Anthony Davis Already an Elite NBA Defender at Age 20

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
Anthony Davis Already an Elite NBA Defender at Age 20
USA Today

Don't use age as an excuse. 

Anthony Davis hasn't let his limited years on the planet stop him from becoming one of the NBA's elite defenders for the New Orleans Pelicans.  

The Kentucky product was the No. 1 pick of the 2012 NBA draft, but he failed to stand out as a first-year player, losing Rookie of the Year in unanimous fashion to Damian Lillard. When he was on the court, he put up nice and efficient numbers, but health and a lack of physicality held him back.

After terrorizing college basketball with his defensive prowess, he looked overmatched as a rookie. 

Not anymore. 

 

Elite Rim Protector

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

It's important to note there's a huge difference between being a quality shot-blocker and a potent protector of the paint. While the former just includes piling up rejections, the latter necessitates proper rotations and a great understanding of the overall defensive concepts. 

You can block a lot of shots without making a monumental defensive impact (see: Ibaka, Serge over the last few years). You can't be a good rim protector without becoming a massive positive for your team's defense. 

Even without much NBA experience under his belt, Davis is already in the more impressive category. Plays like this are becoming increasingly common: 

NBA.com

It's already obvious that Enes Kanter is coming over to set a screen for Alec Burks, and Jrue Holiday knows that Anthony Davis is behind him. 

The point guard's primary thought is to force his man away from the baseline by shifting over. If he does so, he's putting Burks into a terrible situation: either stagnating in the corner or driving along the out-of-bounds line with Davis closing in on him. 

NBA.com

So that's exactly what Holiday does. Notice how little any of the other involved players move while Holiday shifts his body between Burks and Kanter. 

Burks doesn't have much of a choice at this point, and he's hesitant to drive well over Kanter and reset the play with the shot clock already almost halfway gone. 

NBA.com

As a result, he drives baseline. And that's just not going to work. 

With his lateral quickness and lanky arms, Davis slides over to contest the shot. I've included red lines where the players' arms are, as the contrast makes it easier to see. 

How exactly is Burks scoring here? 

NBA.com

He's forced to double clutch by Davis' shot-blocking tendencies, and Al-Farouq Aminu cleans up the trash, recording the possession-ending rejection. 

Did "The Brow" get a block? No, but he may as well have. 

This is protecting the rim, even if he doesn't get any credit for it in a box score. And that's exactly what the Pelicans want from him. 

So far this season, few players have been better than Davis at keeping offensive players from scoring while they're right around the bucket. We can tell thanks to the SportVU database at NBA.com

Through nine games, Davis is facing five shots per game at the rim, and he's turning away all but 33.3 percent of them. That's an incredible number. In fact, among players going up against at least as many shots as Davis, he has the No. 4 percentage allowed: 

  1. Joakim Noah, 30.6 percent
  2. Tim Duncan, 31.3 percent
  3. Brook Lopez, 31.7 percent
  4. Anthony Davis, 33.3 percent
  5. Roy Hibbert, 33.8 percent

The only other players below 40 percent are Timofey Mozgov, Omer Asik, Nikola Pekovic, Ian Mahinmi, Chris Kaman and Miles Plumlee.

How's that for an impressive mark? 

Davis' instincts are fantastic, and he has the athletic abilities necessary to maximize their impact. He's able to gamble more because he can recover so quickly and still elevate in the blink of an eye to at least contest a shot. 

But Davis' defensive prowess stems from more than just his ability to protect the rim. 

 

Already Buying into Team Defense

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

There's a lot that goes into The Brow's overall defensive play, and it all stems from his versatility. 

Need him to bang around in the post? Sure, that's fine, although he'll wear down if you leave him in isolation for too long. 

Need him to cover a more mobile big man? That's fantastic. 

Need him to switch on screens and corral guards? No problem at all.

There was one impressive play against the Charlotte Bobcats early this season in which he got switched onto Gerald Henderson and stuck with him, navigating several crossovers and a burst to the rim before pinning the 2-guard's shot to the background. Henderson may have thought he was toying with Davis, but the opposite was true. 

This versatility allows the Pelicans to do whatever they want around him. Davis can hold his own in any situation, and that's different than it was during his rookie season. 

Fresh out of Kentucky and still skinny as a beanpole, the big man could be bullied in the post, and he overcommitted far too often. He would go flying out to a spot-up shooter with an inordinate amount of speed, and that man could just pump fake before lofting up an easy opportunity as Davis went flying by. 

