The New Orleans Pelicans franchise player is in the midst of his ascension to the league's elite, swatting shots and draining hooks along the way. But there's a major question that still needs answering as Anthony Davis nears superstar status: What position should he be playing?
It's early in Davis' career to pigeonhole him in any way. After all, it was just last year that his offensive game was considered a work in progress and a long way away from being productive at the NBA level. Now he's routinely putting up 20 points and 10 rebounds and challenging marks that haven't been seen since Shaquille O'Neal's heyday.
Still, it's certainly worth discussing where his best fit is long term. The Pelicans came into the season with playoff aspirations, and if they want to find their way into that picture sooner rather than later, establishing where they want Davis to play will determine where he should focus his development, as well as where management will look to plug in holes.
Let's look at where he's had success this season and perhaps where he can maximize his potential going forward.
Up to this point in his career, Davis' production on offense mirrors what you'd expect from someone with his body type.
Although he has produced a number of highlight-reel dunks, Davis is still relatively average in the painted area as a whole. His touch is well beyond where many people thought it would be at this stage of his career, but strong defenders do a number on him close to the basket.
That's a moderate concern because, according to the NBA stats database, 56.3 percent of Davis' points come from within the painted area. If he's forced to battle with behemoths in the paint night after night, it's probably fair to say he'll struggle, at least given his current body composition.
Much has been made of Davis' improved physique this season, with head coach Monty Williams claiming Davis had gained at least 18 pounds upon entering training camp. It was encouraging to see him put weight onto his lanky, 6'10'' frame, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him add even more bulk as he ages. Remember, he doesn't turn 21 until March 11.
The flip side of that optimism is that gaining weight eventually may result in diminishing returns for Davis. Part of why he has been successful this season is that he's a match-up nightmare for opponents with his combination of size and athleticism. Typically, more weight means less speed, outside of a few rare exceptions like LeBron James, and a player's game may change as a result.
However, people forget how young Shaq was an awe-inspiring athlete, despite being much bigger than Davis will ever be. When Shaq made the jump from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers, he slowly transitioned from a big who ran up and down the floor to a hulking post presence.
A closer comparison may be Thaddeus Young of the Sixers, who looked to bulk up while playing under coach Doug Collins in 2012 in order to try to work his way into the starting lineup. The result? Young showed improved efficiency, but a total aversion to the perimeter game until this season. Most players will probably not seek to add weight if they're looking to attack guys from inside and out.
That's an important note, despite seeming fairly obvious, and it would be unwise to steer Davis away from shooting jumpers this early in his career. Consider this: Chris Bosh, considered by most to be one of the best mid-range shooters in the game, is knocking down shots at a 42.9 percent clip from that area this season. Davis is just a percentage point behind him, clocking in at 41.9.
It's an interesting player to compare him to, because Bosh himself plays a unique role for Miami. He plays multiple positions throughout the course of games, whether it's playing at center in smaller lineups or sliding over to power forward when Chris "Birdman" Andersen or Greg Oden enter the game. He takes advantage of different things depending on the matchup—centers struggle to deal with his speed, and he overpowers many stretch-four types like Davis' teammate Ryan Anderson.
Bosh is a player who can serve as a role model for Davis. The NBA, particularly when you get deeper into the postseason, is all about having the flexibility to do multiple things. As an offensive player, fostering the talents like shooting, which are more closely associated with forwards, is probably the way to go, at least for now.
Looking at the other side of the court, Davis has lived up to his billing as a transformative defensive player. It seems like every other night NBA Gametime features highlights of another block party led by the Pelicans long-armed leader.
Typically when you think of a shot-blocker, an intimidating presence staring you down from the paint comes to mind. Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers is an example of this archetype, an enormous figure that's hard to ignore as players go careening toward the rim.
Davis is different. While he's more than capable of turning away shots at the rim, his real gift is rejecting shots that you'd think he had no chance at. He's athletic enough to switch onto guards and quicker forwards on pick-and-rolls, and he uses his ridiculous wingspan to alter shots that appear out of reach to the typical player.
