It's easy to recognize Anthony Davis.
Even if he's not suited up in his New Orleans Pelicans jersey, the big man stands out thanks to his unique eyebrow, lankiness, ridiculous size and basketball skill. Davis is the 20-year-old tearing up the competition and making his first All-Star team, even though he's only just tapping into the depth of his potential.
It's tougher to find a valid comparison for the second-year standout.
While NBA history is littered with legends and incredible players who fall just short of mythical status, there isn't one who immediately springs to mind as the perfect mirror for Davis' skills. He resembles combinations of players, not any individual.
But "tougher" isn't the equivalent of "impossible."
Despite the difficulty of the task, we're still going to embark upon the search for Davis' best historical comparison.
Who Does He Look Like?
Let's first drop the unibrow out of the equation.
I'm sure there was some random backup from the 1950s or '60s who sported the one-brow look off the bench well before my time, but there's never been a superstar rocking the look quite like Davis. He's unique in that regard, as well as many others.
As for his measurable physical characteristics, Davis is listed at 6'10", 220 pounds by ESPN. And that's at only 20 years old.
The New Orleans big man might not grow to be a true 7-footer, but he has that prototypical frame that allows for plenty of filling out. His broad shoulders give away that secret, indicating that he's going to have the ability to bulk up as his body continues to mature and he hits NBA weight rooms.
But on top of that, he has some monstrous arms.
DraftExpress.com shows that Davis' wingspan was measured at 7'5.5" before he was drafted, giving him an enormous standing reach of 9'0". That's incredible, but it's not quite unique.
In recent memory, there are two NBA standouts (All-Stars or winners of a major award) who fit a pretty similar description.
First, there's Marcus Camby, who looked like this when he was just making a name for himself during the late '90s:
Then we have Kevin Garnett, who broke into the league right around the same time, coming straight out of high school:
Both of them were long, lanky youngsters during their opening salvos in the NBA, and both would go on to have great careers. Camby was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2007 and emerged as a consistent double-double threat while always protecting the rim well. Garnett developed into a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Both filled out, just as Davis will.
But size and body type alone doesn't make for a great comparison. That's always the case, and especially in a situation as unique as The Unibrow's.
In December 2010, ESPN Recruiting's Dave Telep explained that Davis experienced a seven-inch growth spurt, changing him nearly overnight from a guard to a big man. He defies physical comparison for that very reason.
So, let's turn to the numbers, and not just the physical ones.
What Do His Numbers Look Like?
During the 2013-14 season, Davis' second at the professional level, he's averaged a mind-boggling 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 3.0 blocks per game. The last number leads the league.
On top of that, he's shooting 52 percent from the field, knocking down 77 percent of his free throws and posting a 26.3 player efficiency rating that leaves him trailing only Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Chris Paul among all qualified players.
These aren't everyday numbers.
For the sake of actually finding a comparison, let's throw efficiency, steals and assists out the window. With those successfully defenestrated, how many players have ever gone 20/10 while swatting at least three attempts per contest?
According to Basketball-Reference, only eight players fit the billing, though it's worth noting that anyone playing before blocks were tracked in 1973-74 isn't going to get credit:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six times)
- Patrick Ewing (twice)
- Bob Lanier
- Bob McAdoo
- Alonzo Mourning (three times)
- Shaquille O'Neal (twice)
- Hakeem Olajuwon (nine times)
- David Robinson (seven times)
Of the 31 non-Davis seasons contained in that group, only one came while the player in question was 20 years old: Shaq's 1992-93 campaign.
But let's dig deeper. It's time to bring steals back into the equation, as the NOLA big man's preternatural ability to jump passing lanes and use his quick hands to wreak havoc is a large part of his skill set. Among those 31 seasons, how many also saw the player swipe the ball away at least 1.5 times per game?
Now the number drops to only 15, and no one on the list was younger than 23 when posting such numbers:
- Hakeem Olajuwon (nine times)
- David Robinson (six times)
And now, to bring efficiency back into the equation, how many of those seasons came while The Dream or The Admiral had a plus-26 PER?
- Hakeem Olajuwon (twice)
- David Robinson (five times)
All of those seasons showcased more polished scorers than Davis currently is, but what do you expect? They all had much more experience, both in general and as big men since the crazy growth spurt has messed up Davis' developmental curve.
Still, from a sheer numbers perspective, you have to account for a lot—primarily the second-year big man's impressive scoring and rebounding, his efficiency and his versatility.
That leaves Olajuwon and Robinson as the clear choices. But now let's add some subjectivity into the discussion.
What's His Skill Set Like?
So far, basketball people and New Orleans opponents have rarely said anything negative about the big man. Usually, reviews are glowingly positive, as was the case when one anonymous scout spoke to B/R's Jared Zwerling:
I think Davis very well could be the next big thing because of his amazing skill set. 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.
