You knew he could score in the paint. With soft hands, superior athleticism and guard skills that come from his pre-growth spurt playmaking days, Davis was not going to be one-dimensional. He averaged 13.5 points in his first year, shooting 51.6 percent, and jumped to 20.8 points, on 51.9 percent shooting, in Year 2. His game was limited but, near the rim, largely effective.
But did you know Davis would emerge as a reliable off the dribble threat? Did you know he would develop a mid-range game that has slow footed defenders creeping closer, wary of the jump shot but completely unable to keep pace with Davis’s first step? Did you know that three years in, Davis would be among the top-five players in the game, the leading candidate to grab the MVP trophy once Kevin Durant and LeBron James stop playing hot potato with it?
“I remember playing with him [with Team USA] in 2012,” Love said. “He had just won the national championship. Never played in the NBA. And if you didn’t see that he had it, you were blind. He had all the tools. And he had all the stuff you can’t teach.”
Defense, sure. But on offense, too?
“You could see that the touch was there,” Love said. “You could see he was going to be able to expand his game. He had different rip moves, he was finishing around the basket. He has such a high release and he is so big. He had a very soft touch. He was working his game from the inside out and believe me, he worked.”
It’s Davis’ world now, and at 21, it’s scary to think about how good he can be. The skinny shoulders he left Kentucky with are now broad and muscular, ensuring, Love said, “that you can’t push him around.” He scored 27 points against reigning champion San Antonio, including the game winner. He outdueled Love in a narrow loss to Cleveland. He posted a 25 points and 12 rebounds against the Lakers, with Kobe Bryant (another former Olympic teammates) declaring that Davis could be “one of the greatest power forwards who has ever played.”
Pelicans coach Monty Williams says that while Davis’ skill development is impressive, it’s his mental approach this year that has been the biggest difference.
“He wants to go after other guys, other teams,” Williams said. “He wants to carry the load. He talks about improving towards being great. That’s the side a lot of young players struggle with. They put the work in but mentally they are not there yet. He is moving in that direction.”
Any franchise player needs help, and the Pelicans brought in a big piece to the puzzle in the offseason, acquiring burly center Omer Asik from Houston. Asik has been exactly what New Orleans needed: A defensive-minded rebounder who can do the dirty work in the paint, freeing Davis to make plays. It’s a dynamic similar to Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland. And early on, Asik has delivered, averaging 9.1 points and 10.7 rebounds, numbers comparable to what he put up in 2012-13, when Asik was a staple of the Rockets’ starting lineup.
“Having him in the game with me gives me a lot more freedom to be out there on the perimeter,” Davis said.
Added Asik, “It’s been easy for me because he does so much stuff. I’m just trying to focus on the defensive end to make him more fresh on the offensive end.”
As rapidly as Davis has developed, his ascent to the next level could be just as quick. In addition to Asik, the Pelicans welcomed back Ryan Anderson, the sharpshooting forward who missed the last four months of last season with a neck injury. Anderson’s floor spacing creates more single coverage opportunities for Davis, whose confidence in his midrange game grows by the day. “Guys are so worried about taking away the roll on him, he’s going to be able to pick and pop and take a ton of open shots,” Love said. “It’s only a matter of time before that part of his game is there.”
The other talent around Davis will need to be tweaked – dribble-happy forward Tyreke Evans and shooting guard Eric Gordon’s presence often take way too many opportunities away from Davis --something GM Dell Demps will have to figure out. For Davis, his focus is on following the one lesson Love, Bryant and LeBron James reinforced with him with after the 2012 Olympics.
“They told me, ‘You can’t get complacent,’” Davis told SI.com. “When you feel like things are going good, a lot of people say you can relax, and that’s when people start to come at you. With those guys, they are always working. They are always being a force for their team. No matter how good I become, I’m always going to keep working.”
