2012 NCAATHE ROAD TO NEW ORLEANS
This is an article from the March 19, 2012 issue
Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne took the call every recruiter dreams of. A Chicago AAU coach was on the line with a tip: There's a kid out here, a 6'2" guard who grew eight inches in a year. He's going to be a great player. No one knows about him yet.
Payne's boss, John Calipari, recognized the type. Fifteen years earlier at Massachusetts he had coached a kid who fit that same description, a player who would change the trajectory of Calipari's career. "Marcus Camby went from 6'2" to 6'10" in high school," says Calipari, referring to the 2007 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, now with the Portland Trailblazers. As a junior in 1995--96, Camby led UMass to the Final Four, earned national player of the year honors and was the second pick in the NBA draft. His biggest talent? Shot blocking. When Calipari saw the Chicago kid, Anthony Davis Jr., in person later that summer, he texted Camby, "I found another you ... but he can shoot."
Four months into what is sure to be a brief career at Kentucky, given his status as the presumed top pick in the June NBA draft, Davis is still revealing all the things he can do. After a season of watching him contort his impossibly long and elastic limbs (wingspan: 7'4") into crazy angles to grab errant passes or wayward shots before flushing them through the net, fans saw bits of a more conventional offensive repertoire emerge in conference play—a midrange jumper here, a three-point shot there. The top-ranked Wildcats (32--2) stumbled only when they faced Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final. But Davis's signature skill has been blocking shots. He leads the country with 4.6 stuffs per game, to go along with 14.3 points and 10.0 rebounds. It took him just 19 games to break Kentucky's single-season record of 83 blocks and 24 games to surpass Shaquille O'Neal's SEC freshman blocks mark of 115. But it's not just the quantity of rejections against high-quality opponents that has coaches like Florida's Billy Donovan—who calls Davis "one of the best of all time"—ushering the freshman into the pantheon of shot-blocking greats. It's also how, and where, he collects them: all over the court. (Through the end of the regular season he had blocked 11 of 146 shots beyond the perimeter.) And it's how little liability he brings along with his gift. In trying to neutralize him, teams have been physical "to the point of bully ball," as Calipari says, but Davis, who averages 31.6 minutes a game, doesn't overreact. He has fouled out just once, against Old Dominion in the fourth game of the season. The only time he has had four fouls since then was in a 73--72 loss at Indiana on Dec. 10, the Wildcats' only defeat this season. He is whistled, on average, just 1.8 times a game.
"For a freshman, for a big player—for any player—he has great composure as a defender," says Georgia coach Mark Fox. "Most shot blockers, they go chase every ball. You can get them in foul trouble. But he knows when to go get one and how to do it without fouling." Adding to his advantage, says Donovan, is that he seems unassuming physically, even at 6'10" and 220 pounds. "He has an ability to become a lot longer than he appears," says Donovan, "and very quickly."
Former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who backed up Bill Russell on the Celtics for two years in the mid-'60s and later coached noted shot blockers Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning with the Hoyas, has more perspective than most active coaches. "I'm biased because I don't think anybody comes close to Russell," says Thompson. "I think you put in his name and then skip five spots and start naming other people." Thompson will, however, give Davis a "pretty damn good" rating. "His agility is the thing that impresses me," Thompson says. "Not only does he have great timing and great footwork; he's elusive—he's very capable of getting around people and getting to the ball. He's exceptional."
Adds South Carolina coach Darrin Horn, "The thing about Anthony that I think makes him special is the balls he gets where you say, How in the world did he get that?"
Consider the final play of Kentucky's home game against North Carolina on Dec. 3. With the Tar Heels down 73--72 and the clock at 00:07, UNC forward John Henson caught a pass near the right baseline and lofted a jumper from about 15 feet. Davis, who was deep in the paint when Henson caught the ball, took a giant hop and launched himself at Henson, his right hand meeting the path of the ball at the perfect moment to deflect it into his own hands. A photo freezes Davis with his arms extended at one and seven o'clock, making him look like a plane on a steep ascent. That image—if not the one onto which a fan Photoshopped Davis blocking Christian Laettner's buzzer-beating shot that gave Duke the win over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final—could become as iconic as the silhouette of Michael Jordan spread-eagle on the way to a dunk.
