"He's spectacular. He's getting better every single day," four-time MVP LeBron James said of Davis earlier this season, via Brett Martel of the Associated Press. "When you know you're a star and your team looks at you as a leader, as a star, you make plays and that's what he's doing."
When Davis and the Pelicans reconvene for the 2014-15 campaign, expect even more support for the league's premier single-browed star and the franchise he's ready to lead.
In NBA terms, the 21-year-old is still an infant. That lofty praise from James came after Davis led the Pelicans past the Miami Heat with a masterful 30-point, 11-rebound performance in just the 124th game of his professional career.
There's so much work still to be done, but Davis seems more than ready to embrace the challenges ahead.
Laying the Foundation
"To go from rookie to elite is just mind-boggling," Pelicans coach Monty Williams said, via John Reid of The Times-Picayune. "I just think the guy put in an enormous amount of work in his game."
Davis, already both a gold-medal Olympian and NBA All-Star, suited up for a 34-win team this season and still managed to dominate headlines. By year's end, he was a regular on the statistical leaderboards:
Before plotting the path ahead, it's important to pore over the breadcrumbs he's left behind.
The Pelicans handled him with kid gloves as a rookie. Minor ailments held him out of 18 games, and in the 64 he played, he averaged only 28.8 minutes of floor time. He still managed a solid, albeit unspectacular, 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, numbers better placed in perspective when stretched across a per-36-minute scale: 16.9, 10.2 and 2.2, respectively, via Basketball-Reference.com.
Clearly, New Orleans had something special on its hands. The only question was how special, and Davis used the 2013-14 campaign to hint at a drool-worthy answer:
His scoring average spiked to 20.8 points a night, bolstered by a 51.9 field-goal percentage that actually increased from his rookie season (51.6) despite the massive gains he saw in offensive responsibility and opponents' defensive attention.
Yet, it's hard to focus on one area of the stat sheet when the entire thing read like a work of art.
The averages he maintained—20-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, 2.5-plus blocks, less than two turnovers—had only been seen together once before since the league started tracking turnovers in 1977-78 (Tim Duncan, 2004-05), via Basketball-Reference.com.
Once the kid gloves were officially off (Davis saw more than 35 minutes a night), he was free to take that "mind-boggling" leap Williams described from solid to spectacular.
It was remarkable to watch. It was also somewhat expected for those with a front-row view of Davis' growth.
"Did it come a little faster than we thought? Yes," Pelicans general manager Dell Demps said at his season-ending press conference, via Reid. "But when you watch him work in the offseason and you see the time that he puts in, you’re not surprised."
Apparently, the executive wasn't kidding.
Davis' Summer Schedule
Davis, some two months removed from his last appearance, already looks to be reaping the rewards of his offseason regimen:
Davis was listed at 220 pounds for the 2013-14 season.
From Williams' vantage point, per Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune, it's getting harder to recognize the blossoming big man:
It's weird seeing him. He's put on some muscle. I'm not going to be cracking a lot (skinny) jokes about him anymore. Before I could just put him down, now I'm like you have to be messing with my wife and kids for me to attack him now. He's put on some muscle. I didn't think he would be that much different but he looks different.
The plan is for Davis to have more than just a new physical form by the start of the 2014-15 campaign. New Orleans is looking to add several wrinkles to his game over the offseason, as Pelicans assistant coach Kevin Hanson explained, via Pelicans.com:
We want to continue with his post work. He’s very comfortable facing (the basket) right now; he’s not as comfortable with his back to the basket. ...
We've got to get a lot of repetition with that, developing more of a typical post man’s game – Tim Duncan and those kinds of guys – where you’re getting to your jump hook, your turnaround, your spin move.
He’s got to get more comfortable putting the ball down multiple times. ...Now we want to add multiple dribbles to his game, kind of similar to what Chris Bosh is doing now. Bosh is comfortable putting it down two or three times and making whatever play’s there, whether it’s a shot or a pass to a teammate.
Davis is also looking to add "the corner 3-point shot...and a pull-up jumper off the dribble," according to Hogan.
That collective groan you just heard came from the 29 coaching staffs who will be forced to deal with the new-look Davis next season. They had their hands full with the Brow already:
Davis is predictably raw at the offensive end. He was an unheralded 6'3" guard just a few years back, after all.
"At the beginning of the [junior] school year I was 6-3," Davis told ESPN's Dave Telep in 2010. "Then I went to 6-5 and then 6-8."
Now standing 6'10" tall, his backcourt background is only noticeable in his comfort when playing in open spaces. He was the NBA's fourth-most efficient transition scorer this season, via Synergy Sports (subscription required), converting those plays at a rate of 1.53 points per possession. He ranked 31st as a pick-and-roll screener with 1.12 points per possession and a 54.2 field-goal percentage.
In close quarters, his efficiency dropped. He ranked well outside the top 50 as both an isolation (0.87 points per possession, 83rd) and post-up (0.88, 67th) scorer.
With a larger frame and better footwork, he could become a force on the low block with his length, quickness and athleticism. Not to mention the extra room he could create for himself with the addition of a reliable three-point shot. He's attempted only 15 in his career and misfired on all but two.
He has enough potential avenues to improvement that it's impossible to set a ceiling on his growth. That's a scary thought considering how high his basement currently sits.
His biggest challenge, though, will be bringing this franchise along on his climb up the NBA ladder.
Playoffs for Pelicans?
According to Davis, only a vicious attack by the injury bug prevented this club from snapping its three-year postseason drought.
"If we would have been healthy for the year, we would have been in the playoffs," Davis said, via Reid. "But you can’t control injuries. So you’ve got to try and build your body up and hope you stay healthy by next year to make that run."
Davis made a team-high 66 starts this season, losing seven games in December to a fractured hand. Point guard Jrue Holiday (right tibia stress fracture), shooting guard Eric Gordon (left knee), stretch big Ryan Anderson (herniated disc) and center-forward Jason Smith (right knee) all underwent season-ending surgeries.
The Pelicans appear to have the talent to contend for a playoff spot, but that rash of injuries made it hard to see how all the pieces fit.
Holiday, Gordon, Davis, Anderson and Tyreke Evans—arguably Williams' strongest five—shared the floor for only 91 minutes. They scored at a ridiculous rate (123.5 points per 100 possessions) and had major defensive issues (119.8 points allowed per 100 possessions), via NBA.com. Given the sample size, it's tough to gauge how much, if at all, those numbers are indicative of this group's true potential.
For now, New Orleans is largely an unknown commodity. Holiday and Evans just arrived last summer, and Davis came the year prior.
Teams cannot win without an identity, and the Pelicans haven't had the chance to establish theirs.
These players could start that process by focusing their offseason efforts together, something center Alexis Ajinca and Davis reportedly already have.
"Alexis was telling me that he wanted to work out with me this summer to get better," Davis told Reid. "That speaks volumes of him and what he learned last year. It makes him want to get better and it makes me want to get better and everybody else as a unit."
The more work the Pelicans put in now, the easier it will be to navigate through the crowded Western Conference later.
As could be the case for the next decade-plus, New Orleans would be wise to follow Davis' lead. He's already preparing for his (next) moment in the spotlight, one that just might send a playoff parade through the streets of the Big Easy.