The Fundamentals: Quietly, Anthony Davis exceeding immense expectations
By Rob Mahoney
It’s hard to fathom that Anthony Davis is flying well under the radar after being the No. 1 pick and getting labeled a franchise-changing talent for the Hornets. But with the Lakers’ domination of the news cycle, fellow rookie Damian Lillard’s remarkable showing for the playoff-contending Trail Blazers and Davis’ three-week injury absence from late November to early December, many have lost sight of the 19-year-old big man. Davis, however, has been every bit as good as his predraft hype suggested and, amazingly, he has even more terrifying potential than advertised.
This is the beginning of something truly special, and the fact that Davis isn’t commanding the NBA world’s attention shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of relevance. The most powerful force at work here is an innate inaccessibility in the game of a fundamentally weird player. Davis doesn’t mesh with conventional standards of basketball stardom, starting with the fact that he isn’t a go-to offensive option. You can’t feed Davis on the low block, as he struggles with his back to the basket even against undersized players. You can’t really set him up at the elbow, either, because he hasn’t quite worked out all the kinks in his face-up game. There is no spot on the floor that enables Davis to be a scorer in isolation, and thus no means to reinforce his standing as a franchise player in the most obvious and direct way possible.
For many, this notion of a potential superstar without a plainly viable offensive game creates some basketball dissonance. Davis’ promise as a defender may be universally accepted and lauded, but the players largely considered to be the league’s best are far more similar to Lillard than Davis: smooth with the ball, in charge in crunch time and utterly unstoppable on offense for particularly dominant stretches. Davis isn’t and may never be any of those things, and yet it hardly matters. Within his bizarre offensive game isn’t just the next step in the natural progression of the big man, but a glimpse at a transcendent specimen several links ahead in the evolutionary chain. The 6-foot-10 Davis isn’t merely set to be an all-world defender; he brings a groundbreaking package of offensive skills and instincts at a time when basketball is most amenable to his avant-garde game.
The league has come to a point where no offensive factor is more important than spacing, and no single trait is more crucial to a big man’s success than his ability to contribute to that spacing. That doesn’t necessarily mean that every big man on the floor has to stretch all the way out to the three-point line. Even range-less big men can contribute by better understanding when and where to cut to the hoop, and it’s in that regard that Davis is well ahead of the curve. Tune in to any Hornets possession not directly involving Davis (No. 23 in the videos below) and you’re likely to find him lurking on the weakside baseline — the super highway of off-ball cutting:
Cuts through the paint from top to bottom can yield plenty of positive results, but the baseline provides an avenue for savvy offensive players to make full-speed moves toward the basket without impediment or concern over clutter in the lane. Davis uses this to his advantage especially when Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez execute the high pick-and-roll. Having those two players run that play may not be hugely productive in itself, but with Eric Gordon spotting up and Davis sneaking toward the rim for a potentially easy score, New Orleans has a surprising wealth of options. Whether Davis is cutting along the baseline or even spacing the floor from the free-throw-line extended, he’s positioning himself to contribute to a play just by being on the floor. Whether he actually winds up scoring is somewhat secondary; high-functioning offenses use an arrangement of five different threats to create the best possible shot, and even when Davis isn’t getting the two points himself (he’s averaging 13.2 points in 30 minutes per game), he’s drawing defensive attention or exploiting the lack of it.
That’s a huge concept for a developing big man to grasp so early, especially when the rest of Davis’ skill set makes him uniquely capable of creating — and finding swaths of — open space. The most direct means that Davis has of contributing to the Hornets’ offense comes in the pick-and-roll, and it’s through that device that he hints at the most absurd reaches of his potential. Simply having a quick, athletic finisher roll down the lane does wonders for an offense, and if that player is a threat to catch a lob, then the impact only intensifies.
Tyson Chandler has become one of the league’s most genuinely helpful offensive players because of this ability. He scores just 12.4 points per game, but defenders are constantly concerned about the possibility that he might corral a lob and embarrass their back-line defense. As such, every step he takes is one that has to be defended. Every open avenue to the rim must be blocked off. Every moment in which he lingers around the rim must be attended to. Chandler makes opponents wary and weary, despite the fact that he likely has fewer touches than any other prominent member of the Knicks’ rotation.
