New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis will be a contender for the NBA MVP in the next few years.
The 2012 No. 1 overall pick has become a rising star early in his career. He followed up a promising rookie campaign (13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 1.2 steals) with an All-Star-caliber sophomore season (20.8 points, 10 rebounds, league-leading 2.8 blocks, 1.3 steals).
Davis also won an Olympic gold medal as a reserve for Team USA in 2012 and will start for the U.S. in this year's FIBA World Cup. Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski has had plenty of nice things to say about the 21-year-old big man.
Coach K said Anthony Davis will be the starting 5, but hasn't determined how many true bigs he'll carry beyond that (DMC/Plumlee/Drummond)— Vincent Goodwill (@vgoodwill) August 5, 2014
In January, Coach K called Davis "one of the emerging stars in the NBA" (per NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer). The Duke legend also added this, per NOLA.com's Jimmy Smith, when asked about his intentions for Team USA's big men:
"We're going to have to have active bigs," Krzyzewski said. "Our main guy is Anthony Davis."
It speaks volumes to the amount of talent Davis possesses that he's able to stand out on a national team that also features stars like Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose and James Harden. However, the high praise doesn't stop at Krzyzewski. Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant (per an article by Eichenhofer in July) believes Davis is "next in line" for MVP honors:
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.
That brings us to why we're here. If, as Durant predicts, Davis' time as MVP is coming soon, how much longer before that prognostication becomes reality? We'll start by breaking down what makes Davis a potential MVP contender. Then, we'll take a look at what obstacles are in the way of "The Unibrow."
What Makes Anthony Davis A Potential MVP Contender
Anthony Davis has been blessed with a unique set of skills. He's a 6'10" forward that moves and handles the ball like a point guard (an ode to his days running point in high school). He mixes uncanny quickness with an incredible 7'5" wingspan (although it's been reported to have grown to 7'7") and an astonishing nine-foot standing reach.
Has Anthony Davis’ Wingspan Grown Over 2 Inches Since 2012? http://t.co/1WgY2pZnLk— Dime Magazine (@DimeMag) August 12, 2014
What's even scarier is that there are reports that Davis is getting even bigger. After playing at around 230 pounds last season, Davis told Pelicans radio broadcaster Sean Kelley (h/t, yet again, to Eichenhofer for the report) that he's bulked up to 238.
"I’m up to 238 right now. It’s all muscle, and that’s what I need," Davis said. "I want to get stronger, so that when I post up, it’s a lot easier for me. I think it’s going to translate to the season, just my mentality, knowing that I’m a lot stronger and a lot better. It’s going to make me more aggressive."
The knock on Davis coming out of Kentucky two years ago was that, for all of his talents defensively and on the glass, his offensive game was still a bit raw. However, in just two seasons, he hasn't had any trouble showing off his versatility as a scorer.
Because of his length and athleticism, Davis' bread and butter will always be around the rim (dunks, alley-oops, putbacks, etc.). However, as he pointed out to Kelley, Davis is working to add a reliable post game to his skill set. With his newfound muscle, Davis can now use a combination of power and speed to score at will in the paint.
The big man's bag of tricks doesn't stop there. In these two shot charts (the top being Davis' rookie year, the bottom being last season), you'll notice he has improved his mid-range game as well. By not relying solely on setting up around the basket, Davis' offensive game is less Tyson Chandler and more Kevin Garnett.
Now, let's get to the parts of Davis' game that don't need as much work. Davis built a reputation in college for being a dynamic rebounder and shot-blocker. He broke the NCAA freshman record for blocks in a single season with 186 swats (4.65 per game). He also averaged 10.4 rebounds per game for the Wildcats.
In the NBA, Davis has already made an impression as a feared defender and relentless rebounder. His 2.8 blocks per game led the league last year and he even added 1.3 steals a night for good measure. As a result, Davis finished tied for eighth in voting for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
On the boards, Davis' 10 rebounds per game was good for 10th best in the NBA. Keep in mind that this is the work of a kid that just turned 21 years old in March playing for a Pelicans team that was ravaged by injuries.
When you add up all of Davis' 2013-14 numbers, you get a player that's close to becoming a complete package. Physically, he's Gumby with a high basketball IQ. Offensively, he managed to score 20.8 points per game last season with an offensive game that's still a work in progress.
Once Davis becomes a more polished scorer and combines that with his impressive work in other areas, he's going to be even more of a walking stat machine.
However, as exciting as the future is for the face of the Pelicans franchise, a few things are still standing in his way of winning an MVP.
Unfortunately for Davis, he has to share the NBA with two of the greatest players of this generation in LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Before Durant won the MVP this past season, James had won it four of the previous five years.
As long as they are in their prime, they will be the front-runners for basketball's top individual honor. After those two, there's another tier of stars that Davis will have to work to join this upcoming season.
That list includes Golden State's Stephen Curry, Chicago's Derrick Rose (a former MVP as well), Indiana's Paul George (assuming he bounces back from a gruesome leg injury), Houston's James Harden and Dwight Howard as well as the Los Angeles Clippers' duo of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
Davis has enough potential on both ends of the court to surpass the names on that second tier, but he isn't there yet. Also, despite Durant's co-signing and Coach K's kudos, Davis isn't close to being in the same breath as the league's two best players.
