New Orleans Pelicans Have an Anthony Davis Dilemma

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2014

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There's no such thing as a bad dilemma for the New Orleans Pelicans when they're talking about Anthony Davis. 

Regardless of the question, they still boast the services of one of the NBA's most promising players. Davis, even though he's only 20 years old and playing out his second professional season, has emerged as one of the NBA's bona fide studs—and he's quickly becoming one of the top players to build a franchise around. 

If I were granted control of a new NBA franchise and allowed to pick any player in the Association as my centerpiece, Davis would be one of my preferred players. In fact, here's how the league's best would stack up: 

  1. LeBron James
  2. Kevin Durant
  3. Anthony Davis
  4. Paul George

He's that good already.

To put things in perspective, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only three players ever to match or top Davis' current per-game averages for points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. 

"There’s nothing he can’t do on the court. He’s clearly a David Robinson type," Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told John Reid of The Times Picayune. "He blocks shots, changes shots, the offensive rebounding and then you can see his skill level. He can shoot and catch and go off a drive. He’s a great kind of talent."

And Davis can't even enjoy the full depth of entertainment that Bourbon Street provides to him quite yet. 

But once I picked "The Unibrow" to build my franchise around, I'd still have to decide whether I wanted to play him as a primary power forward or a true center. And that's the same dilemma that the Pelicans are currently dealing with. 

It might seem rather irrelevant, as NOLA can obviously play Davis at both positions during any one game, but the decision has significant trickle-down effects. It helps determine the players the franchise can pursue in trades and free agency, after all. 

If the Pellies decide that they want Davis at center for the foreseeable future, it doesn't make sense to trade for a true 5, for example.

It's important to note that this isn't about what current lineups make the most sense for New Orleans, but rather where the one-eyebrowed big man is at his best.

So, which position should New Orleans go for? 

The Case for Power Forward

Jan 11, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; New Orleans Pelicans power forward Anthony Davis (23) guards Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) during the first half at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Davis is a defensive machine when he lines up next to another true big man and has the ability to guard opposing 4s. 


The combination of athletic tools he has at his disposal really isn't fair, and it's exactly why he was such a highly coveted prospect while he was lighting the collegiate world on fire during his time at Kentucky. 

Not only does Davis have the ability to elevate quickly and use his long arms for rejection purposes, but he has the unnatural knack for recovering and springing back up into the air for a second time without gathering himself whatsoever. It's the second jump that differentiates him from other athletic specimens. 

But that's not all. 

Davis also has plenty of lateral quickness, and this lets him move out to the perimeter to cover the increasingly stretchy power forwards in the Association. One of the most terrifying sights in the NBA has become Davis hedging as he guards a pick-and-roll set, as you can see below against Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves

Screenshot from Synergy Sports' video databases.

Even though he's only 20 years old, Davis is already one of the most cerebral defenders in the game. You can be 99.9 percent sure that he's well aware there's no one in the paint as he moves over to defend the Love-Ricky Rubio pick-and-roll. 

Screenshot from Synergy Sports' video databases.

But once the screen is set and Love rolls to the basket, Davis isn't concerned about his lack of reinforcements. He has confidence in his skills, as he should. 

The big man uses the opportunity to make the best of his length, hedging out slightly so that Rubio can't turn the corner and get into the paint for an easier chance. There isn't much threat of the Spaniard pulling up for a jumper, but he can do plenty of damage with his passing once he drives into the teeth of the defense. 

Screenshot from Synergy Sports' video databases.

This lets Love get ahead of Davis, and the veteran power forward keeps his younger counterpart on his back as Rubio feeds his teammate the ball. 

But is Davis worried?

He shouldn't be. 

Screenshot from Synergy Sports' video databases.

Because he's so quick, so nimble and has so much length, Davis can recover and get into perfect position. He's able to elevate on a dime and records the rejection, stuffing what should've been an easy attempt for Love. 

This play is all on Davis, and he loves it. There's a reason that Synergy Sports (subscription required) shows he's allowing only 0.77 points per possession against roll men. That's good for the No. 20 mark in the league. 