Executive’s Take: Rajon Rondo
An Eastern Conference executive weighs in on the trade value of Rondo…
“I don’t know how high it is. He is a free agent at the end of the year. A team that trades for him will have half a season to convince him to stay. He has to be in a city that he wants to be in. If he didn’t get hurt last year his value would have been higher then. A team would have had a year and a half and convince him to stay. And I don’t know how many teams truly need a starting point guard. Houston needs one. The Lakers. But if you’re the Lakers, why would you give up anything for him now when you can try to sign him this summer?"
I don’t think Rondo is a max guy, but he is close to it. I’m not huge on point guards getting max deals. Derrick Rose is a max player. Max guys have to be able to carry a team. If you are the best player, you have to be able to carry the team into the playoffs. I don’t think he does that. He’s a facilitator. Look, he is a really, really great player. But I think he has to be surrounded by the right pieces. Boston might be the right place for him. I think Rondo and Marcus Smart can play together. Neither can shoot but defensively they are relentless. Smart can cover any two in the league. And I don’t think Smart is great as a point guard. I think he is more of a two-guard to be honest with you. He doesn’t have great vision as a point guard. But if you throw Rondo, Smart and Avery Bradley in a rotation, that’s the best defensive backcourt in the league.
Raptors on the rise in the East?
Listening to Dwane Casey lately, you might believe the Raptors were 2-7 and sitting in the Eastern Conference cellar and not 7-2 and atop the Atlantic Division. Casey has been critical of the mental errors that the Raptors have made in the first two weeks of the season and said that the team is still trying to find its identity.
“I say that stuff because we have not put many full games together,” Casey told SI.com. “Maybe (against) Philadelphia, maybe Washington. But we’re not playing defense the way we need to play it. The spacing has been bad, the execution has been bad on certain plays and our rotations on close-outs need to get better.”
It’s a coach’s job to nitpick -- and an ugly third quarter against Chicago on Thursday gave Casey plenty of ammunition -- but Toronto’s strong start does little to dissuade the thinking that the Raptors, the only team in the East’s top tier that didn’t make significant changes in the offseason, are the best chance to blow up the Cleveland-Chicago conference finals many are projecting. Toronto ranks in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency and the bench, bolstered by newcomers Lou Williams and James Johnson, has improved from a bottom-five scoring unit last season to one ranked in the top-ten this season.
“I think our continuity has really helped,” Casey said. “The main thing is that you have a variety of guys who have played with each other. You are not changing any terminology. You don’t spend training camp figuring out where guys like to be. I go back to why San Antonio is so good and has been good for so long. They use the same terminology that Pop[Gregg Popovich] has run forever. I see a value in that. We spent training camp working on the nuances of what we have in. We’re still not there yet, but we’re further down the road.”
In the offseason, the Raptors paid lip service to playing more inside-out, citing the need to develop center Jonas Valanciunas as a post threat. In the preseason, Toronto ratcheted up the plays called for the Lithuanian big man. Any post-centric philosophy has dissipated in the regular season, with Casey preferring to develop Valanciunas more slowly.
“For Jonas, finding consistency is important,” Casey said. “Some nights he has a good rhythm, a good feel, other nights he doesn’t. It takes big men a little longer. I remember at Kentucky, I didn’t think Sam Bowie would turn out to be as good as he was. But he just kept getting better. We’ll keep working with him but we are perimeter oriented. I don’t know if that is going to change with the personnel we have.”
Quote of the Week I
"Why don't we have the owners play half the games? There would be no money if not for the players. Let's call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money. Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. These guys [the players] go? The game will change. So let's stop pretending." -- NBAPA Executive Director Michele Roberts, to ESPN.
The NBA hates it when reporters speculate that a work stoppage in 2017 is inevitable. Right now, barring a major concession from one side, it’s hard to see how the league avoids it.
Quote of the Week II
"To be honest with you, most of the time, the things that we want to do, they haven't done. And I don't know if it's because they're incapable of doing it or not.” -- Lakers coach Byron Scott, addressing L.A.’s porous defense this season.
The pending return of Nick Young might upgrade the offense but the Lakers have no frontcourt defenders that can prevent them from remaining one of the worst defenses in the league. And you get the feeling Scott knows it.
