mentors, however, is at another level. It seems boundless.

LeBron James contends that the 7-footer already "reminds me of Marcus Camby." Kobe Bryant proclaimed after Sunday's win over France that he has taken Davis "under my wing" and that "everywhere I go, he goes."

Deron Williams, meanwhile, has been raving about Davis' athleticism, energy level and the ground he covers defensively -- "Those things you can't teach," D-Will says -- since Team USA got to Europe. He has seen enough to refer to him, even at this stage of Davis' development, as a certain "franchise player."

"You can tell," D-Will says.

"And he doesn't even really know how to play the game yet. Once he figures out that, he definitely can be a scary player."

Davis also had an unforseen lobbyist working on his behalf Monday, on the eve of the Tunisia game, trying to get him more minutes. That would be Laettner himself, who went to the workout in his role as an Olympic reporter for Fox Sports, but with the side hope of convincing his old Duke coach to give Davis some run.

Not that he was prepared to make any outright demands.

"I'm going to ask him about it," Laettner said with a laugh.

"But I do think [Davis] needs to play a little bit in these next two games. I think Coach K's gotta get him in there a little bit because they can't play small-ball all the time and the kid is a terrific player. He's really long and really gets above the rim."

Yet even Laettner, after the role he was thrust into as the only collegian on a squad with 11 Hall of Famers, finds himself wondering about the size of the leap Davis is making now after just one season of college ball.

At age 19, too.

"He's a whole lot younger than I was," Laettner said. "So I'm sure he's even a little more culture-shocked and basketball-shocked than I was."

Maybe so, but it's sure hard to tell. Davis has grabbed every chance he's been given since shaking the ankle twist in early July that threatened to add him to the long list of American big men ruled out of the Olympics by injury, throwing down five dunks off lobs on the Tunisians in his ongoing bid to convince his first pro coach -- strange as that sounds -- that he can be trusted if foul trouble (or other forces) derail Tyson Chandler and/or Love.

"They told me from the beginning, it's not going to be on me to win a gold medal," Davis said. "Just to be on the bench with these 11 other guys is a great opportunity. [But] when I get my time, I'm going to go out there and play hard."

"When he's in there," Krzyzewski said of Davis, "our guys are obviously looking for him."

Which is an illustration, Coach K contends, of the underrated bond this team uses for insulation against the smothering expectations and naysayers.

"If we don't win this thing," Krzyzewski said, "it won't be because we're not together."

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics