How Anthony Davis Is Blossoming into a Superstar

Jared Dubin@@JADubin5Featured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2014

Jan 20, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) attempts to gain position on Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) at FedExForum. New Orleans defeated Memphis 95-92. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Davis had a phenomenal rookie season. He averaged 16.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, registering a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 21.7, the third-best mark of any rookie since the 2000-01 season, according to Basketball-Reference. 

Those numbers could have, should have, and maybe even would have been good enough to win him Rookie of the Year, had he played as many games and/or minutes as the eventual winner, Damian Lillard. Davis missed 18 games due to injury and played just over half as many minutes as Lillard did. 

Entering this season, Davis was expected to make a leap in productivity, as many second-year players do, especially those thought to be destined for superstardom. The leap he has made, though, is larger than nearly anyone could have imagined. 

What Davis is doing in his age-20 season is nearly unprecedented in the history of basketball. He has essentially become the NBA's version of Mike Trout, only not as heralded because the NBA also happens to have LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Paul George and Kevin Love to rival Davis' talent, whereas baseball has only Miguel Cabrera. 

Pelicans head coach Monty Williams believes Davis should be an All-Star, and he's almost certainly correct. "I don't know how he can be left off with the numbers he's putting up and the situation he's been in. For a second-year player, he's been phenomenal. He won't be a starter, but he deserves to be a backup," Williams told Fox Sports Southwest before New Orleans' game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Martin Luther King Day. 

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Davis currently ranks fifth in PER, sixth in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes and 10th in Wins Produced Per 48 Minutes, three popular all-in-one advanced metrics. He is on track for the best age-20-or-younger PER ever, as well as the most Win Shares Per 48 Minutes at age 20 or younger ever. 

If he keeps up his current pace, Davis would become the second player at age 20 or younger to record at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 100 steals and 100 blocks in the same season. Only Kevin Garnett, a player to whom Davis's skill set has often been compared, has accomplished that feat.

At his current pace, Davis would be the first player in NBA history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 1.0 steals at age 20 or younger, and just the 10th player ever to do it.

So you know the "what." Which means it's time to examine the "how."

We'll start on offense, where Davis is simply doing everything better than he did a year ago. According to the video-tracking service mySynergySports (subscription required), Davis is shooting a better percentage from the field and averaging more points per play (PPP) this season than last on the following play types: isolations, pick-and-rolls where he is the roll man, spot-ups, off-screen shots, cuts and transition plays. 

via mySynergySports

While he still has ways to go before becoming one of the league's best one-on-one players, his ability to move without the ball and find creases in the defense has already made him a deadly finisher on pick-and-rolls, cuts and in transition. 

As the above video shows, Davis's pick-and-roll skill set is already quite varied for such a young player.

He can (a) finish through contact; (b) catch and keep the ball high in the air to avoid being stripped, better enabling him to draw a foul; (c) slip his roll into open space and do filthy, dirty, disgusting things to the rim if you don't get in his way; (d) slip his roll into open space and pull up for a quick jumper; and (e) attack off the dribble after catching the ball near the nail, where he isn't close enough to just dunk right away and doesn't have enough room to pull the trigger on his jumper. 

He's also gotten better at the little things in pick-and-rolls, like holding his screen for an extra beat to make sure he gets a really good piece of the ball-handler's man, then syncing up his timing on the roll so as to make it impossible for his own man to guard both him and the ball-handler, as he does above.

That timing dance is one that usually takes big men a while to figure out. It took Tyson Chandler until his late 20s, for example. Davis has it mostly down to a science in his second season. At age 20. He's ridiculous. 

When not directly involved in the primary action, Davis can often be found lurking in the short corner. Stationing himself here allows him to either draw a big man far enough out of the paint to allow his driving teammate to score at the rim, or to receive a dump-off pass when his man steps out to challenge the driver in the lane. 

via SunSports Heat

via Fox Sports New Orleans

In transition, he's merely too quick, too fast and too athletic for other centers to handle. How many other centers in the league can actually leak out in transition like Davis does, beating the entire opposition down the floor with alarming consistency?

Check out this video as Davis beats, in succession, David Lee, Dirk Nowitzki and Dirk Nowitzki again down the floor so badly as to render them meaningless to the play. His stride is so long that he often starts four to five feet behind his man on a fast-break opportunity, only to pass him somewhere between midcourt and the free-throw line and wind up with a layup or an alley-oop slam. 