Davis, a fearsome lob fielder in his own right (he can dunk, finish soft if need be and double-clutch without losing balance), doesn’t merely have the potential to mirror what Chandler does, but extend it. For all his value, Chandler moves in only one direction. If he’s not actively moving toward the rim, then he doesn’t create all that much offensive value. Davis is afforded options that Chandler is very clearly not. He can flare out to the wing for a mid-range jumper (a shot he makes fairly consistently in these situations, though shoots a poor percentage on overall), and does so often:
Of that same flare, Davis can also dribble to the rim (though he doesn’t complete this play):
It’s all on the table, and it gives coach Monty Williams a huge amount of flexibility as he toys with his offense and all of the pieces within it. Most of what New Orleans is running this season offensively is experimental, as Vasquez’s rise, Ryan Anderson’s arrival, Gordon’s absence and the learning curve of Davis and fellow rookie Austin Rivers have made continuity a challenge. But as the Hornets settle in and continue to add talent, they have the frontcourt foundation necessary to build a fantastic spread offense that draws on what Davis does best to accentuate the skills across the roster.
Consider this: The Knicks’ offense is about 11 points better per 100 possessions with Chandler on the floor this season, largely because of how well he works out of primary pick-and-roll actions. But what might he accomplish — and how absurd might that on/off margin grow to become — if his game were more diverse? What kind of impact could a player create if he could combine Chandler’s specific potency with a more varied means of offensive distribution? We’ll only know when Davis shows us.
• Golden State’s Stephen Curry is having an outstanding shooting season, but Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving warrants mention as perhaps the most ball-dominant guard to register among the leaders in three-point accuracy. Curry ranks second overall (46.1) and Toronto’s Jose Calderon is eighth (42.7), but just a bit further down the list is Irving (41.5) — a lead guard who takes a ton of his threes off the dribble with devastatingly efficient results. Considering that most of the other leaders in three-point percentage (including Curry) have the benefit of playing alongside other talented creators, Irving’s outside shooting is a contextually remarkable feat.
• Just to make sure we all fully understand how ridiculous a season Larry Sanders is having: The Milwaukee big man is blocking 9.5 percent of the opposing team’s two-point tries while he’s on the floor, a mark that’s almost double that of Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis and Josh Smith.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. Russell Westbrook laughs in the face of lane claustrophobia
Many find fault with the Thunder guard’s shot selection or playmaking judgment, and though he’s improved his overall feel for the game rather significantly this season, some of those same basic issues are both lingering and undeniable. Westbrook gets a bit ahead of himself or outfits himself with blinders at times, but only because his game is guided by an underlying fearlessness that does much more good than harm.
He consistently spits in the face of basketball logic, namely by turning potentially dangerous situations into unexpected scoring opportunities. My favorite subset of those odds-breaking maneuvers: Westbrook’s tendency to drive directly into traffic, navigate impossible quarters and either draw a foul or make the correct pass/shoot distinction. He’s a scoring point guard first, but Westbrook is no fool; he understands the benefits of having all eyes on him, and he has done a terrific job this season of flirting with near-disaster, baiting opponents into bad defensive plays and profiting as a result.
2. A gold star for Landry Fields
It’s difficult to view Fields’ three-year, $19 million contract with the Raptors as anything but a disaster thus far, but here’s a silver lining: The 24-year-old swingman has posted a LeBron-like 12.4 rebounding percentage in 13 games, punctuated by two double-digit rebounding efforts in his last three games. The rest of his offensive game remains an absolute mess, but there is some consolation in knowing that Fields registers among the small forward elite in this one area of performance.
3. So long, Kurt Thomas
The return of Amar’e Stoudemire has almost entirely removed Thomas from the Knicks’ rotation, a development that’s probably for the best, even if Stoudemire’s particular brand of defense might actually be inferior to Thomas’ near complete immobility. Still, to Thomas’ credit, he frequently made opponents pay for so readily leaving him in order to help against Carmelo Anthony or J.R. Smith, a feat that ultimately made him marginally useful as a 40-year-old big man off the bench. He’ll undoubtedly see the court whenever Mike Woodson observes a worrisome lack of scowling or deems his team to be in need of a hard fouler, but the days of Thomas an every-night player in New York are done. It’s OK, Kurt — you’ll always have late November to mid-December.