The bright side for Davis is he has time on his side (barring injury). James will be 30 in December. Durant will be 26 in December. Davis is still only 21. By the time he's finally coming into his prime, James and Durant will likely be on the downside of their careers.
Once James and Durant start to fade, it becomes open season for the MVP, and Davis has a great chance of being ahead of the pack.
Of course, for Davis to be even in the discussion for MVP, his team has to do its part in the standings. That brings us to our second obstacle.
New Orleans Pelicans' Lack of Success
While individual awards have always been a numbers game, the stat that matters most to voters is the amount of wins your team has at the end of the season. After all, it's hard to make the case that you're the most valuable player in the league when your presence can't even uplift your own franchise.
Since the departure of Chris Paul, Davis' Hornets/Pelicans have yet to make the playoffs. In fact, since Davis' arrival two seasons ago, New Orleans is a combined 61-103. Granted, Davis has done everything in his power to will his team to victory, but the fact still remains he's the best player on a team that's been stuck in the Western Conference's basement.
General manager Dell Demps has done his part to build a promising team around Davis. He's brought in quality role players like shooter Ryan Anderson and center Omer Asik. He's made deals for guards Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday to help round out the rotation.
When you throw in guys like Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers, you get a team brimming with potential. However, potential doesn't win basketball games. Even with the core expected to come back healthy after a nightmare 2013-14 season, the Pelicans are still projected to finish 10th in the West with a record of 39-43 (according to ESPN's NBA Summer Forecast).
Bleacher Report's Tyler Conway has the Pellies finishing outside of the playoff picture this upcoming regular season (although with a slightly better record of 41-41).
For Davis to throw his name in the hat for MVP, he has to get New Orleans into the postseason. It's that simple. He could average 40-20-5 and it wouldn't matter if the Pelicans are still sitting home in May. James has turned both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat into title contenders. Durant has propelled the Thunder into the NBA's elite.
Davis has to do the same with the Pelicans, and he has to do it fast. We've seen what happens when talented players put together productive seasons that end in lottery balls. They inevitably ask to be traded to a winner (sorry, Timberwolves fans).
We know Davis can put up points, clean the glass and swat shots into Row C. Can he make the Pelicans relevant? Chris Paul tried for years and only got as far as second in the MVP voting (2007-08). It's up to Davis to raise the bar.
As we've seen in recent years with Derrick Rose and Paul George, a serious injury can derail a promising young star's career. Rose won the MVP in 2010-11. He tore his ACL the following season and hasn't been the same since. George was finally basking in the glow of super-stardom when he suffered a compound fracture in his leg during a Team USA scrimmage.
Two men who were once among the 10-best players in the league have now become cautionary tales. Could Rose return to his dominant form? Sure. Could George bounce back from what he called a "bump in the road?" Definitely, but both men now face an uphill battle back to the top.
Davis has managed to avoid any serious injuries as a pro, but he hasn't been fortunate enough to dodge the injury bug completely. He has yet to play at least 70 games in a single season during his young career. He's missed 33 games the last two seasons due to a myriad of minor injuries that range from concussions to knee sprains.
Should we label Davis injury-prone? No, but an MVP candidate has to find a way to play more than 67 games in a season (which is Davis' current career best). While some of Davis' injury woes have been accidental (such as catching an inadvertent elbow to the head from Austin Rivers as a rookie), you don't get to win MVP based on the benefit of the doubt.
Davis' numbers have been impressive thus far, but imagine how great that production would be if he lasted a full season. The extra bulk to his frame will certainly help Davis withstand the pounding of playing inside and possibly keep him upright down the stretch.
However, if Davis is struggling to play a full season now, what happens when the Pelicans are ready to make a lengthy postseason run? When do we start to worry about Davis' ability to handle the rigors of a long NBA season?
It's premature to get overdramatic about Davis' health at this moment. Still, George and Rose have shown us that the fall from glory can be sudden. All of the muscle mass in the world won't make Davis invincible.
If he stays healthy, he can be one of the greats.
Depending on how you feel about Davis' potential, his time as a league MVP is a matter of "when" and not "if." Some overzealous fans are ready to anoint Davis as the third-best player in the NBA right now.
There's still work to be done before the rest of the world reaches that point. However, we can all agree that Davis has the potential to be special. There isn't another big man in the league with his wide array of skills. He has the chance to be a Kevin Garnett/Tim Duncan-type franchise big man.
That being said, both Garnett and Duncan led their teams to the top. Duncan did it almost immediately, while KG needed a trade to Boston to finally win a championship. The hope for Pelicans fans is that Davis doesn't follow the same career trajectory as Garnett.
What we have learned about Davis during his NBA career is that he's capable of making huge strides. At 20 years old, he was an NBA All-Star, and his continued presence on national teams as well as television commercials will help make him a household name.
As his offensive skills grow, he will draw closer and closer to being the total package. This season will likely be another huge step toward the limelight. As Davis develops and the team grows around him, he'll become more than just a talented player with a weird eyebrow.
By the 2015-16 season, Davis will be a dark-horse contender for the MVP. If he can stay healthy and help the Pelicans reach new heights, he really will be "next in line," as Durant predicted.