Perhaps it's just coincidence that Davis's distinctive facial feature, the one that has inspired the blue FEAR THE BROW T-shirts seen at Kentucky games, looks like a bird in flight. Davis has two nicknames, however, which suggest other species: Calipari calls him Spider-Man; his teammates call him Ant. If the latter moniker doesn't quite capture his surreal athleticism, it does evoke one of his defining personality traits: Davis is a team player to the core.
He averages just 8.47 shots a game—more than four fewer than Kansas junior forward Thomas Robinson, his main rival for national player of the year honors—and a lot of those come off tip-ins and lob passes, which he regards as his "reward" from the guards for blocking all those shots. "We don't run a lot of plays for him, but he never complains about it," says Kentucky senior guard Darius Miller. "He never complains about anything. For a guy who's going to be a top pick in the draft, that's amazing."
Davis has embraced both his role as his team's eraser and the attitude such a job requires. "You have to have the mind-set of Anything that comes in here I'm going to block or at least alter the shot," says Davis, who adds that swatting shots is now his favorite thing to do on the court. "Before every game I tell my team, 'Make sure y'all play as hard as you can, and if y'all do break down off the dribble, I'm right here for you.'"
Even today, when every aspect of the game is parsed, quantified and analyzed, there is no way to measure the psychological impact of a great shot blocker on either his teammates or his opponents. "Guys like Anthony don't impact just with the shots they block," says Thompson. "We don't know how many times a guy who could beat his defender on the perimeter looked in there but wouldn't go because Anthony was in the back. Or took a shot and missed because he was afraid Anthony was coming. You can't put statistics on that."
There is more statistical value in a block that gives your team a possession than there is with one that flies into the concession stands, but Calipari doesn't mind the latter. "I'm different with that," he says. "I want it to be in play, to knock it softly so we can run down [in transition], but if you knock that thing into row 8, the dude's embarrassed, he ain't coming in there anymore, and now they are all shooting jump shots." (According to Cat Scratches blogger Guy Ramsey, in 31 regular-season games the Wildcats gained possession on 60.3% of Davis's blocks and scored 78 points on the ensuing possessions.)
However you add it up, Davis's presence in the paint is a big reason Kentucky is holding opponents to 36.7% shooting, the best in the nation and the best for a Kentucky team since 1959--60. Davis also allows the Wildcats to take more risks on the perimeter. "They're able to really smother you with their athleticism and length because they know it's going to force you to dribble the ball right to Anthony Davis," says Fox. "If they didn't have him, they'd have to play differently. He's a big part of what they do."
Davis can't explain his talent for swatting—"It just came naturally; I just had great timing," he says—but Calipari, having coached another guard turned big man in Camby, has a thought. "The real shot blockers let the guy release it and then go after the ball," he says, adding that blocking a ball before it's released often results in a foul. "It's hard because that means you can't jump early. You have to be nimble; you can't be a plodder." Davis, he adds, "has guard quickness, guard instincts. There's no slow twitch to him."
Davis doesn't purposely study other sultans of swat, but because Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant is his favorite NBA player, he also watches a lot of the Thunder's 6'10" Serge Ibaka, who leads the NBA with 3.2 blocks a game. "He's blocking guys who know how to avoid getting their shots blocked," says Davis. "I watch him to see how he does it."
While he can't explain his method, Davis has no problem pinpointing his motivation. In his previous life as a guard, he says, "I always had my shot blocked—off the backboard, to the stands, to the fifth row. I think that's what really made me want to block shots; I was tired of getting my own shot blocked. It was time for some revenge."
