Next Steps for Anthony Davis to Have Full-Fledged Breakout Season

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Next Steps for Anthony Davis to Have Full-Fledged Breakout Season
Bart Young/Getty Images

Anthony Davis just wrapped up the third-most productive season in NBA history by a player 20 years old or younger, according to Win Shares. The only two players who did more in a season before the age of 21 are LeBron James and Magic Johnson, so AD finds himself in good company to begin his career.

His impact grew by leaps and bounds from his rookie season, and at times he looked ready to make the NBA his own personal playground. But even with all that exponential development, Davis is still just scratching the surface of his potential.

After a Team USA practice last week, Kevin Durant talked about Davis and his future growth, per Jim Eichenhofer of NBA.com

I know how good he’s going to be. I know how good he is now, but I know how good he’s going to be. He’s an MVP-caliber player. So he’s next. He’s next in line – a guy that has grown so much in just a year. I’m excited to see what he does from here. He’s definitely on pace.

There is still plenty of ground to cover between the current iteration of Davis' game and an MVP award, but it's not unreasonable to expect him to catapult himself into the discussion this year. If he is going to jump to that level, Davis will need to tighten things up and continue developing in a few specific areas.

 

Offense

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

On offense, Davis is already one of the more efficient players in the league. He finished the season ranked 14th in points per game and 27th in true shooting percentage. However, there are still several places where he can expand his skill set to make himself into a more versatile threat, one who makes things easier for his teammates.

You can see from his shot chart that while he's shown the ability to be a consistent mid-range shooter, his accuracy is very localized around the top of the key.

NylonCalculus.com

The problems come in a few different places. He has some pockets of extreme effectiveness on the left baseline, but as he moves farther from the baseline, his efficiency wanes.

Being slight of build, Davis doesn't always get great post position and has a tendency to try to shoot over the top of defenders—particularly from this side of the floor.

Davis is very dangerous as a face-up player from this area, but being able to balance off-the-dribble forays with a consistent jump shot in these types of plays will make him that much more difficult to defend. 

The other place a more consistent jump shot can help is in his pick-and-roll play.

Davis was one of the most effective roll men in the league last season. However, his slender size means he's not a great screener, and so oftentimes the success of these plays was based on his length and athleticism rolling to the basket, allowing him to catch passes and lobs no one else could get to.

What the New Orleans Pelicans often did last season to mix things up is use another big man as the screener while relying upon Davis' natural ability as a cutter to trail the pick-and-roll action.

While this often worked extremely well, if there wasn't a cutting lane, the ball would often get swung back to him in poor position as the shot clock was running down.

According to the NBA's SportVU player tracking statistics, Davis shot just 39.8 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities. Some of this is bad execution by the Pelicans, but as the team's best player, the ball will find him in these types of situations.

The ability to be a mid-range threat—both when the set is designed for it and when the play breaks down—will help further elevate his offensive game.

 

Defense 

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Davis came into the league pegged as a potentially game-changing defender. Although he led the league in blocks last season, the Pelicans interior defense was a mess, and Davis had a hand in the problems.

At Nylon Calculus, Seth Partnow has done some manipulations of the NBA's SportVU statistics to hone in on a player's ability to protect the rim. Partnow found that Davis came out slightly below average:

In Davis’ case it’s not that he’s bad at challenging shots at the rim. Opponents shoot 48.9% on inside shots taken with Davis in the vicinity. So when he’s around to contest the shot, he does just fine. The problem for New Orleans and Davis is he simply wasn’t near the rim enough. Whereas the average NBA big man is positioned to contest n average just over 38% of all opponents’ shots within 5 feet of the rim while he is on the floor, Davis is only in such position 29.9% of the time. All told, Davis grades out as about 3/4 of a point worse than an NBA average big man in terms of his ability to protect the paint.

Partnow goes on to point out that some of this is situational. The Pelicans had no other significant rim defenders last season. The problem was exacerbated both by them encouraging Davis to freelance and by teams engaging him in the pick-and-roll to pull him away from the basket. 

But even considering those mitigating factors, there were still problems with positioning and defensive awareness.

Here, he's indecisive with his help defense in the pick-and-roll, allowing an easy layup.

On this play, he gets caught swiping at the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, allowing his man to get half a step and beat him to the basket for the layup.

One of the biggest factors in Davis' defensive growth this season may simply be the easing of his responsibilities. The Pelicans added Omer Asik this summer, one of the best rim defenders in the league, and he and Davis will often be playing together.

Pairing those two will allow Davis the freedom to roam more and be disruptive all over the court, without leaving the basket unexposed. Having that kind of support behind him could be the perfect scaffolding to help him grow into his elite defensive ability.

Davis has already come so far in just two seasons that it can be hard to believe there is still so much room for growth. The leap he took last year was in figuring out how to be proactive with his athleticism, setting up his opponents to his advantage.

The next step is to continue refining the margins of his game and fleshing out his toolbox of skills.

If Davis can pair a consistent mid-range jump shot with some better positioning and awareness on defense, Kevin Durant may regret his prescience as the MVP race becomes much more crowded. 

 

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats.

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