But in 2013-14, discipline and an increasingly physical frame have allowed him to make a more positive impact for NOLA's defensive systems. Take a look at how many points per 100 possessions the team gives up with and without him, courtesy of NBA.com's statistical databases and Basketball-Reference.com:

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

There's still some work to be done here, but no player is without flaws. Davis will eventually adjust his game to compensate for the fact that the guards he starts alongside aren't elite defenders, and the solid point-preventing play of the second unit is depressing the overall appearance of his value. 

But still, not only are the Pelicans better defensively than the Hornets were, but Davis is also making a positive impact this year.

That can't be overlooked. 

 

It's All About the Stocks

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Any guess how many players in the NBA are currently averaging at least two blocks and two steals per game? 

According to Basketball-Reference.com, Davis is the only one. And he's checking in with 2.1 steals and 3.1 blocks per contest, so it's not like he's just barely meeting the criteria in both categories. 

But let's increase the scope of the analysis and look at every season since the turn of the century. These are the only players to hit a deuce in each category: 

  • Gerald Wallace (2005-06): 2.1 blocks, 2.5 steals
  • Anthony Davis (2013-14): 3.1 blocks, 2.1 steals

Still not too many guys popping up. So what about throughout NBA history (although you must remember that blocks and steals weren't tracked until 1973-74)? 

  • David Robinson (1991-92): 4.5 blocks, 2.3 steals
  • Hakeem Olajuwon (1988-89): 3.4 blocks, 2.6 steals
  • Hakeem Olajuwon (1989-90): 4.6 blocks, 2.1 steals
  • Hakeem Olajuwon (1987-88): 2.7 blocks, 2.1 steals
  • Hakeem Olajuwon (1990-91): 3.9 blocks, 2.2 steals
  • Gerald Wallace (2005-06): 2.1 blocks, 2.5 steals
  • Anthony Davis (2013-14): 3.1 blocks, 2.1 steals

That's a pretty stellar group, huh? 

Let's not forget that Crash became the only player in Charlotte Bobcats franchise history to make an All-Star team a few years later. He led the league in steals during 2005-06 and was in no way the punchline that he is today. 

Blocks and steals are by no means a great way of evaluating overall defensive impact, but they're still important because they can be possession-ending plays. Steals certainly are, and blocks can be. 

Davis is racking up thefts both by swiping the ball out of opponents' hands and by jumping passing lanes, which is a good sign for his ability to maintain his current pace. But let's hone in on the blocks. 

Thus far, The Brow has wiped away 28 shots. I went back and watched video of all of them so that I could track the results of the play, and the findings are—surprise, surprise—rather impressive: 

Play Result Offensive Rebound Defensive Rebound Out of Bounds Jump Ball
Frequency 5 21 1 1

When a block is recorded, it's important to note what happens next.

Players like Dwight Howard enjoy spiking the ball out of bounds to create highlights, but that doesn't end a possession; it just gives the offense another chance. 

Tim Duncan is the recent master of keeping blocks in play, tipping some of them right into the hands of teammates, but Bill Russell is the all-time great. He could actually start fast-break counterattacks with his blocks, treating the play like he was playing volleyball and swatting the rock to a teammate as a de facto outlet pass. 

During his rookie season, Davis liked the emphasis of a SportsCenter-worthy rejection. Not so much this year, as he's recognized the value of ending the possession. 

It's also worth noting in that chart that he won the jump ball against Miles Plumlee and corralled seven of the defensive rebounds by himself. He has a certain flair for engulfing the ball and coming down with it, which is convenient because it lets him throw an immediate outlet pass. 

Is Anthony Davis an elite defender?

Submit Vote vote to see results

No matter how you slice it, Davis has emerged as an elite defender this season, even though he can't even legally consume alcohol. Sure, there are ways for him to improve—adding more mass so he can bang in the paint, fending off speedy guards more effectively, etc.—but he's already elite. 

Perhaps we'll start seeing NBA hopefuls growing out unibrows of their own now. Anything to channel the magic that Davis is utilizing. 

Load More Stories

Follow New Orleans Pelicans from B/R on Facebook

Follow New Orleans Pelicans from B/R on Facebook and get the latest updates straight to your newsfeed!

Team StreamTM

Out of Bounds

New Orleans Pelicans

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.