At just 20 years old, Anthony Davis has taken the league by storm. Representing the Western Conference in the 2014 All-Star Game is a great accomplishment, but doing it at such an early age has many thinking historically. Is it possible that Davis becomes the greatest player in the history of the New Orleans Pelicans franchise?
That we can ask this question so early in Davis' career is a testament to his talent, and recognition is coming from all directions for the Pelicans big man. Frank Vogel, head coach of the Eastern Conference's top team, the Indiana Pacers, heaped praise on Davis in an interview with Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling.
I don't know if there are many players in the NBA that you really even can compare him to. 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.
All of this stuff sounds great, but is it enough to start asking big-picture questions? Sure, Davis is regularly posting 20-10's and swallowing opponent's shots whole, but is that enough for him to reach the peak?
If it sounds ludicrous that we're having this discussion, remember that these aren't the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers, with countless jerseys of legends hanging in the rafters. Including their days as the Charlotte Hornets, the franchise has only been around since 1988, leaving little time for players to cement their legacies and stake claim as the franchise's top star.
One of those former stars, point guard Chris Paul, is certainly worthy of a place in the discussion. Paul was a master of efficiency during his time in New Orleans whose apex came during the 2008-09 season, when he put up insane averages of 22.8 points, 11 assists and 2.8 steals on 50.3 percent shooting.
Player Efficiency Rating is not a perfect statistic—none are—but it is a fairly reliable measure of a player's worth, both in comparison to his peers and against players historically. CP3's 2008-09 season is one most can only dream about, the greatness of which is neatly captured by his PER of 30, ranking alongside the best years of Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James.
Paul's PER at his apex is worth mentioning because Davis' efficiency this season is at a level only Paul has reached for the franchise.
Comparing the peripheral stats of the two players is difficult, because they're inherently different. Paul is a diminutive water bug and distribution expert, while Davis is a Gumby-like figure, using an over-sized wingspan to protect the rim and dive into passing lanes.
Speaking of protecting the rim, the team formerly known as the Charlotte Hornets once employed a man who was pretty good at doing that himself: Alonzo Mourning.
Drafted one pick after Shaquille O'Neal in 1992, the Georgetown product had a brilliant, albeit brief tenure as a member of the franchise. Just like Davis, he made the All-Star team in just his second season on the strength of his two-way play. He trailed only an elite trio of shot blockers—David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo—in swats per game.
Mourning is a fun player to compare Davis to, because his early Hornets numbers are roughly the same as Davis' now. The similarity between their sophomore seasons is striking, but there's one major difference.
Although Mourning was a fantastic player on defense, he was not the type of threat that Davis is in passing lanes. Only once in his career did he swipe a ball per game over the course of a season, and as luck would have it, it happened in his first season on the team that he's most remembered for, the Miami Heat.
Zo's running mate in Charlotte, Larry Johnson, is another player with a legitimate claim for the top spot in the franchise hierarchy. Like Davis, he was selected No. 1 overall out of college, expected to be the transformative talent a new franchise needed to rise to prominence.
It's not hard to see why. Johnson was the star of one of the greatest college basketball teams ever, the early '90's UNLV Runnin' Rebels. Johnson and his teammates at UNLV were so dominant over a two-year stretch that their loss to Duke in the 1991 NCAA Final Four provoked accusations of point shaving that still run wild today.
He turned that college potential into pro-production during his first couple years in the NBA, amassing averages of 22.1 points and 10.5 rebounds during his second season with the Hornets en route to an All-Star appearance. George Shinn was so enamored with their young star that they paid him to the tune of $84 million over 12 years prior to his third season, which was claimed to have been the biggest deal in the league at the time.
Unfortunately, friction between Mourning and Johnson—as well as a troublesome back for the latter—resulted in their departure from the franchise via trade. By now, you should notice a pattern emerging: young star blossoms with the franchise before being dealt to greener pastures, only for the rebuilding cycle to begin anew.
Unlike those that came before him, Anthony Davis has a man in his corner that might stop that cycle and assure his ascent to franchise king: Tom Benson.
The Pelicans new owner has seen the value of his franchise rise over $80 million dollars since purchasing them in April 2012, partly because of his own investments in the property. Construction of a state-of-the-art practice facility and the acquisition of several big money players last offseason are indications that management does not feel deterred from spending despite playing in a smaller market.
For Davis to become the franchise's best player, it may only take a simple task from higher-ups—make sure he stays there. Of the three players mentioned, none spent more than six seasons with the team. Great as these men were, none were able to lead the franchise past the second round of the playoffs.
Will Anthony Davis go down as the best Pelican ever?
It's impossible to say which way Davis' production will go for the remainder of his career, because his career is still in its infancy. Injuries and unforeseen circumstances could derail him, and unrealized potential could also take him to loftier heights.
What's scary, though, is that Davis does a little bit of what made each of these players great, swatting shots like 'Zo, scoring in a variety of ways like Johnson and picking pockets like Paul. His greatness transcends the context of the Pelicans franchise, and reaches levels that were only achieved by players like Olajuwon and Robinson.
If that's not enough for you, remember the words of Turner's own Steve Kerr, who praised Davis profusely on a podcast with Bill Simmons back in November, long before many expected greatness on a regular basis from the 'Brow.
On the bright side for New Orleans, Anthony Davis is absolutely ridiculous. Over the next six to eight years, as LeBron fades, he might be the guy we're talking about in terms of being the best player in the league. He's got a Kevin Garnett type frame, but with a lot more offensive skill, and he's just scratching the surface.
Keep that in mind as you watch Davis going forward—he's already on a level with the franchise's best of all-time, and he's still nowhere near the player he can be yet.
There's no doubt that Anthony Davis can be the greatest player in the history of the Pelicans franchise. Now they just need to make sure he stays around long enough for it to happen.