That's just not an isolated opinion, though.
Rather than continue to roll with anonymity, let's move on to a quote from Frank Vogel. Zwerling also had a chance to speak to the Indiana Pacers head coach during All-Star weekend, and this was the review he gave on Davis:
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.
Vogel is exactly right.
There aren't many comparisons for Davis, which makes my job incredibly difficult. His versatility is astounding, as the list of things he can do is much longer than the checklist of what he can't. Oh, and that latter list is only going to shrink as he continues developing and maturing.
Right now, Davis is capable of functioning as a No. 1 offensive option. His perimeter jumper is still developing, as are his post moves, but he's a terror around the basket and already able to take his man off the dribble while draining mid-range attempts.
He's also the No. 1 defensive player on the Pelicans roster.
Davis is still bulking up so he doesn't get bullied by back-to-the-basket players, but he protects the rim well, blocks shots as effectively as anyone and can showcase his lateral quickness on the perimeter. The way he hedges out during pick-and-roll sets is terrifying, especially because he can recover to a rolling big so quickly.
In the NBA right now, how many players are the top dog on both ends of the court? LeBron James, Paul George (let's give him the nod even though Roy Hibbert is on the squad), Rajon Rondo and that's about it.
Davis already is for the bayou-based squad, and he's only 20 years old.
Up to this point, four names have been brought up as comparisons—Garnett, Camby, Olajuwon and Robinson.
We can pretty much cross Camby off the list, seeing as his scoring peaked during his rookie season, when he averaged 14.8 points per game on 48.2 percent shooting. Davis is already blowing those numbers out of the water, and he's only going to get better.
The other three were dominant two-way players, so they can all stick around. You could bring up Tim Duncan or Bill Russell, but neither of those comparisons makes much sense. The Big Fundamental himself admitted as much during Davis' rookie season.
"I think he’s going to be his own type of player," Duncan told Jeff McDonald of MySanAntonio.com. "I didn’t have that kind of athleticism. I didn’t have the kind of speed that he does."
Russell doesn't make sense either. Not only is Davis less fundamentally sound on the defensive end of the court, but he showcases far more offensive versatility than the sport's greatest champion.
We're still sitting pretty with three leading comparisons.
What's the Best Comparison?
During a conversation about Davis, B/R's Dan Favale revealed his own view to me:
I don't think you missed anyone, though if he starts developing a hook shot and passing like he did before Kentucky, Kareem might eke his way in there. Davis is like an amalgamation of all those guys, with the potential to become a Gasol brothers-esque passer and stretch 4/5. Is he the most unique big man in NBA history?
I'm not willing to go quite as far as bringing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar into the conversation or calling a second-year big the most unique big in the sport's history, but he's certainly his own player. Right now, Davis defies comparison, even though we've identified a trio of viable candidates.
You could make a solid case for either Garnett, Olajuwon or Robinson, but each of them has flaws when being looked at as a mirror for the second-year player.
KG was a two-way stud during the prime of his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but Davis has already shown that he has more offensive potential. Just take a look at the scoring marks from the first two seasons of their respective times in the Association:
|Davis vs. Garnett|
Every single number points in Davis' favor.
At KG's offensive peak, he averaged 24.2 points and 5.0 assists per game during the 2003-04 season. He shot 49.9 percent with a career-high 29.4 PER, and he was rewarded with the NBA MVP for his efforts.
Do we want to doubt Davis' ability to get there? Garnett was 27 years old during the 2003-04 campaign, so Davis is still seven years away from reaching that point in his development. His passing skills are well shy of The Big Ticket's, but the scoring isn't far off already.
Interestingly enough, while KG over-relied on his jumper during that stage of his career, Davis does the exact opposite. Just one more difference for you to think about.
As for Robinson and Olajuwon, they each had skills that Davis will have trouble developing. The former was a physical specimen—just look at that picture above—and the latter's Dream Shake was evidence of footwork that Davis may never develop.
No players are ever carbon copies of each other, even if they model their games after their predecessors.
Although Robinson was three inches taller, significantly more sculpted, spent time in the military before making his way to the NBA as a 24-year-old rookie and came into the Association as a more polished offensive player, he's the closest comparison for Davis. But only if we're talking about potential peak.
The Unibrow still has a long way to go before he can justify any of these comparisons, though. We're talking about Hall of Famers and guys who will be honored as soon as they retire, after all.
Davis hasn't even enjoyed his first legal adult beverage at this stage of his career. There's plenty of development left in his tank, and the sky remains the limit.
As his career continues to progress, we'll get a clearer indication of the direction he's headed. Even the subtlest shift in his path could result in a new comparison.
But regardless, it's already readily apparent that he only deserves to be compared to legends of the game.
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