Enjoy Wildcat and future NBA star Anthony Davis while you still can
NEW ORLEANS -- From the front row of the Superdome, right as Saturday's Kentucky-Louisville Final Four game went to halftime, former Kansas and NBA coach Larry Brown made eye contact with a sportswriter he knew on press row. They proceeded to have an easily interpreted conversation using just their hands.
The writer held up two fingers on one hand, three on the other -- as in "23," the jersey number of Anthony Davis. Brown smiled and made the same gesture back.
Here on the biggest stage in college basketball, in front of 72,000 spectators (including luminaries like Brown) and more than 15 million television viewers, Kentucky's freshman big man earned a whole lot of admirers Saturday night. College diehards are already familiar with the first-team All-America and this spring's presumptive No. 1 NBA Draft pick, but a wider basketball audience saw for themselves what NBA scouts already realize.
"He's a franchise player," said a head personnel evaluator for one team. "This guy is unreal. He's going to shift whatever team gets him, like what Blake Griffin did to the Clippers, despite all of their problems, because he was just that good."
But before we skip ahead to visions of Davis' future career with the Bobcats or Wizards, we get to enjoy one last performance of his in a college uniform. And what a rare treat it is.
You have to go back to the 2008 final, featuring Memphis' Derrick Rose, for the last time such an elite-level talent played in the national championship game. Even more remarkably, it's been 24 years since a No. 1 pick won the title.
Coincidentally, that player was current Kansas assistant Danny Manning, whose team will try to top John Calipari's Wildcats just as it did his Rose-led Memphis team did four years earlier. Kansas goes in the underdog, but it does have the luxury of two high-caliber big men, Thomas Robinson and 7-footer Jeff Withey, who may be as capable as anyone of putting the clamps on Davis.
On Saturday night, however, Davis and Robinson played back-to-back. Like Davis, the Kansas junior was recently named a first team All-America, and the two have so far split various national player of the year awards. In a one-game matchup, either could have the superior performance.
In the bigger picture, however, Robinson is an All-America, but Davis is an all-star.
You saw that Saturday, when the 6-10 freshman with the trademark unibrow put on a one-man highlight show, complete with monstrous dunks, both a left- and right-handed baby hook shot and his customary five blocked shots. He finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
But it's not the numbers that distinguish him. The oohs and ahhs that emanated from press row and the looks of disbelief from coaches like Brown came from watching a 6-10 guy who runs the court like a guard, who moves with a fluidity rarely seen from someone his size.
For much of the season he's drawn inevitable comparisons to another Calipari-coached big man, Marcus Camby, but to do so is to grossly undersell the more dynamic -- and more mature -- Davis. A better benchmark is probably someone like future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. Only here's the thing: Davis is more athletic. He's most similar in build to the once-lanky Kevin Durant, a more dominant scorer, but Durant is not the same caliber defender.
Really, there is no apt comparison.
It may seem presumptuous to lavish such high praise on a freshman, but Davis is hardly the typical freshman. It was only two years ago that the Chicago native was a 6-3 guard, just before hitting a massive growth spurt, which means he's only now beginning to grasp the intricacies of an inside player.
"You're talking about a [6-10] guy with a 7-5 wingspan that can handle the ball on the perimeter, shoot threes," said the NBA talent evaluator. "And it's not like he's at any sort of apex in his development -- there's no reason to think he won't keep getting better, since he's already a late bloomer due to that growth spurt."
Much of the attention surrounding Davis this season has centered on his shot-blocking, and understandably so. He unquestionably changes games with his presence, having now blocked a national-best (by far) 180 shots, including numerous three-pointers, the ones that truly delight Wildcats fans.
What stood out Saturday, however, was just how polished he is on offense, a trait that gets overlooked when, as he did against the Cardinals, he only attempts eight shots.
"Anthony is more of an offensive player than even we've let you see because we've got six [NBA-caliber players] on this team," said Calipari. "No one shoots more than 11 shots a game. He's not out there taking 20 shots.
"Could you imagine if he took 20 shots? There would probably be another four or five highlight plays that you would all say, 'Whoa!'"
Many purists will view it as an affront to college basketball should Calipari's band of one-and-done phenoms prevail Monday night. They need to get over it. The world of academia isn't crumbling to the ground over the 10 or so basketball players in a given year that skip out on college after one season.
In the meantime, fans are reaping the benefit. We missed out seeing an entire generation of elite players -- Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard -- ever don a college uniform. Which means we potentially missed out on equivalent Final Four moments to Michael Jordan's shot and Grant Hill's dunk. The last elite NBA player to lead his team to a title was another one-and-doner, Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony, in 2003.
After the clock expired on Saturday's semifinal win, the normally reserved Davis celebrated by shouting several times to the crowd: "This is my stage!" He wasn't kidding. Saturday's games garnered CBS' highest overnight rating (9.0) since 2005, a testament to the teams' star power.
Monday night's number could be monstrous, Kentucky and Kansas are two of the biggest brand names in the sports, and many will be attracted to the manufactured good vs. evil storyline of Calipari vs. Bill Self.
But mostly, sports fans just want to see the best at what they do. On most nights, in basketball, that means turning on the Bulls or the Lakers. On Monday night, however, the sport's next franchise player gets his shot at One Shining Moment.
Enjoy it while you can.