There was a moment on Saturday night in New Orleans during All-Star Weekend when I could envision the future of the NBA.
LeBron James had taken the stage in a private space at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art to welcome guests—including Miami Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, as well as Kevin Durant, James Harden and Blake Griffin—to the celebration of his third GQ cover, with the March headline of "LeBron James is on Fire."
As James stood above the crowd in a custom Waraire Boswell tuxedo, featuring a flashy green paisley print jacket, another All-Star—a first-timer—watched in the distance, also wearing green.
The green was confined to Anthony Davis' pants, but the similarities stretched beyond that: Same freakishly athletic DNA and multi-skilled prowess. Just in different ways on the court.
It was then that I realized it's only a matter of time before this young man will have his own GQ cover party and become the league's "Next Big Thing," to quote the slogan from James' Samsung Galaxy commercials.
The "Terror" of Davis
A 6'10" power forward who's emerged as this season's breakout star, Davis is averaging 20.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field. With those numbers, his PER (26.35) is fifth-best in the league, right behind seasoned All-NBA veterans such as Durant, James, Kevin Love and Chris Paul.
"I think Davis very well could be the next big thing because of his amazing skill set," one NBA scout said. "He's a phenomenal defensive player, but his offensive skills and growth in such a short period have been really impressive. I think he can be top five in the league in 2-3 years max.
"I'm not sure how many NBA execs, coaches and scouts expected him to be this good this fast. He was clearly talented coming out of college, but I don't think we saw the quick rise. Offensively, he can shoot, handle the ball, pass and take his man off the dribble. On the other end, he's a fantastic rebounder, blocks and changes shots, and defends pick-and-rolls pretty well. He also has great feet, so that helps a lot."
Davis has even made arguably the best defensive center in the NBA, Roy Hibbert, a little nervous.
"He'll be a terror in this league," Hibbert said.
Davis not only should be a leading candidate for Most Improved Player this season, but also for Defensive Player of the Year. He's averaging 1.6 steals and a league-leading 3.1 blocks per game—1.3 more than he averaged as a rookie. With the Pelicans lacking an experienced center—last season, they had Robin Lopez—Davis has stepped up his coverage.
"I don't know if there are many players in the NBA that you really even can compare him to," said Pacers and Eastern Conference All-Star coach Frank Vogel, who is a Kentucky alum, like Davis. "He defends, he can score the ball in the post, he can score on the perimeter, he's a lob threat, he gives (the Pelicans) vertical spacing, he runs the floor. He not only defends the rim, but he defends his own guy. He just has incredible versatility."
Davis' teammate, shooting guard Eric Gordon, agreed, saying, "I think he can be the most complete player as a big that can change a game in many ways."
Davis' Unique Makeup
While Davis' and James' body makeups are different—Davis is ultra long and athletic, while James is super strong and athletic—Davis' ascension and what he's already accomplishing at 20 years old is, in some respects, more impressive than what James was doing at that age. Davis has basically had to alter his style of play three times in the past five years—each time becoming more dangerous than the last—while still utilizing previous elements of his game.
While there are many young players who can jump out of the gym, most can't translate those athletic gifts into a package of versatile talent. But certain qualities set Davis apart.
"He's just a freak of nature, and players at any level would kill for his physical gifts," the scout said. "These types of players don't come around often and aren't necessarily made—they are born. It's a gift. But they can only be as good as they want to be with hard work and not believing the hype. He seems humble, and that's one of the keys."
"Not everybody can tap into their 100 percent," said Carlos Daniel, the Pelicans' strength and conditioning coach, "but the great ones know how to tap into that 100 percent on a high level, and a more consistent level than anybody else."
Five years ago, as a high school junior, Davis was strictly playing as a guard at 6'3". Then he grew to 6'8" the following season and was the top recruit in the county, becoming a force on both ends of the court. As a freshman at Kentucky, he was 6'10" and scored most of his points on fast breaks or off the ball from putbacks and lob passes.
