At Kentucky, Anthony Davis dominated games without touching the ball. His superior athleticism, freakish length and acute understanding of defensive principles made him a nightmare for most players slashing through the lane. On the glass, his leaping ability—both in his initial and second jump—far outclassed any of his peers, and allowed him to clean up with ease.
As a rookie with the New Orleans Hornets, he understandably took a step back. He faced NBA competition, after all, and couldn't dominate with raw skills. NBA basketball is as much a game of nuance and intelligence as it is athleticism and skill, and Davis often struggled with the former. Not to mention his lack of an offensive game—he shot 33.7 percent on spot-up jumpers last year and only attempted 36 shots out of the post all season.
All of this, of course, will come with time. Davis is only 20 years old, and much of what he lacks in polish is certainly teachable. Take his post game, for instance, or at least what we've seen of it so far. The hook shot, drop step and an up-and-under are all simple enough, but it’s the particulars of back-to-the-basket operations that trouble him the most.
Though Davis has yet to fill out his body strength-wise, his positioning before he receives the ball needs some work. But this is simply a matter of technique. Take a look at Tim Duncan before he receives the ball.
Notice that he almost sits down on Pau Gasol’s knee. This gives him adequate leverage so that Gasol can’t shove him off his spot, while also creating space to receive the ball. Gasol is fully pinned on his back because Duncan has angled the lower half of his body into Gasol’s midsection. He can now stick one arm out to receive the pass without worrying about Gasol sliding around to poke it away.
When you watch the play at full speed, also be mindful of how Duncan gets into position in the first place: he swings his hips through as he spins 180 degrees, which allows him to clear space for the ball.
Compare this to Davis, now. This isn't simply a matter of strength. Because he tries to create space by starting from a back-to-the-basket position, Minnesota’s Chris Johnson is able to nudge him farther away from the hoop with a little lower body shove. Davis’ only body part dedicated to his positioning is his off-arm, which clearly isn't enough to hold off an entire defender. He’s also standing straight up, and the lack of knee bend gives him no leverage to push back into Johnson.
Davis’ length should be an advantage. If he were to follow the same technique as Duncan, he would be able to sit down further into his defender while still reaching out for the ball. (Shorter players often can’t lean in too far for fear of the reach-around steal.) But he doesn't, and so the difference is this: Duncan catches the ball where he wants, squares up and goes to work. Davis, meanwhile, is no longer in a post position and is essentially being isolated like a perimeter player.
Though he does end up putting up a decent shot, it’s a few feet farther from the rim than it could have been.
Now flip it around: As a one-on-one post defender, Davis wasn't too successful in his rookie campaign. Giving up a 44.8 field goal percentage on post-ups last season, Davis often lost the post-up battle before it started—that is, he lost the game of positioning.
For Davis, however, this wasn't a matter of technique so much as an understanding of his role on the floor. Because opposing offenses did not dare to attack him at Kentucky, he primarily served as a help defender. Last season in the NBA, Davis often got caught cheating towards those responsibilities, and was late reacting to a post-up by his own man.
Here, Portland’s Meyers Leonard catches him sleeping by sliding directly in front of Davis only a few feet from the rim.
Davis is completely pinned, and can only foul. As you watch the play unfold below, notice his eyes: They’re completely focused on the ball, and he’s only using his arm to grasp Leonard’s movement by touch.
But in truth, help defense is the real reason why New Orleans drafted Davis. Simply put, he will be their defensive anchor for years to come. Big men of his caliber don’t come around too often, and a reliable rim protector in the center of the floor often masks other team deficiencies on the defensive end. Roy Hibbert cleans up perimeter mistakes for Indiana; Tyson Chandler, though a bit more often and with less success due to the Knicks porous defensive guard play, does the same; even LeBron James as a weak side help defender is an intimidating shot-blocker.
If there’s any difference between college basketball and the NBA, it’s the speed of the game. Players get to their spots a tad quicker; guards capitalize on even the slightest of hesitations from help defenders. There’s very little margin for error in the NBA, and it’s especially crucial to both understand and properly execute help defense rotations, no matter the scheme.
In college, Davis was able to get away with a bit more and be a bit more risk-taking and/or reckless in his shot blocking. Due to his length, he often chose to bait defenders into challenging him at the rim by waiting on the weak side. Instead of positioning himself in front of the driving player, he would time his jump to reach over and around and between whomever to get a piece of the ball.
Last season with New Orleans, Davis was punished much more often for this style of play.
Here’s the difference: Chicago’s Joakim Noah is a master at beating an offensive player to the spot. Whether it’s drawing charges, throwing his hands straight up in the air or simply being a body in the way, rarely does an offensive player get to the rim against Chicago without Noah, at the very least, making the shot difficult.
That’s what San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili runs into when he gets to the bucket on this play. Instead of Noah wildly swinging for the block, and possibly earning two free throws for Ginobili, he reads the play as it develops and positions himself accordingly. Therefore, as Ginobili beats his man and is ready to lay the ball up, Noah has already sagged into a help position.
Meanwhile, Davis fouls Sacramento’s Isaiah Thomas after he throws a floater over his outstretched arms. On this play, Davis chooses to reach up and swat the floater—you can even see him choose not to step up into Thomas’ path, but instead time his jump in the air. Unfortunately for Davis, Thomas throws the ball just high enough to get over Davis. Because his body is now out of control, Davis can’t help but barrel into Thomas as he finishes off the play.
That these are Davis’ teaching points only one year into his NBA career is a good sign, however. Much of what he’ll learn is simply a matter of experience, and Davis will clearly be a mainstay on the New Orleans roster for years to come. When he does figure out how to put it all together, we’re all certainly looking at the next premier rim protector and one of the best players in the NBA.