During the 2008--09 season Davis was a 6'2" sophomore guard and honor roll student playing for a small high school (210 students) on Chicago's South Side, Perspectives Charter, which didn't have a gym and, a few years earlier, hadn't had a team. He was a three-point specialist who had only recently started venturing into the lane because ... well, you heard what the kid had to say about all those shots of his ending up in the fifth row. He may have beaten his big sister, Iesha, one-on-one for the first time by then, but he's not sure. Dunking was mostly a fantasy. "My cousins could all dunk, but I would do a layup and smack the backboard, and that was it," he says. His family nickname, given to him when he was born weighing eight pounds, one ounce, was Phat Man. (His twin sister, Antoinette, was six pounds, three ounces.)
He had a cousin who was 6'8", but no one in his immediate family was notably tall. His dad, Anthony Sr., is just under 6'3"; his mom, Erainer, is 5'9". Antoinette, now a freshman at Kentucky, topped out at 5'7", and Iesha, 21, whom he credits in part with teaching him the game, is 5'10". When he hit 6'2" as a sophomore, says Davis, "I thought I was done." He seemed destined to be one of hundreds of good guards who struggle to get noticed.
But by the spring of his junior year Davis had sprouted to 6'8". "He never lost his coordination with his growth spurt," says Perspectives coach Cortez Hale. "He was still the same Anthony. He could still do everything—pass, shoot, dribble—he did before. He was just a lot taller."
With just one scholarship offer, from Cleveland State, he decided to increase his visibility. Davis joined an AAU summer team for the first time since he was in middle school. He played one half of one game with the Chicago Mean Streets at the Boo Williams Nike Invitational in Virginia in April 2010 before he injured his ankle. But Syracuse had seen enough of his lengthy athleticism to offer him a scholarship. After that, Davis received calls from almost every D-I program—even Harvard.
The letters with scholarship offers piled so high Davis never got around to opening some of them. "It was overwhelming," he says. "I was so excited. I wanted to go see every school and talk to everyone. I still have my box of letters. When I go back home to Chicago, I look at them. I still can't believe it. All this happened to me. Just because I grew."
After narrowing his choices to Syracuse, Ohio State, DePaul and Kentucky, Davis chose the Wildcats, he says, because he liked Calipari's up-and-down style of play and his track record of preparing players for the pros. "My ultimate dream is to go to the NBA, and I think I had the best chance of doing that here," he says.
The kid college scouts were drooling over then isn't the same player NBA scouts are smitten with now, says Payne. "He had never played around the basket. He was more of a two guard; he dribbled up and shot threes. He resembled Kevin Durant at an early age."
Yet Davis was already a defensive force. "The shot blocking was there that summer," says Payne. "Any 6'10" kid playing in the high school circuit is going to block shots, but you don't know if he'll be able to make that adjustment to bigger, stronger players. But Anthony did. He hasn't scratched the surface of just how complete he can be."
As important as Davis has been to Kentucky's success so far, his value will increase in the Big Dance. "Most people when you get into tournament play become more cautious: They play the game slower," says Thompson, who went to three NCAA finals at Georgetown with Ewing at center, winning the championship in 1984. "That makes Anthony more of a factor. When you're cautious, you're not getting out and running and shooting as quick. You're trying to be precise. So what does that do? That puts that defender in a position to block shots."
Because the NCAA didn't track blocks until the 1985--86 season, the efforts of some of the game's best rejection artists—Bill Russell, Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, to name just a few—went uncounted. The first year that stats were officially kept, Navy's David Robinson blocked 207 shots, still an NCAA season record. He added nine in a regional semifinal game against Cleveland State that launched the Midshipmen into an unlikely Elite Eight berth. Ten years later Camby had 21 blocks in five games in UMass's 1996 Final Four run (later vacated because Camby was found by the NCAA to have received improper benefits from agents). "Massachusetts in the Final Four, that's like a national title," says Calipari. "Navy in the Elite Eight is like a national title. Navy doesn't go to the Elite Eight. How did that happen? Robinson was blocking shots. It helps you."
