Anthony Davis came to the Lakers this offseason as one of the most fully-formed stars in the league. A complete defensive player who had showcased all-NBA offensive talent, Davis had essentially maxed out his individual growth in New Orleans, and thus decided to come to Los Angeles to take the next step in his career.
That path forward to becoming a full-fledged superstar would require some help, and there was no better tutor than LeBron James. From James, Davis has learned lessons on how to manage his brand and pursuing the right opportunities off the court, while also learning how to lead a championship contender on it.
One more important lesson that James will be able to teach Davis is how to deal with being hated. It’s something James has years of experience with, but a feeling that’s rather new for Davis.
Despite playing at Kentucky during his one year of college basketball, Davis has never really dealt with being the villain — he even made it cool to root for the Wildcats during his mandated NCAA sojourn. Through six and a half years in New Orleans, Davis was an NBA fan favorite, never creating any meaningful enmity due to his innocuous personality and the fact that the Pelicans didn’t win enough to develop rivalries.
But ever since Davis requested a trade from the team that drafted him, he has been a marked man. Cannibalizing his team midway through the year earned him some enemies, and eventually wearing purple and gold only exacerbated the situation. Davis may not be an outright villain, but for the people in New Orleans, he certainly isn’t a saint. And that’s where James can help.
Perhaps no NBA player has drawn the ire of a fanbase — and the league — quite like LeBron James after The Decision. His choice to play for a franchise with a substantially better history, coaching staff, front office and roster was met with such pure hatred in Cleveland that it created one of the more disastrous spectacles in recent league history when James came back to play there as a member of the Miami Heat.
Kevin Durant’s return to Oklahoma City after leaving in free agency had a similar tenor (remember the cupcakes!), as did Kawhi Leonard’s in San Antonio after his acrimonious exit, though neither really approached the level of vitriol that James encountered.
It will certainly be challenging for Davis to be booed once he takes the floor at the Smoothie King Center for the first time as an opposing player, which is why Davis has taken note of similar occurrences in the past. As he told Bill Oram of The Athletic, “It’s unique that I’m able to talk to a guy who’s been through it.”
Not only did James simply make it through playing the Cavaliers, he and his new team thrived on the experience. The Heat had been muddling through the first part of the season, sporting a record of 11-8 heading into Cleveland and dealing with some internal drama, most notably the bump heard round the world when James knocked shoulders with coach Erik Spoelstra while walking to the bench.
But having a common enemy instead of fighting among themselves galvanized the Heat. Miami routed the Cavs, and the Heat proceeded to win their next nine games, and 18 of their next 19 en route to an appearance in the 2011 NBA Finals.
When James reminds Davis about how many points (38) he scored in his return game, it isn’t just to joke with AD; it comes with the knowledge of how to turn an emotional event into a rallying point for the rest of the season. The Lakers may not require the same impetus that the Heat did in 2010, given that they currently have the best record in the league (15-2), but there is no doubt that walking into a hostile environment can serve as a bonding experience for the group. It can also serve as motivation for Davis, just as it did for James.
Wednesday’s game will mark the first time that Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram play professionally against the Lakers, and when the youngsters (along with Josh Hart) come to Los Angeles, they’ll likely be received fondly. That’s not exactly a relatable experience for James — he identifies much more closely with the reception that awaits Davis from the Pelicans fans.
In essence, that dichotomy is why Davis is a Laker now, and Ingram, Ball, and Hart aren’t. James couldn’t connect with his younger teammates last season, resulting in a divide in the locker room. On the other hand, Davis came to Los Angeles in large part because of James, so that he could become a megastar in the image of James. What James has to teach, Davis is ready to learn now, literally on this very day as he prepares for a seminal moment in his career.
The relationship between Anthony Davis and LeBron James has already paid dividends on the court, as the Lakers are off to their best start in over a decade. But in the NBA, being a star isn’t just about basketball, and James’ ability to guide Davis through that process, and this current challenge, could add to an already fruitful partnership, and help further cement an already strong bond.