Tweet of the Week
Nice zing by whoever runs the Hawks Twitter feed. But c’mon: How hard is it to spell Millsap?
Five questions with... Mike Conley
The Grizzlies point guard has scored 20-plus points in four of Memphis’s first nine games this season.
SI.com: Did you have a good feeling about this group in training camp?
MC: “I did. Before camp, really. A lot of guys came back in early September. We were working out together and we were committed to fast and quick start. It was much different than in previous years. We were not only working out, we were practicing, we were doing five-on-five stuff, we were going through our plays, running things, trying to implement the offense. It was big.”
SI.com: How is this year different for Dave Joerger?
MC: “I think Dave has a better grasp of the team this year. For him, last year was his rookie year. He had to go through a lot and experience a lot as a head coach. This year he feels comfortable. He has taken control from Day 1. He has implemented our identity, how we want to play. Last year we were a little all over the place. We tried to implement what Joerger wanted to do. We did movement, elbow cuts, but we didn’t grasp it as quickly as we thought we would. So we kind of went back to inside, ground and pound, play defense and win that way. This year is a mix. We feel much more comfortable with the mix. We have a better understanding of which groups do better with certain sets.”
SI.com: The defense, as usual, has been very good. Are you playing the same way you always have?
MC: It’s the same principles we have had for the last four or five years, but we are trying to implement some new things. Some things work, some don’t. We kind of go with the flow. A lot of it is in pick-and-roll coverages. We are trying to put more pressure on the ball handler in certain situations. Normally we don’t want a big like Marc [Gasol] stretched out far, but those are things we have gone game to game with. We’ll show hard and trap one night, the next night [the big men] drop back. Before, we usually had one coverage.”
SI.com: How do you and backcourt mate Courtney Lee fit together on the floor?
MC: “Last year was such a small sample size. He came over midseason, and it was him trying to find role and a place with the team. This year he came back and he is much more comfortable. For me, as the point point guard, it helps when I know the tendencies of the teammates. This year I know where Courtney likes to get the ball. I know he is running to that three-point line. We were not a three point shooting team before. With courtney, he is always my outlet. He is in the corner, around that line as a release for me.”
SI.com: A big question with this team the last few years has been if they have enough perimeter shooting. Do you think this team does?
MC: I think we have added a lot. Quincy [Pondexter] has gotten a lot better. VC [Vince Varter] can shoot. Courtney is shooting lights out. We have guys who knock those shots down, who can be relied on in crunch time in the playoffs. We think we can win now. We all understand what is on the back end here in the next few years. We want to get this thing done now. We’re a team that can challenge for a championship. We have to focus [because] you never know what is going to happen ing the future.”
I don’t have any problem with Derrick Rose telling reporters that he worried about the long-term effects of NBA-incurred injuries. Rose has had two major knee injuries in the last two years; those fears are only natural. My guess is that some Bulls fans are a little tweaked that Rose sat out almost all of last season and are using his most recent comments to validate questions about his toughness ... You can’t make any judgment on the Knicks until Jose Calderon is back in the lineup. They paid a hefty price for Calderon this summer because they believed he was an ideal triangle point guard. Shane Larkin, obviously, is not ... Critics of Scott Brooks should re-watch OKC’s come from behind win in Boston on Wednesday. Down 17 in the first quarter after losing a heartbreaker in Milwaukee the night before, Brooks made a nice adjustment going to the zone and kept his inexperienced team focused to rally and beat a rested Boston team that has been surprisingly good the first two weeks of the season ... Of Milwaukee’s second year forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, one GM told me this week, “I like him more than Jabari Parker.” ... Giving up 84 points in the first half to Portland this week was rock bottom for Denver. There is no excuse for this team to be this bad. There will be calls for Brian Shaw’s job, but GM Tim Connelly has been a strong Shaw advocate ... The Jazz are still a work in progress but at least Gordon Hayward isn’t making them regret matching that max offer. Hayward is averaging a career-best in points and his shooting percentage has rebounded from the dismal number he posted last year ... My preseason profile of Kawhi Leonard is online here.