"Out of reach" doesn't appear to be a part of his vocabulary. At 1:14 of the above clip, the Jazz guard Gordon Hayward is halfway through his shooting motion before Davis takes off, and AD still manages to swat his shot into the tunnel.
Part of that can be credited to his otherworldly athleticism, but instinct and timing are a big part of the equation as well. You can't average 3.3 blocks per game, the most in the league this season, on athleticism alone.
Traditionally, shot-blockers have always been centers, including some of the league's most prolific shot erasers, from Hakeem Olajuwon all the way back to Bill Russell.* So if we keep Davis on the path that history dictates he should take, center would be where he should play.
A thought that comes to mind is how he would deal with the larger players at the position. People like to say that the big man is going extinct, but it's not exactly true. There are established post players like Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol, rising stars like Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins, and a host of other "traditional" centers who would present lots of problems for Davis' skinny frame.
Bad news: Although lineups with Davis at center are among the Pelicans' most effective on offense, they have struggled mightily on the defensive end. According to 82games.com, the Pelicans' most effective lineup on offense has been the four-man unit of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Anderson, with Davis playing at center. That quintet has scored 1.25 points per possession but gives them up at almost the same rate, allowing 1.20 to their opponents.
It's possible that this speaks more to the limitations of the Pelicans roster than Davis' ability to play center defensively. After all, his defensive rating is a full four points lower than any other member of the regular rotation, and the team ranks dead last overall in defensive rating. Positions aside, they have struggled to get stops.
If the aim is to have Davis block tons of shots and provide help for the team's porous perimeter defense, center still makes the most sense on paper. As the power forward position evolves in the modern NBA, filling up with more players who park themselves around the arc, having him guard more paint-dominant players would keep him closer to the rim, and thus more likely to help in cases of (defensive) emergency.
All that said: What's the verdict?
Does It Matter?
The real key to figuring out the right position for Anthony Davis is finding players who fit alongside him.
Lineups with Davis at center have struggled defensively, but look no further than Anderson, owner of a disgusting 114 defensive rating (DRtg), to explain why that is. When the player who is expected to be your crunch-time partner is a sieve, there's only so much you can do to stop the other team from scoring inside.
Part of the reason this debate exists is because league veterans continue to buy into the old expectations of centers. As recently as 2012, Kevin Garnett was griping about moving to the 5 in order for the Boston Celtics to make beneficiary lineup changes:
But if it comes to preference, I enjoy the 4. There’s a lot more versatility in the 4. The 5 you’re kind of stuck in mud and cement and you know things are written—there's not a lot of variation in the 5 position. But this is what it is, and I’m enjoying it and I’m adapting and doing whatever I can to give my team an edge.
These comments are particularly interesting in regards to Davis, because Garnett is the current player he should most aspire to be.
Garnett was the anchor of a championship defense, and he punished teams both on the blocks and from the perimeter. Depending on the opponent, his defensive responsibilities changed. He did fine guarding the Zydrunas Ilgauskases of the world, but Kendrick Perkins would take over when players like Howard and Andrew Bynum were on the ledger.
The answer to the question of where Davis should play isn't one or the other, but both. He's perfectly capable of dealing with the smaller, more athletic centers that will become more and more frequent in the coming years, and he can fit next to either a paint presence or a shooter offensively. With time and a few extra pounds, he'll become more effective finishing at the rim.
Developing skills associated more with one position than another doesn't mean that you're locked into that spot for life. There was once a time when, because you were tall, you were forced to play exclusively near the rim, but those days are coming to an end.
Much like offensive coordinators have begun to harness the power of mobile quarterbacks in the NFL, NBA coaches are realizing that having a big man who can play inside and out isn't a bad thing. The individual and team success of players like Dirk Nowitzki has not gone unnoticed.
The worst thing we can do is tell a 20-year-old what he should do for the rest of his career. He's too talented and too diverse to force into a mold because we want a cookie-cutter solution.
*Bill Russell played before blocks were an official stat, but is regarded by historians as one of the pioneers of the art of blocking shots.
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