All of this off-ball prowess has made Davis a ruthlessly efficient offensive player. He is currently averaging the second-most points per half-court touch among players who play at least 20 minutes per game, according to SportVU player tracking data released by the NBA and STATS LLC. He's also, according to NBA.com, averaging the seventh-most points in the paint and the fifth-most second-chance points, as well as the second-most fast-break points per game among bigs behind only Blake Griffin.

New Orleans's ninth-ranked offense has been 1.9 points per 100 possessions better with Davis on the court, per NBA.com. The Pelicans average more points in the paint (47.0 per 48 minutes) with him on the floor than off (39.8), as well are more fast-break points (16.4 to 12.3) and points off turnovers (18.0 to 15.0). 

When Davis has played with Ryan Anderson, the two have absolutely set fire to the league offensively, averaging a 115.4 offensive rating, a per-possession scoring rate that would have led the league in every season since at least 1996. Anderson has unfortunately missed large chunks of the season due to injury, so we haven't been able to see as much of that combination as we might have hoped in preseason. 

That duo has expectedly struggled on the defensive end, though, which is where most of the Pelicans' problems have come this season. The Pellies sit 29th in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com, and they allow opponents to shoot better than 63 percent in the restricted area (fifth worst in the league) as well as 39.0 percent on corner threes on the third-most attempts per game. The Pellies force turnovers at only a league-average rate and are a bottom-10 defensive rebounding team, which allows opponents to collect second-chance points. 

Davis, though, is certainly not the root of the problem here.

Take the restricted-area finishing for example. While opponents are shooting nearly five percent better from that area of the floor with Davis on the court than off, the SportVU data shows us that when they are actually challenging Davis near the rim, opponents rarely convert. Out of 58 players contesting at least five shots per game at the rim, SportVU says only 12 hold opponents to a lower field-goal percentage than Davis's 45.7 percent. 

Opponents turn the ball over 2.4 percent more often with Davis on the floor than when he's off, and the Pelicans have defended almost 1.5 points per 100 possessions better with Davis than when he's sat. 

Hidden somewhere within the Pelicans' awful defense is a much better one. In the 455 minutes Davis has played with Jrue Holiday and Al-Farouq Aminu, the Pelicans have allowed 101.4 points per 100 possessions, equivalent to a top-10 defense, per NBA.com. In the 308 minutes he's shared the floor with Holiday and Jason Smith, that number drops to 99.6 points per 100 possessions, good enough for the top five.

When all four of those players have been on the court together, as has been the case for only 206 minutes, they've allowed opponents to register just a 97.6 offensive efficiency, which would rate as one of the league's top-three point-prevention units. 

Davis is also blocking shots at a never-before-seen rate for a player his age. His preposterously long pterodactyl arms allow him to cover larger swaths of space than nearly any other player in the league, and there are times where you're watching a Pelicans game and he leaps from out of the frame to smother a shot that you didn't even know was possible to block. It's almost frightening to behold.

He blocks jump-shooters, drivers and post-up players alike with the ease with which you or I might brush our teeth in the morning. 

He's gotten better at "2.9-ing," the art of staying in the paint for 2.9 seconds so as to clog the lane while not drawing a defensive three-second violation. He's also improved both his positioning and timing against pick-and-rolls, though he still has some room to grow in that area before he's an Orlando Dwight Howard-level destructive force against that action—which he has the potential to be before long. 

It's the massive wingspan that helps him reach the heights he's at defensively (on an individual level) right now. Once he gets better at learning and recognizing opposing concepts like Tim Duncan, directing his teammates where they're supposed to go a la Kevin Garnett and walling off the paint without always going for the block like Marc Gasol, he's destined to reach another level. 

It's remarkable to think that Davis is just getting started in this league. He's only 20 years old, and he's well on his way to producing one of, if not the best, season ever for someone his age. The sky is the limit. 

Jared Dubin works for Bloomberg Sports, writes and edits for the ESPN TrueHoopNetwork sites Hardwood Paroxysm and HoopChalk, is a freelance contributor to Grantland and is coauthor of We'll Always Have Linsanity.


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