Once every blue moon or so, a player comes along who's either capable of changing the way the NBA game is played or is perfectly adapted for the direction in which the sport is already headed.
Anthony Davis might just fit both descriptions. And if he does, the New Orleans Hornets will be on their way to bigger and better things in relatively short order, thanks in no small part to the freshman phenom from Kentucky.
Why He Went No. 1 in the Draft
Anthony Davis was the first player taken in a rather deep draft because he possesses a rare combination of jaw-dropping physical gifts, a skill set that will allow him to be effective in the NBA from the outset and plenty of upside with which he may well grow into a franchise-caliber player.
Davis' height, incredible length and ability to get off the floor multiple times in succession set him up perfectly as a natural shot-blocker on defense and as a target for lobs on offense. What's more, he's managed to couple those measurables with a superb sense of timing and spacing, not to mention a feathery touch with which he can deflect and direct swats to his teammates rather than simply sending them out of bounds.
All of which have enabled Davis to block shots just about anywhere on the floor, the perimeter included, without fouling (2.0 calls per game at UK).
Yet, what makes Davis so intriguing (aside from the fact that he was the closest to a "sure thing" in the 2012 draft) is the fact that his game still has so much room for growth.
Of course, that's to be expected of just about any teenager making the leap to the pros, but even more so in Davis' case. He began his high school career as an undistinguished 6'2" shooting guard, with but one college scholarship offer (from Cleveland State) and—by way of an eight-inch growth spurt—wound up as a tall, lanky power forward and the No. 1 prep player in the nation by the time his senior year rolled around.
Davis, then, isn't all that far removed from spending most of his time on the perimeter. As such, he's managed to retain at least some of the skills (i.e. passing, dribbling and shooting) that were most valuable for him in his former basketball life.
The most important attributes of all that he's retained, though, are those in his heart and his mind. He's not "just" another kid who happened to be tall and took up the game because of it. Rather, Davis has been playing basketball all his life and has professed a love for it that suggests he'd put in the time and effort to maximize his considerable talents and (perhaps) enjoy the process therein.
Check out NBA B/R's podcast Basketball by Association, in which B/R editors Ethan Norof and Joel Cordes break down the ins and outs of Anthony Davis' game. If the embedded player fails to load, you can also find the episode here.
If Davis is able to reach his ceiling on both ends of the floor, he may well turn out to be the next Kevin Garnett. Aside from the obvious points of comparison (i.e. Chicago natives with long, lanky frames), both players can step out to the perimeter, knock down shots and handle the ball, though preferably in a limited capacity.
Whether Davis can or will develop a post game and/or a fadeaway jumper comparable to that of the Big Ticket remains to be seen. Garnett's as good as anyone in the league at turning over either shoulder and hitting all manner of shots in back-to-the-basket situations, which Davis has yet to show he can do reliably.
What truly separates KG from the rest, though, is the intensity, emotion and passion with which he approaches the game. He's long been among the fiercest competitors in the NBA, which may or may not have anything to do with his reputation as the most disliked man in basketball.
This doesn't mean that The Brow needs to butt heads with and draw the ire of his peers to actualize his Garnett-like potential. However, if Davis is to so much as sniff the 14 All-Star trips, nine All-NBA selections, 12 All-Defensive selections and the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors on KG's resume, he'd do well to add a certain edge—if not an outright nastiness—to his game and his mental approach.
How Davis Fits In
As Grantland's Sebastian Pruiti noted prior to the NBA draft, Anthony Davis' greatest strength (other than his shot-blocking) is his court awareness, which contributes considerably to his ability to cut to and get open around the basket. Pruiti points out that Davis converted 82.7 percent of his shots off cuts while at UK, which was particularly important given his lack of a post-up game.
More specifically, The Brow has demonstrated a strong understanding of how to operate in the two-man game and end up at the basket. He'll likely be asked to put those skills to use with the Hornets. They were particularly prone to employing their big men in dribble hand-offs last season, when Chris Kaman and Gustavo Ayon were on the roster.
Here, we see Kaman, a skilled center in his own right, starting a possession against the Chicago Bulls with the ball at the top of the circle and shooting guard Xavier Henry in the corner:
Kaman puts the ball on his floor and Henry loops around the perimeter, as if coming in for the dribble hand-off:
But, rather than giving the rock to Henry, Kaman turns and continues toward the basket:
And, after getting by Carlos Boozer, finishes at the rim with a one-handed jam:
Davis certainly has the requisite skills as a ball-handler and cutter, effectively running plays of this sort. In the opening clip of the video below, we see Davis running a dribble hand-off with Darius Miller and immediately cutting to the rim for an easy lob:
As seen here, Davis' understanding of space, his use of his body as a screener and his ability to put the ball on the floor will come in handy under the auspices of Hornets head coach Monty Williams.
Adjustments Davis Must Make at Pro Level
As good as Davis is with his body, he still lacks enough of one to be effective on the low block and as a defensive rebounder in the NBA. Both of those areas of the game require a certain level of strength and bulk with which to handle full-grown pros— level that Davis, at a shade under 222 pounds, has yet to achieve.