There's no doubt that he's elite in that area, but reveals that he's significantly better guarding power forwards than trying to stop centers. Remembering that the league-average Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is 15, Davis has held 4s and 5s to respective PERs of 11.4 and 20.7. 

That's a pretty big difference, and it shouldn't be surprising. Movement, not strength, is Davis' forte at this stage of his career, and playing him at power forward allows him to maximize his talent. 

The Case for Center

Jan 15, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans power forward Anthony Davis (23) is defended by Houston Rockets power forward Dwight Howard (12) during the second half of a game at the New Orleans Arena. The Rockets defeated the Pelicans 103-100.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

If the reasoning behind Davis playing power forward revolves around his versatile defensive abilities, then the argument for center is based primarily on his offense. 

Now it's important to remember that these aren't mutually exclusive skills. Davis can still play defense against versatile centers, just as he can space the court out as a power forward. But there's more of a distinct advantage at each position in the areas I've specified. 

As shown by, the split between 4 and 5 isn't quite as dramatic on offense, but it's still a sizable one. When playing power forward, Davis has posted an excellent PER of 22.5. But when he plays center, it's just sensational, as he checks in at 29.4. 

To provide you with a nice reference point, Kevin Durant's overall PER of 29.5—before his 54-point outburst against the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 17—currently leads the league, according to Basketball-Reference

So, why does this discrepancy exist? 

It's because Davis can now make plays like this one: 

The whole highlight reel is impressive, but it's that play at 1:30 in the above video that emphasizes just how good Davis is becoming with the ball in his hands. The former Wildcat must have spent the entire offseason working on his dribble game—remember, he was a point guard before hitting a massive growth spurt—because he's now dangerous off the bounce. 

Oh, and he can hit the occasional jumper. 

Synergy shows that Davis is still struggling as a spot-up shooter, but he's scoring 0.91 points per possession in isolation sets. That's good for No. 37 in the NBA, and it ain't bad for a non-guard. Especially since he was putting up only 0.53 points per possession (No. 190) as a rookie. 

He's also improved on his spot-up attempts, and he's doing much better coming off screens and cutting to the hoop, both of which occur when he starts the play further from the hoop. 

The NBA loves having power forwards stretch the court, to the point that the stretch 4 has become a pretty commonly accepted position. But is anyone else a stretch 5? 

Davis could be, and that alone is worth letting him play center. 

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 6: Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans dribbles the ball during a game against the Memphis Grizzlies on November 6, 2013 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Even in his second professional season, the Pelicans big man is an absolute matchup nightmare. Not only does he have increasingly solid post moves, but he's now able to beat defenders with his handles, and he can finish plays with either hand while on the move toward the basket. 

Defense also shouldn't be a concern if New Orleans does choose to let Davis remain at center, where he's spent the majority of his time this season.

Look at that last picture, and you'll see why. 

You have to remember that Davis isn't going to turn 21 until March. He still isn't fully developed, and that broad frame is a pretty clear indication that he'll be filling out significantly more over the years. If you need to, go back and look at pictures of players like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett in their early years, as they were skinny too. 

Here's one of "The Big Ticket" during his rookie season, just so you can get a sneak preview before your inevitable search-engine forays:

5 Mar 1996: Forward Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves moves the ball during a game against the Miami Heat at Miami Arena in Miami, Florida. The Heat won the game, 113-72.
Getty Images/Getty Images

As CBS Sports' Zach Harper wrote before the season, "His slight build provides a lot of the issue, not because he doesn't have the bulk to handle the positioning battles inside but because he doesn't have the strength. Bulk and strength don't always go hand in hand."

Harper went on to make the KG comparison as well, and it's a nice success story for a player who needed to bulk up and develop strength, then did exactly that. 

Davis has the technique parts of defending centers down, but he can still be bodied out by more physical players. That won't be the case down the road, especially because he's shown off such a promising work ethic. 

Again, there's no bad answer to the question of Davis' position, but choosing center is simply a bigger positive for the Pelicans. That allows the former No. 1 pick to create a new position—the stretch 5—while maximizing his talents on each end of the court. 

Here's hoping New Orleans makes the right call. 


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