It was early in the fourth quarter in Bilbao and Team USA, who eventually took home the 2014 FIBA World Championship, was en route to a 98-77 victory against Turkey. Fresh off an 11-point third quarter, Anthony Davis began his ascent, his outstretched arms connecting flawlessly on an overthrown alley-oop pass from Klay Thompson.
The impossibility of the catch combined with the rapidity of the throwdown was something like a staggering visual exercise. But for the 21-year-old Davis, it was just a matter of course. Under the right light, glimmers of what we saw from Davis in Spain were reflective of Kevin Durant's performance during the American's 2010 championship run: A shape-shifting and fluid grace that bore no resemblance to anyone else on the floor.
Towering over the competition at 6-foot-10-inches, Davis stood at just 5'10" in his freshman year of high school. The Brow's skillset is a direct product of that peculiar growth spurt. Resting its allure on a combination that is equal parts wonky and lethal, Davis has displayed a prophetic brand of dominance, invoking an air of inevitability around his impending superstardom.
And his team, the New Orlean Pelicans are kind of like a more raw version of Davis: Replete with as much potential as they are if's, a young and largely unknown quantity trying to compete in tough terrain.
They added Jrue Holiday last season and rolled the dice with Tyreke Evans, who displayed glimmers of terrifying sixth-man potency in the midst of clunky 43.6/22.1/77.6 shooting splits. But with their top-five players in minutes per game missing a combined 151 games, the experiment is still very much a mystery. Nabbing Omer Asik out of the Houston Rocket's salary dump this summer was a smart and serendipitous move, as the sheer idea of Asik and The Brow manning the front lines defensively is enough to paralyze most opposing guards.
Operating under the assumption that the Pelicans' health woes will regress to the mean this upcoming season, the future looks fruitful: Immense potential for improvement on both sides of the ball paired with future cap flexibility.
Hidden under that cluster is another unknown: Though head coach Monty Williams drew the ire of many Pelicans fans last season, the front office is keeping him around for an extra season. Whether or not what he brings to the table in respect from players and an encyclopedic knowledge of the game can balance out a troubling offensive and defensive scheme will play a large role in defining the Pelicans' success.
Consider how important Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra was for LeBron James' development and it's hard not to wonder whether Williams could stunt the Pelicans' -- and Davis' -- growth before they even begin their ascent. Is it possible he could … (sorry) … clip their wings?
The tumult of true greatness is that we never revel in it for as long as it deserves. Our hopes are constantly shifting to the next thing, and the ceiling starts to look a lot like the floor. Building around a star with Davis's potential means there's always a newer, more anxious endpoint. Right now, it's this: If he is already destined for superstardom, how can the Pelicans up the ante and ensure he retires as a LeBron-esque self-styled legend?
Two months ago, the discussion swirling around whether or not the Cleveland Cavaliers should send Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves was underscored by a key question for Wiggins acolytes: Would he be better off under LeBron's wing, or steering the ship in Minnesota?
In the Pelicans' case, the conversation is fraught with the kind of nervousness that would arise from knowing, amid a swirl of today's popular and paralyzing How Not To Permanently Damage Your Kids Forever e-books, that there's a future Einstein in the womb so long as you don't completely screw things up.
Truth be told, trying to foster an "ideal setting" for growth is always going to be the same fool's errand because no matter how much new information we have, the future is still going to be littered with a ton of unknowable variables.
Even under the best of circumstances, we don't know what we don't know. And Davis's ascension over the past 12 months is a case in point: It was less a product of Monty's best laid plans coming true and more a happy accident materializing out of a foibled game plan.
Last season, Williams' offense lacked the appropriate ball movement and space for Davis to mince opponents with off-ball cuts, plus the Pelicans played at a snails pace. So instead of unleashing a cluster of repulsive poster dunks a la Blake Griffin, Davis spent a year learning to create his own shot, working on his midrange jumper and and finding little cracks in unlikely spots. According to Synergy, he finished the season scoring 1.05 points per play, 32nd out of all qualifying players. Coming off screens, cuts, in isolation, pick and roll and post-up situations, Davis ranked no lower than 83rd.
Defensively, Williams overexerted his squad, expecting quick trap-and-recover rotations that no one outside of Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu -- who left the team in free agency this summer -- was equipped to perform. In turn, the long and rocky process of adjusting to an NBA-style defense was accelerated. Davis' struggles were apparent and often in the early going, but he started to get the hang of things by season's end -- an evolution that has been laid bare on the international stage.
Wherein progress tends to manifest itself as an unsteady and incremental thing, a year of attempting to fill in Monty Williams-shaped cracks seemingly did wonders to improve the trajectory of Davis's growth. By accidentally breeding necessity, the Pelicans helped foster discovery. It's not exactly a strategy and it wouldn't work with any player, but Davis is different.
That overthrown lob and that protracted arm come to mind again as a symbol of Davis's trajectory. Every time you think he is about to bite off a little more than he can swallow, Davis turns around and ends up inventing a new way to chew food.
Williams' effect on the Pelicans' overall chances is something worth prophesying about. A player like Tyreke could be a menace off the ball if the Pelicans trended back to the misdirection plays they loved to run so much two years ago. Getting the most out of a backcourt featuring Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon, both ball-dominant guards, is going to require some creative engineering, especially when they share the court with Asik, a seven footer who even struggles on occasion to complete dunks.
On the other hand, it's getting harder to assert that anything could stymie Davis' improvement. Sometimes, there isn't a plan in the world that can hold a candle to the combination of serendipity and skill.