If an elite shot blocker can have that kind of impact in the tournament on teams like Navy and UMass, what can he do for Kentucky, a team that is loaded with five other likely NBA draft picks? "They are so big," says Georgia's Fox, "they can play a two guard at 6'7" and a three man at 6'8"; when you are big like that, you can switch everything. Your own schemes and your actions don't work because they'll just switch." That's grim news for teams facing the Wildcats for the first time, though familiarity isn't necessarily helpful. After holding the Cats to 57 points using a zone in their first meeting, in Athens on Jan. 24, the Bulldogs tried that strategy again in Lexington on March 1. Kentucky hit 15 of 27 three-pointers to crush the Dogs 74--49. "If they shoot like that," sighs Fox, "no one will beat them."
As a team, Kentucky leads the country with 8.76 blocks a game, just behind the record of 9.09 set by Georgetown in 1988--89. (At this rate the Wildcats should break the season record of 315 set by NCAA champion Connecticut in 2003--04 in two more games.) But it isn't the only team that will make you pay for your hubris. The tournament's other top contenders are all ranked among the nation's top 10 in shots blocked this year: Syracuse is tied for second, with 7.09 blocks per game; North Carolina is ninth, with 5.65; and Kansas, at number 10, swats 5.64 a game.
As dominant as the Wildcats have been in most of their games, they aren't perfect, and neither is their freshman center. (Although his hands are hardly small, Davis can't palm a ball.) Imperfections bring challenges, but Davis, for one, might not mind a close game. Though he judges all his blocks as "good," he says the heroic Henson swat is his favorite. After he gathered the ball and threw it to point guard Marquis Teague, Davis ran straight to the Kentucky bench, forgetting, in his excitement, that there was still time on the clock. "It was a big block and a big game," he says. "I was going crazy, jumping up and down, and everybody was grabbing me. I had never done anything like that before. Never hit a game-winner or anything like that. That was my first time saving the game."
He sounds like a guy who wouldn't mind the chance to do it again.
THE NO-BUCKET LIST
This chart of Davis's regular-season blocks shows he was all over the court, whether as the primary defender or helping a teammate
• RH (primary)
• RH (help)
• LH (primary)
• LH (help)
SULTANS OF SWAT
No list of great NCAA blocked shots can be definitive—the stat has been kept for only 27 seasons—but here are six standout moments
1950: City College of New York star forward Irwin Dambrot blocks a final shot by Bradley's Gene Melchiorre to seal the Beavers' 71--68 victory in the NCAA championship game. With the NIT title already won, CCNY becomes the only team to take both the NIT and the NCAA crowns in the same year.
1970: UCLA's 6'8" Sidney Wicks swats away a shot by Jacksonville's 7'2" Artis Gilmore early in the national title game. UCLA coach John Wooden had moved Wicks, a future four-time NBA All-Star, from forward to center so he could guard Gilmore. The Bruins win 80--69 to earn their fourth straight title.
1974: In the first minute of the NCAA semifinal between North Carolina State and UCLA, the Wolfpack's David Thompson blocks a shot by UCLA's Bill Walton. N.C. State goes on to defeat the Bruins, interrupting their string of seven titles. Two days later N.C. State's 7'4" Tom Burleson (unofficially) blocks seven shots as the Pack beats Marquette 76--64 in the final.
2003: Syracuse forward Hakim Warrick (far right) flies out of nowhere to block Kansas guard Michael Lee's possible game-tying three with two seconds to go in the NCAA title game, preserving for the Orange a 71--68 win and its first NCAA title.
2006: Florida's 6'11" center Joakim Noah swats a championship-game record six shots in the Gators' 73--57 win over UCLA. Afterward UCLA guard Jordan Farmar said Noah had "changed about 10 more shots than he blocked."
2011: Arizona's Derrick Williams rejects Memphis forward Wesley Witherspoon's last-second layup to ensure an electrifying 77--75 win for the Wildcats in their opening game.