That was mostly the case as well during his rookie season in 2012-13, when he averaged 1.556 points per play in transition and shot 67.8 percent from less than five feet of the basket but had abysmal accuracy from everywhere else.
Now, while Davis is still maintaining his impact in the paint and transition—his 1.527 points per breakaway with a minimum of 90 plays is the league's best mark—he's made leaps and bounds in other offensive areas. He's been able to package together many of the skills he learned through his fast growth spurt and different on-court positions.
"His evolution as a player is really remarkable," Vogel said. "Everybody knows what his skills are and his talent is coming into this league, but just to put it together is not a guarantee. He's done that."
Inside Davis' Developments
For starters, Davis has improved his jump shot with a helpful eye from coach Monty Williams, who noticed that two mechanical issues had to be slighted adjusted: the point of release and how the ball left his hands.
"Anthony believed it, bought into it and then worked on it all last summer," Daniel said of Davis, who's upped his shooting from 29.2 percent from 15 to 19 feet in 2012-13 to 41.1 percent this season.
This is from someone who only took 130 shots in total from that area last season; through Thursday, he had already taken 141. The Pelicans are even running more down-screens for him to take advantage of catch-and-shoot opportunities, and he's flourishing in more pick-and-pops, Gordon said. With a 7'4" wingspan, coupled with "tremendous flexibility and quick-twitched muscles," as Daniel noted, Davis can extend well off the jump, making his shot nearly unblockable.
Also, a season after Davis was a "poor" isolation scorer (according to Synergy Sports), he's become "very good" in that department. In 2012-13, he averaged 0.526 points per play in that setup; now, he's at 0.89 and has already been in that situation 73 times (only 38 last season).
It's now a common sight to see Davis triple-threat against his defender, put the ball on the floor, bump his man, turn around—while maybe throwing in a head fake—and then lift off for a jumper. That's where another court sense he acquired growing up comes into play.
"Being able to have that guard instinct kind of helped me a lot. It made me versatile a lot," Davis said. "I'm just trying to keep my guard skills in with my big-man skills during workouts, and just try to keep them together."
Facing up, head fakes, spin moves, one-to-two dribble pullups and finishing with his left hand were among the things he worked on last summer, being guarded by the 6'7", 245-pound Daniel and 6'10", 250-pound Kevin Hanson, a player development coach for the Pelicans. Both men played professionally overseas and provided a needed physical presence for the lankier Davis in his development.
Davis also added bulk, which Daniel said he's maintained this season—15 pounds this summer after losing weight in April from a stomach flu—and it's come in handy when getting where he wants to go off the dribble and when rolling off screens.
Daniel said because Davis' body was built like nothing he had ever seen, he was delicate adding weight to him in order to not interfere with his God-given abilities. He focused primarily on simulating exercises that mirrored Davis' consistent on-court movements—a reverse pivot, forward pivot, drop step, sweeping the ball and going shoulder to shoulder—to make them more powerful in games.
"I told him in that first year, 'I want you to be the first Anthony Davis because your body is different,'" said Daniel, who works alongside Jon Ishop, the Pelicans' head athletic trainer. "I told him, 'The way your body moves, the way you do things, it's different, so I have to be able to think of ways to physically make you the best Anthony Davis you can be.'"
"While it wasn't 100 percent happening that first year, because he still got pushed off the block and still got pushed around, this year, it's even more. He can actually go and get that spot and hold it. That's a big deal, so that makes him stronger in those moves, so him being able to hold a spot allows him to pick a favorite spot on the floor in order to be effective."
Davis, who now weighs about 235 pounds, said his ability to absorb contact has been a "big improvement" from Year 1 to Year 2. Being rail thin was his biggest weakness in college, as he would tend to get bumped off balance in traffic. He's getting to the free-throw line 2.8 more times per game this season, while shooting a respectable 76.1 percent.
"(Daniel) definitely helped me out getting stronger, and it's improved my game on the floor," Davis said. "I'm able to get hit on the arm or upper body and finish at the rim, or at least get a shot up and draw a foul. Even when I'm driving by guys, they're not able to just bump me off line, so it's huge and it's getting me a lot more scoring opportunities at the rim."
