The Fundamentals: Examining Anthony Davis, the most unique star in the NBA
After a single season in the NBA, Anthony Davis is already beyond comparison. His production might be measured against his contemporaries or his exploits gauged against those of former greats, but in both cases Davis seems more juxtaposed than truly connected. There isn't an existing template that could possibly hold his wealth of idiosyncrasy; Davis' style and skillset are so distinctly modern that even the games of more progressive NBA big men seem dated in relation.
He has the soft touch of a skilled shooter, the blanket reach to anchor zone defensive principles, the vertical extension to dominate opponents on a different plane, the balance to slither through crowds on the pick-and-roll, the height and timing to rack up rebounds, and the ball control to improvise as necessary. Were a forward-thinking coach to list out the basketball qualities that would best position a player for NBA success, it would likely read similarly if it weren't dismissed as wishful thinking. That arrangement of skills and size is fantastic in the purest definitional sense -- so expansive that it hardly seems real.
Yet every minute of Davis' season corroborates that it is very much so, as Pelicans opponents can well attest. Injuries across New Orleans' roster have thrust Davis into a number of uncomfortable basketball situations this season; he's played both with and without Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, and Jason Smith, and made the most of the awkward limbo states that come with a constantly shifting lineup. Through it all Davis has become a go-to scorer on an above-average offensive team, a development which reinforces the 21-year-old's standing as the league's surest bet for superstardom.
The uncanny rebounding and defensive instincts were already in place when Davis was drafted, set to be sharpened with further NBA experience. Otherwise, questions lingered as to what kind of offensive role might best suit such an unusual talent. In his rookie season Davis was a model of efficiency and discretion, though in the process he averaged a ho-hum 13.5 points per game. His slight frame (and lower body, in particular) wasn't particularly fit for high-usage post play, though at the same time Davis hadn't grown comfortable enough with the ball in his hands to create through other means.
All of which left Davis a bit dependent offensively, an issue of both confidence and competence. Both have since been remedied. As much as Davis has fleshed out his basic offensive skills, it's his comfort in control that enables him to attack more often, even in one-on-one situations. His talents are better leveraged because Davis is both better prepared and more willing to do so -- natural growth for a second-year player still coming into his own.
With that, Davis' waning dependence on other creators (nearly 10 percent more of Davis' field goals have been unassisted this season relative to last) is giving way to certain flavors of traditional stardom:
Such dramatic change in Davis' second season puts him way ahead of his developmental curve, and perhaps positions him to be a more overtly dominant offensive player than many anticipated. The pick-and-roll success was a given; players as long and lithe as Davis tend to give opponents fits when utilized on the move, and from his first day in the league Davis was deadly when aimed toward the basket. It's the other flourishes that have improbably brought Davis to the brink of the league's top 10 in scoring: The isolation play, the catch-and-shoot accuracy, the quiet aptitude from the low block. In a year's time Davis has gone from a specialist of sorts to a more broadly applicable scorer, the kind of jump which then gives the Pelicans a world of room to experiment with different kinds of complementary players. It's one thing to have a potentially dominant defender as a cornerstone piece, but quite another to build around one of the league's most promising two-way players.
His is an uncommon talent well worthy of the No. 1 pick, even more so now that volume scoring is part of the yield. Of particular interest is the interplay between those higher-usage pursuits and Davis' default, lower-risk programming; part of what makes Davis so unique is that he brings the appeal and statistical return of a highly productive center without the baggage of wasted possessions. By type NBA big men can be a turnover-prone bunch. Many work from a space on the floor with precious little room for error, and the best draw the attention of multiple defenders in close quarters. Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah turn the ball over on more than 17 percent of their possessions as a result, while DeMarcus Cousins and Tyson Chandler commit turnovers on more than 15 percent of theirs. Andrew Bogut, for all his value otherwise, commits a turnover 19.5 percent of the time he uses a possession. Davis is in a different world entirely, having posted a turnover rate of just 8.6 -- a range typically reserved for catch-and-shoot gunners who don't hesitate long enough to lose control of the ball.
Were this the baseline-lurking, isolation-shy Davis of last season, that amazingly low turnover mark would make some sense. Instead, Davis is a sophomore in a premier offensive role using over a quarter of his team's possessions and turning the ball over even less frequently than before. That kind of efficiency in expansion is remarkable, particularly for a player already shooting 53 percent from the field. There's just nothing wasted with Davis. Even as he slips into a more creative mode, the rest of his game tightens accordingly.
At some point Davis will stumble into something he can't do well and only then will we know his limits. It's unusual for a player so young to have such an easy command of the game, through which Davis is particularly capable of increasing his on-court responsibilities. He can handle plenty more still, if pushed. This season helped clarify that much. It also reinforced the fact that Davis has already broken whatever molds were cast for his development. No longer is there a single applicable comparison point for a player so weirdly functional -- not the similarly built Chandler nor the similarly touted Tim Duncan. Davis' future is all his own.MAHONEY: Random observations from around the NBA