Is Anthony Davis Already the Best Power Forward in the NBA?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2014

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When Anthony Davis snagged the All-Star spot vacated by the injured Kobe Bryant, the New Orleans Pelicans forward had an interesting reaction to hearing the news.

"He thought I was joking," Pelicans coach Monty Williams said, per Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press. "He said, 'Not a game, coach?' And I was like, 'No, not a game. You made it.' And he was speechless and laughing."

A crowning achievement by one of the NBA's rapidly rising stars, yet he couldn't find the words to describe his emotions?

"You know, he's 20," Williams said, via Mahoney. "I didn't expect a poem or anything."

Therein lies the intrigue of the league's single-browed superstar. With a stat sheet stuffed by 20.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, a league-high 3.1 blocks and 1.6 steals, it's easy to overlook that fact—he can't even legally indulge in an alcoholic beverage yet.

Off potential alone, it seems as if he's already being fitted for a spot inside the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (only half-kidding):

Where he's going is anyone's guess—although greatness feels like it will be a prevailing theme in his hoops story—but that's not what we're concerned with here.

The question isn't how dominant can he be, but rather how good he is right now. Has his meteoric ascension already pushed him atop the league's crowded power forward rankings?

Two-Way Force

Defense is supposed to be a learned trait.

Top-shelf athleticism helps, as do monstrous length and preternatural instincts. Still, there's supposed to be a development period for transcendent defensive talents. A time when film study and hands-on coaching helps unearth valuable information like problematic habits and tendencies to avoid.

Davis apparently isn't bound by basketball's biological clock. He's shunned the natural steps to success, showing expansive growth as if the bottom of his hourglass holds significantly more sand than our eyes can clearly see.

"A lot of people said, 'Oh, he's just a shot-blocker,' " Sacramento Kings coach Mike Malone said, via Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune. "That's doing him a tremendous disservice. He is a very skilled big man."

Well, he does have the shot-blocking highlight reel to fuel those narrow-minded critics.

He also has, as Malone noted, a well-rounded set of interior skills. That's fascinating in its own right, considering his basketball journey began in the backcourt.

His perimeter background helps explain his freakishly fast hands. He's one of only two players among the league's top-20 steals leaders (along with DeMarcus Cousins) standing at least 6'10".

It's also played a part in his being able to not only survive, but to thrive in a part of the hardwood that's still so incredibly new to him. As a point guard in his past life, he had to understand where everyone on the floor needed to be. Now that he's moved to a frontcourt spot, those lessons he learned remain relevant.

"Because I played guard makes it a lot easier on me," he said, via Michael Lee of The Washington Post. "I really had no problem transitioning from a guard to a big. It was kind of easy."

Those words have a certain ring to them—confident, arrogant, cocky? Whatever it is, our eyes say it's justified:

For someone who paved his NBA path on the defensive end and whose offensive post arsenal remains painfully light on artillery, he doesn't seem to be having any trouble finding his offense.

He's one of only six players averaging at least 20 points and shooting 50 percent from the field this season. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he's a top-40 scorer overall (1.04 points per possession, 36th), a top-30 finisher coming off screens (1.05, 29th), on offensive rebounds (1.18, 27th) and as a roll man (1.12, 26th) and the league's fifth-best scorer out in transition (1.54).

He's a transcendent defensive talent who just so happens to be the league's fifth-most efficient offensive player (26.53 player efficiency rating).

Even as young and raw as he is, does the NBA have anything better at the power forward spot?

Surveying the Power Forward Field

The 4 spot in today's game is saturated with game-changing forces, even after you whittle away those players who don't fit the traditional position designations (sorry, LeBron James and Tim Duncan).

Cast this group under the league's conventional power forward cloak, and three names typically rise to the top: LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. Scan through three positional rankings and you might find this trio ranked three different ways, but all of these names will be fixtures near the top of the food chain.

Aldridge has always been a weapon, but something has seemed to click for the eight-year veteran and his Portland Trail Blazers this season. He's upped his scoring (24.1 points), rebounding (11.5) and distributing (2.8) to career levels and his Blazers (36-15), not coincidentally, have ridden that wave to the No. 3 spot in the tightly contested Western Conference.

