Anthony Davis may well prove to be the defensive version of Kevin Durant in future NBA seasons, likely sooner rather than later. He shows the skill set, freak athleticism, and above all else, the mental make-up of a transcendent defensive big man who will grace All-NBA Defensive teams for years and years to come. His defensive prowess seems to at times even overshadow his offensive game, which is good for a rookie forward/center and is improving rapidly with each game.
I don't think it would shock anybody if in 20 years he is regarded as the best player from the 2012 draft class. After all, that's why he was selected first overall by the New Orleans Hornets with no rhetoric from any NBA scout, GM, or analyst insisting otherwise.
But that doesn't mean this season's Rookie of the Year Award will earn a home next to the recently added gold medal in the Davis trophy case.
I'll give everyone a moment to look up "Brandon K Smith + bath salts" before continuing.
Let's say Davis averages something like, 17 points, 9-to-10 rebounds, and two blocks per game and remains healthy. Pretty impressive stat line for a rookie big, and it's not unfathomable to think he'll best those figures.
But that doesn't take into account the other 11 guys on his team.
The four most pivotal players on the Hornets have to be Davis, Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers and Ryan Anderson. We know what to expect from Anderson. He'll hit some threes, grab some boards here and there, and let whomever he's guarding look better offensively than he actually is. Overall, still a good pickup for Bourbon Street.
That leads to Rivers and Gordon. Do we know that Rivers can play point guard at this level? So far Greivis Vasquez has started at point guard every game this season (yup, all three of 'em) and led the team in assists during that stretch. Well, what happens when Eric Gordon returns from his injury?
Are you going to continue to start Vasquez (who really is a solid option as a backup, but probably won't lead a playoff charge any time soon) next to Gordon and have Rivers comes off the bench?
Somehow I feel like that will be a tough sell to Hornets fans. At some point, Rivers and Gordon have to start alongside each other which means Rivers can't think he's some 6'4 version of Kobe. He'll have to bring the ball up and show that he can manage an NBA team, and that means getting Gordon, Anderson and Davis their touches on offense. That isn't exactly an easy thing to do for someone used to focusing on scoring playing the two, and one has to question if the ever-cocky Rivers has the discipline to do it as a rookie. It should be a red flag that Rivers doesn't have the key to the car yet.
Then there's that Gordon injury. It seems Head Coach Monty Williams and Eric Gordon (along with the Hornets doctors) could not be further apart on his health. Essentially, it seems like the old-school, hard-nosed Williams wants Gordon to suck it up and play through his knee pain, or, even worse, thinks Gordon is totally full of it.
Remember: This summer Gordon wanted out of New Orleans so bad he claimed his "heart" was in Phoenix (after he signed a max-deal there as an unrestricted free agent) fully aware that the Hornets could easily match their offer and bring him back. Translation: "I really, really, really, REALLY don't want to play for the Hornets. Buzz off, guys."
Guess what the Hornets did?! They took him back anyway! So Gordon had no choice but to force a smile and be ticked off toward the organization that didn't let him leave a place he didn't want to play.
So yeah, somehow I think Gordon may be less than 100 percent a lot this year, and don't be surprised if he and Williams clash heads even more as the season goes on. And definitely don't be surprised if Gordon is eventually shopped and traded.
Who Will Win Rookie of the Year?
This isn't what you would call a recipe for winning this year. The Hornets improved, but still have a lot of issues and locker room problems.
If the Hornets win 30 games (big if) and there is a rookie out there who plays exceptionally and leads his team to the playoffs, would he not be right in the conversation with Davis for ROY honors?
This knocks out a lot of potential candidates right away: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (the Bobcats are atrociously bad and he won't put up sexy enough numbers anyway), Bradley Beal (the Wizards are still in no-man's land and John Wall will miss some crucial time early this year), Dion Waiters (possible dark horse, but highly unlikely), Thomas Robinson (needs to rebound more and start a game before we can even consider considering him; also the Kings are probably not going to reach the postseason), Harrison Barnes (Curry+Thompson+Lee=not a lot of shots for Barnes and he needs to play hard every game), Terrence Ross (just not going to happen), and Andre Drummond (could be a dark horse if Davis gets injured and he continues strong play from preseason).
Who does that leave? Portland Trail Blazers PG Damian Lillard.
He's only played four games, needs to get up to speed on defense, and his field-goal percentage needs to drastically improve to put him in the discussion for ROY, but Lillard has put up 19.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game so far. Last year Kyrie Irving walked away with the award after putting up 18.5 ppg, 3.8 boards and 5.4 apg. Derrick Rose won the award averaging 16.4 ppg and 6.3 apg. If Lillard can come in somewhere around there, and he hasn't shown any reason to think otherwise, why couldn't he win Rookie of the Year?
Something that has helped Lillard thus far is his ability to knock down free throws, a talent he displayed while at Weber State. Only he's making it to the line just 4.8 times a game so far in the NBA, a number that should spike as he gets more aggressive and receives more freedom with the Blazers offense. All in all that should result in more easy points for Lillard, a player who liked to get to the basket in college.
On top of that, the Blazers simply have a better, more experienced team than the Hornets. Portland has a much better chance at making a run at a playoff spot with Lillard surrounded by veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum and JJ Hickson than Davis does with the Hornets' youthful bunch.
Lillard doesn't have to be the star every night the way Davis does because Aldridge has already cemented himself as that franchise's star. This means that when Lillard shines, he will shine very bright, but when he doesn't, there won't be as much attention paid to his struggles. When and if Davis struggles, everyone will hear about it. (And ESPECIALLY if Gordon is in and out of the lineup and not playing up to his full talent.)
Furthermore, watching a talented, athletic point guard is simply more fun than watching a big man dominate. There's a reason why Shaq was replaced by Allen Iverson by Reebok so many years ago. You sell more shoes with fast, athletic guards! It's just more exciting basketball. Because of that, Lillard's smooth yet explosive play could draw more eyes in a win than a Davis alley-oop may in a loss.
It may be Davis' award to lose at the moment, but don't be surprised if Lillard and Davis are neck-in-neck at the close of the season for Rookie of the Year honors.