Notice here, in a video compiled by Sebastian Pruiti, how Davis struggles to back his way toward the basket against fellow collegians when posted up and how his hook shot, while developing, remains rather raw:
Davis relied heavily on his length and quickness to create looks and get his shot off in the post while at UK. In the NBA, though, he'll no longer be able to out-hustle defenders with those attributes so consistently, and will need some time before he can hope to out-muscle anyone.
Davis has, at times, used those physical talents as crutches, especially when it comes to cleaning up the defensive boards. Davis is terrific at pursuing the ball, but too often loses rebounds when he fails to put himself between his man and the rim. In yet another video from Pruiti, Davis is shown floating toward the carom on some occasions and simply getting overpowered by his opponents on others:
Davis figures to improve in both areas over time as he learns the finer points of being a big man and packs more meat onto his lithe frame. After all, he's only been 6'10" for two years or so and, consequently, has much to discover about playing like someone his size should.
But once Davis puts two and two together, he'll be a force to be reckoned with in the Association.
As noted earlier, at the core of Davis' profile and potential as a player is his life-long love affair with the game of basketball. His work ethic is already well-instilled and, as he's suggested, has only improved since he left college.
By all accounts, Davis is a great kid with a solid head on his shoulders and a strong upbringing on which to fall back on. If his current demeanor is any indication, Davis wasn't big-headed about his hoops before he shot up and hasn't let his ego grow out of control since.
He spoke about the excitement of getting drafted, regardless of his spot in the order, and even went so far as to suggest that he wasn't necessarily a lock to go No. 1 to the Hornets when he was interviewed after the draft lottery in late May:
Whether he actually believed he would fall down the order is another story, though the fact that he used the word "if" in that situation suggests that he's coming into the league with a distinct sense of media savvy on his side.
Not that the kid doesn't have plenty of swagger and charisma from which to draw, as well. When Davis appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, he tried to play coy while discussing his future, but admitted that his first purchase with an NBA paycheck would be a "white-on-white Bentley." He also seemed rather comfortable joking with Jimmy about everything from his height and his eyebrow to blocking shots and riding horses.
This doesn't mean that Davis is destined to be the next Shaquille O'Neal or Dwight Howard, as far as charisma is concerned. That being said, he doesn't seem as though he'd by at all troubled by the burden of being the face of an NBA franchise.
He'll Be a Superstar If...
He puts in his time in the gym, fills out his frame a bit and develops his game to better align with his height. As mentioned earlier, Davis still lacks the strength, particularly in his lower body, to bang bodies in the post with NBA bigs.
But he's still young and might not be done growing yet. So long as Davis stays on the straight and narrow, he'll be a perennial All-Star in short order.
He'll Disappoint If...
He turns out to be little more than a poor man's Marcus Camby—that is, a long-limbed, athletic, high-energy defender who fails to fill out his frame and doesn't do much to refine his offensive game. His post play is still suspect, and though he was a perimeter player up until recently, the fact that he hardly garnered any attention from recruiters and scouts before his growth spurt suggests that his skills were relatively rudimentary to begin with.
Dealing with that meteoric rise from an unremarkable, 6-foot-something guard to the skyscraping savior of an NBA franchise over the course of a few short years could prove too daunting for the 19-year-old to handle, as well. He won't have much time to adjust his mind and his body to the NBA game before it hits him like a ton of bricks, either.
Davis figures to get pushed around by older, more physically developed players in the coming years as he attempts to add mass and strength. That experience, along with the rampant losing he's bound to encounter in New Orleans, could weigh on his confidence and make the task of realizing his full potential that much more difficult.
Rookie Year Projections
Davis won't likely be the focal point of the Hornets offense, especially with shooters like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and fellow rookie Austin Rivers patrolling the perimeter. Even so, he'll see plenty of action as a lob target and as a cutter, especially in screen-and-roll situations, if only because Robin Lopez is the only other semi-credible threat in the paint on the New Orleans roster.
Whatever his prescribed offensive role may be, expect Davis to pick up his fair share of boards and blocks (not to mention fouls) on the defensive end, where he'll butter his bread for the first year or two. If the KG comparison is in any way fair or accurate, Davis should be able to average around 14 points, seven rebounds and 1.5 blocks as a rookie.
Will that be enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors? That, of course, depends on how the rest of the first-year field shakes out. So far, though, bovada.lv has Davis listed as a 9-to-4 favorite to take home the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy at season's end, with former UK teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as his most credible threat at 8-to-1.
As far as the Hornets are concerned, they should brace themselves for plenty of growing pains during year one of the Davis/Rivers era, albeit with some signs of improvement amid plenty of entertaining, up-and-down basketball along the way. They won 21 games last year for a winning percentage of .318. If that holds for a full 82-game season, New Orleans will end the campaign with approximately 26 victories.
Consider the retention of Eric Gordon, the additions of Ryan Anderson and Robin Lopez, the coaching prowess of Monty Williams and, of course, the arrivals of Davis and Rivers, and a 30-win season seems well within reach for the Hornets.
This is even more so if Davis turns out to be a defensive dynamo and consistent at-the-rim finisher from the get-go in the NBA.