Davis, the Leader
Anthony Davis Sr., who, along with his wife, Erainer, tag-teamed with his son during All-Star Weekend, said last summer was significant in his evolution.
"He was just dedicated to the gym, putting in the hard work," Davis Sr. said. "Hard work pays off, and that's what I've been teaching him all along, so he's on his way."
Daniel said Davis has also accepted a bigger leadership role this season—"He leads by example and speaks when needed; he doesn't waste his words," he said—and it started when he organized a pre-training camp in August for the team in New Orleans.
Daniel noted that Davis was always focused and never relaxed, setting the tone in the workouts, which took place on a field with a grass hill set aside for the Pelicans by the New Orleans Saints as part of their practice facility.
"It was just him emerging as a leader," Gordon said. "There's a lot of good players here, but the thing is, he's just so talented that he can help raise the bar."
Off the court in New Orleans, Davis helped spearhead a project this past weekend—along with the city's mayor, Mitch Landrieu—at Joe W. Brown Park to renovate a basketball center for youth leagues and educational initiatives. Davis talked about how the locals have embraced him and his teammates in the two years he's been in town.
"They're always supporting us no matter what," he said. "They're there in the arena every night cheering us on, even though our record is not where we want it to be. They're still there supporting us, and that goes a long way."
Even with the absence of key starters Jrue Holiday (14.3 points, 7.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game) and Ryan Anderson (19.8 points and 40.9 percent from three-point range) due to injury, Davis has kept the inexperienced Pelicans fairly competitive since Jan. 11 (an 8-10 record without both of his running mates).
"Every night, he carries the team," Williams told Fox Sports New Orleans during a recent broadcast. "Even when he doesn't have a great offensive night—he's there on defense, he's rebounding, he's blocking shots."
Davis' constant high motor helps him do it all. As he said, "I'm 20 years old (he turns 21 next month). I've got a lot of energy, so I just try to start off playing well and I just take care of my body."
As for game planning, Davis said he doesn't prepare for individual matchups. "I just go out there and play, and take what the defense gives me," he said.
But he noted that the pool of prize power forwards in the league, including LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki, gives him a boost almost every night.
"They make me better," he said. "We've got a lot of great power forwards in this league, especially in the Western Conference, so it makes me become better as a player, because I know they're going to give me their all each and every night that we play them, and I'm going to do the same."
What's Next for Davis?
While Holiday and Anderson are both out indefinitely, according to the Pelicans, the team will still need a serviceable big man and more three-point shooting to make any kind of second-half push toward a postseason berth. Its record is currently 23-30, four spots out of the playoff picture.
For now, Williams has been giving Davis more reps at the top of the key to facilitate plays. Again, it's that guard mentality kicking in—he's also one of the best in the league at guarding that position—and he's been able to draw some attention away from himself on the perimeter, so others can get open looks. Without Holiday and Anderson, that's critical.
"It's awesome," Davis said about being a setup man. "I'm just able to see the floor, and that's where the guard instincts come in, being 6'3" a couple years ago and knowing that I'm going to draw a lot of attention, so guys are going to be open. So we're really doing a lot of things where I'm just a decoy."
Where Davis is still learning involves the midrange game, especially predicting and making smart reads out of traps.
"I've just got to learn how to play off counters," he said. "Guys are sending double teams at me from the baseline, from the middle, so I've got to learn how to play through that and find other ways to score, whether it's moving without the ball, offensive rebounding and putting it back. I've got to find a way to get more room and do a better job of finding my teammates in those situations."
But Davis' biggest weakness offensively is scoring on the low block—like it was for James earlier in his career.
Can you imagine when that changes for Davis, who's planning an enhanced low-post and muscle-building program this summer with Daniel? While the scout said "he's going to be a pure beast," Gordon went a step further to further illustrate the still untapped potential of already one of the best young players in the league.
"When he gets that post game down, he'll be unstoppable," Gordon said.
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