At only 21 years old, New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is already one of the top players in the NBA and Team USA's most important player at the FIBA World Cup. His combination of length, athleticism and touch is rare for an NBA center, and it's a scary thought that he has barely scratched the surface of his potential.
In only two years in the league, Davis has already established himself as a high-caliber shot-blocker with uncanny timing and savvy post-up defender. But it's in pick-and-roll defense, the bread and butter of nearly every NBA offense, that Davis has excelled the most.
There are plenty of great shot-blockers throughout the NBA: Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, to name a few. They're taller, stronger and technically sound in the restricted area, capable of properly sliding their feet and contesting vertically without fouling.
This area within five feet of the rim is their domain. Rarely do they venture away from it, and it's why they'll always guard the opposing big who presents the least threat on offense. It allows these shot-blockers to hover as a helper, willing to ignore their primary assignment to act as the final line of defense.
So how do opponents draw them out of their comfort zone? By attacking them in pick-and-roll situations, forcing pursuit of assignments away from the paint and closer to the perimeter.
Ball-handlers have an easier time finishing around rim-protectors when these giants are on the move and away from the rim. Slicing through the lane is much easier when the opposing big is backpedaling and off-balance as opposed to lying in wait in the restricted area.
In recent years, the chess match has continued with a greater portion of NBA teams switching to a "drop" pick-and-roll defense, in which big men stay at home while the defensive guard fights over the screen.
Here's an example involving Davis from this past NBA season, when he and Pelicans teammate Austin Rivers defend a pick-and-roll against the Atlanta Hawks. As Hawks point guard Dennis Schroeder slips around the screen from Elton Brand, Davis retreats while Rivers chases from behind.
The pressure on Schroeder's hip from Rivers prevents an easy pull-up, squeezing him closer into the looming Davis. While it might seem counterintuitive to force an offensive player closer to the rim, any Schroeder-Davis encounter near the basket is likely going to lead to an altered or blocked shot.
With nowhere to go but forward, Schroeder flips a quick floater over the outstretched Davis because he knows he can't lay the ball up with any type of ease. Though the shot he takes is a mere eight feet from the basket, it's one of high difficulty.
Not only does he have to drop it into the net with precise touch, he has to float it over the high hand of Davis. It comes as no surprise that the shot misses badly.
Utilizing this kind of deeper drop is how most NBA teams protect their bigs from becoming too extended and vulnerable. It's also a neat analytical trick in that it generally pushes offenses into mid-range shots, whether of the floater or pull-up variety.
Mathematically, these are the worst shots on the floor.
By design, the defense is giving up a solid chunk of real estate right inside the three-point line. The guard trailing from behind prevents a three-point shot, and the big man takes care of drives to the rack.
Sometimes, however, teams can get burned by giving up mid-range shots too willingly. The San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers gave up the second- and third-most shots from 8-16 feet last year (according to NBA.com) while ranking fourth and first in defensive rating, respectively.
The Portland Trail Blazers, however, didn't experience similar success. Despite allowing the fifth-most shots from 8-16 feet, they ranked 16th in league-wide defensive rating.
The key difference? Opponent field goal percentage from 8-16 feet.
Indiana's 37.9 opponent field goal percentage from that crucial range was fourth best, San Antonio's 39.1 was seventh and Portland's 40.4 was tied for 19th. The percentage difference might appear small, but that's a few buckets per game over the course of a season.
In a league with such small margins of victory, that's the difference between winning and losing.
None of this matters if that perimeter guard is able to battle his way around the screen and bother the ball-handler from behind. It's when he gets caught up in a powerful screen that a defense can be exposed, leaving a ball-handler wide open to pull up.
This is what happened to Portland far too often, leading to jump shots without a whiff of a contest:
A great big man can mask this liability by closing the gap on such shots, but only the longest and most athletic stand a chance. Most bigs will get beaten off the dribble if they creep out too far.
Davis is one of those players, however, that doesn't get burned.
Check out this pick-and-roll defense against LeBron James when Al-Farouq Aminu gets drilled by a Chris Andersen screen. Davis is in a deep drop, and James decides to pull up for the seemingly open shot.
Except it's not that open.
The second Davis sniffs out the jumper, he springs forward with remarkable quickness and extension to get a hand up against James. In less than a second he closes a ten-foot gap, to the point that James is actually falling away on his follow through to avoid getting run over by Davis.
Remember that the deep drop is a compensation against slow foot speed. One of the drawbacks is that it can lead to a two-on-one situation, with the roller rumbling down the lane and the ball-handler able to attack the basket or drop it off to his teammate.
Even more common is the offensive big man popping, leaving the dropping defensive big completely out of position to guard against an open catch-and-shoot jumper.
If the weak-side defense doesn't push over to help, big men find themselves in trouble like Hibbert does here against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Davis provides a unique luxury in that his drops can be more aggressive, which is to say higher up the floor. Because there's less danger of him getting beat off the bounce, he can confront the ball-handler earlier.
If Davis' original man pops, he's now close enough to get back and contest. If he rolls to the rim, Davis' elevated position essentially allows him to guard two men at once and deflect potential bounce passes. If the ball-handler thinks he can squirt by Davis and get to the rim, he's sorely mistaken.
And if he has to switch in a pinch, Davis can handle himself just fine. New Orleans head coach Monty Williams is already recognizing this, admitting as such earlier this summer on the Pelicans.com daily podcast:
One thing people haven’t seen is he can guard a lot of smalls when you switch pick-and-rolls. He’s put some good muscle on so he’s a lot stronger around the basket.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Davis, but he still has a ways to go to capitalize on his potential. For all his freakish athleticism, he's still learning the finer points of when and where to unleash it.
He gets caught in the air by pump fakes. He jumps out on ball-handlers a bit too quickly, and crafty players are able to draw fouls against his constant aggression. He goes for the swat too often when verticality is the safer play.
Despite these flaws, Davis is still an elite defender as-is. The nuances will come with time and coaching, and there's no reason to think he won't develop the necessary discipline for pick-and-roll defense sooner rather than later.
When he does finally put it all together, we'll be looking at the league's best pick-and-roll defender by a mile.