A beast on the low block with a silky smooth mid-range stroke (43.3 percent from 10 to 24 feet away from the basket), he's the ideal interior force to complement Portland's perimeter attack. Put him anywhere inside the three-point arc and he's more than capable of wreaking havoc—at both ends of the floor.

Griffin's a different type of animal, and one the league isn't often lucky enough to see.

His highlight reels are almost mythical. Suspending disbelief is the only way to make it through his game film.

High-flying antics aside, though, his box scores are often as brilliant as his aerial assaults:

Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman recently told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times that Griffin's value goes far beyond his dunking ability:

He's improving his game. He's expanding his game. He's passing the ball pretty good. He's trying to develop an outside shot. That's what good players do. They have to find other ways to be effective.

Griffin's season was rattled—and his ceiling lifted—when a separated shoulder forced All-Star point guard Chris Paul out of the action in early January. During the 18 games Paul missed (he returned for Sunday's 45-point drubbing of the Philadelphia 76ers), Griffin did a little of everything: 27.5 points on 55.4 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.4 steals per night.

His stat lines often teased your sense of reality. Not unlike what Love does for the Timberwolves on a seemingly nightly basis:

Love would be a rarity in any era, but he seems transplanted from one of the NBA's past eras.

He's astoundingly active on the glass. His rebounding average over the last four seasons (14.1) would give him a share of the 2013-14 lead with the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan.

Burly and never afraid of contact, his play in the low post evokes visions of some of the league's all-time great bruisers. Add in the cross-court darts he flings with pinpoint accuracy, and you'd swear he'd been somehow shipped over from a prior generation—or perhaps plucked off the gridiron.

Yet, there's an equally effective new-age element to his game. He's 6'10" with a career 35.6 three-point percentage. Space-seeking NBA coaches aren't simply searching for the next stretch 4, they're out looking for the next Kevin Love.

Would they take that player over the next Blake Griffin or the next LaMarcus Aldridge, though? Would they want any of those players ahead of the next Anthony Davis?

The Conclusion

If you're constructing a franchise from the ground up, Davis is by far the best building block. Between his physical gifts, his basketball IQ and his potential moving forward, he's an ideal centerpiece.

We're not looking through a forward-thinking lens, though. We're out to pick the best of the bunch right now.

All four bring something different to the table.

Love's liable to produce the best stat sheets of the group. He's more than capable of serving as an offensive focal point, mixing a lethal blend of perimeter and interior skills.

But he doesn't play defense. Ever. When comparing NBA elites, you can't neglect one end of the floor. That's exactly what Love does, though, so he's out.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

In terms of half-court offense, Aldridge has the deepest bag of offensive tricks inside the arc. He can score or pass out of the post, shoot from anywhere and convert second chances off the offensive glass.

However, he's lost a bit of effectiveness as his responsibilities have grown. In 2011-12, he had a 27.0 usage percentage and a 51.2 percent success rate from the field. This season, his usage is up to 29.4 and his field-goal percentage has dropped to 47.0.

It's hard to cast him as the best when the spotlight might be a little too bright for his liking.

That leaves us with Griffin and Davis, interestingly enough the youngest of these four.

Mar 27, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) is guarded by New Orleans Hornets power forward Anthony Davis (23) during the first quarter of a game at the New Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US
Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Griffin's dramatically raised his projection this season, particularly shining brightest in Paul's absence. His post game is still a bit pedestrian, but Clippers coach Doc Rivers has taught him how to maximize his physical gifts with a lethal face-up attack.

He's a productive passer, improving shooter and passable defender (something you couldn't always say about him). He's not, however, the best power forward in the game.

That title belongs to Davis, the 20-year-old phenom who didn't even grow up playing the post.

With a developing skill set that already puts him among the elites, he's capable of carrying a franchise at both ends of the floor. He's a No. 1 scorer who can defend No. 1 scorers—nearly regardless of position.

There are only a handful of players who can attempt to make that claim, let alone back it up.

That's why Davis already finds himself at the top of this pecking order. The gap might not be very wide now, but it's growing by the day.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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