4. The cold death of the Lakers
I and many others have taken part in the midseason autopsy of the Lakers, and I’m finally ready to completely write them out of the playoff picture. Oddly enough, what finally did it wasn’t Pau Gasol’s poor fit, Dwight Howard’s ailing back, the poor play of most of L.A.’s bench players or the horribly undisciplined defense. Well, it’s all of those things in part, but the straw that broke the back of my faith turned out to be a season-ending hip injury to Jordan Hill — an energy-instilling role player whose presence on the Lakers’ roster this season was an open question over the summer. This marks a potentially fitting end for a particularly glitzy iteration of one of the NBA’s glamour franchises; the death of its playoff-contending hopes comes not because of some dramatic end, but because a former lottery pick that two teams had previously folded on won’t be available to infuse a shot of life (even at the cost of some harmfully energetic over-rotations on D) into a slogging rotation.
5. Where Dion Waiters belongs
No. 4 pick Waiters has started just a single game for the Cavaliers since the turn of the calendar year, making it natural to wonder if a bench role is more natural for a player so clearly conditioned to coming off the pine. Shoot-happy, ball-dominant guards can play nice within the context of a starting five, but there’s often no need to force such restraint. Rather than cram Waiters’ shot-creating potential into a more confined role, it may in fact be best to stagger him and Kyrie Irving for the sake of more evenly distributing resources. It’s way, way too early to tell — both in terms of sample size and the Cavs’ team construction — if this should be the long-term plan with Waiters, but the early returns are interesting: 15.5 points (42.5 percent from the field, 23.5 percent from three-point range), 1.7 assists and 2.2 turnovers in 26 minutes per game as a sub; and 14 points (36.6 percent from the field, 32.8 percent from three-point range), 3.5 assists, and two turnovers in 32 minutes per game as a starter.
6. Don’t touch Darren Collison
Speed can be an incredible asset in today’s NBA, and for Collison it often is. The Dallas point guard doesn’t have outstanding court vision or particularly creative scoring instincts; he’s merely faster than most players who are asked to guard him and can put pressure on opponents in transition and half-court situations alike by way of his speed.
That said, when Collison’s quicks don’t come through — or when an opponent preempts one of his drives with a good rotation — he crumbles. He may well be one of the league’s worst finishers when contested, has relatively poor body control overall and doesn’t have any knack whatsoever for drawing contact. The speed gets him so far, and often earns him open looks at layups or floaters when the Mavs’ offense is clicking just right. But breathe on him as he tries to convert and his hopes of scoring disappear.
7. Blake Griffin, flipping the script
Conventional basketball thinking regarding post-up play dictates that those with size advantages should back down their opponents while those with speed advantages should face up before attacking. Such guidelines matter not to Griffin. Although the Clippers’ All-Star forward has both advantages on many nights, he’s actually begun switching up the general rule as a means of overpowering opponents by charging directly into them after facing up — in effect challenging opponents to keep up with his first step and then punishing them for doing so. It’s maneuvers like these that give some the impression that Griffin has an unformed post game, all the while ignoring the fact that face-up play can be just as efficient as back-to-the-basket play — even if Griffin’s approach may seem odd. Working off the dribble while facing the hoop typically affords Griffin the opportunity to use all manner of fakes and spins, but in these cases allows him a step or two to bulldoze his defender with his momentum. It’s a charging violation waiting to happen, but an interesting development nonetheless.
8. Give David Lee his due
Lee’s game is well known at this point, and yet I still don’t hear the Golden State forward mentioned consistently enough for my liking among the league’s best-passing big men. Griffin is a wonderful playmaker, as are both Gasols, Josh Smith, Boris Diaw and Joakim Noah. But Lee is right there with that group, and likely a step above Nene, Greg Monroe and the next tier. His ability to set up the Warriors’ shooters and cutters from the high post has been tremendously helpful this season, especially because the team’s best ball-handlers are also its most lethal marksmen. Orchestrating through Lee opens up the chance to use the elbow as an offensive fulcrum, revolving around that post as opposed to depending too heavily on the backcourt to create off the dribble. There’s room for Lee, Stephen Curry, Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson to all take turns initiating the offense, but it’s the balance that’s created between them that makes Golden State so interesting.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.