Building the Brow It’s only a matter of time until Anthony Davis ascends to the NBA throne BY ZACH LOWE ON APRIL 1, 2014
It’s telling that the comparisons have mostly stopped. When Anthony Davis came into the league, with ridiculous arms and guard skills honed before a late growth spurt, everyone rushed to find his NBA analogue.
Kevin Garnett was a popular choice. Comparisons with Tim Duncan dominated the lead-up to Davis’s regular-season debut against San Antonio, even though Duncan as a rookie was older and stouter and he had a back-to-the-basket game that was historically great almost from the moment he entered the league.
Davis has murdered this parlor game. People around the league don’t know what to make of him anymore. They are just terrified, especially after having watched Davis average 30 points, 13.5 rebounds, and three blocks per game on 55 percent shooting over a 10-game stretch in March — a period during which he turned 21 freaking years old. He’s already fourth overall in Player Efficiency Rating, behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kevin Love. His game has so many elements on both ends of the floor, it’s going to take years for the Pelicans to figure out the optimal uses and roster construction for him. It’s hard to decide what someone is best at when the answer might be “everything.”
The race to surround him with the right talent, and to figure out his ideal positional use, is already on. The Pelicans will have only limited cap flexibility in each of the next two summers, and the Magic and Cavaliers can testify about the fragile and fleeting chance of surrounding a true superstar with the right pieces — especially since that superstar will likely take his team out of the lottery. (So could the Hornets, actually. See: Paul, Chris.)
“He is going to be his own player,” says Monty Williams, the team’s coach. “People try and think back to re-create another A.D., but he’s not like anyone we’ve ever seen.”
“I’m not sure he reminds me of anyone now,” says Dirk Nowitzki. “In my 16 years, I’ve never seen anyone like him.”
The new parlor game is to compare isolated parts of Davis’s game to their equivalents belonging to someone else. He’s so dangerous on the pick-and-roll, capable of snagging insane lobs and catching and dunking from the foul line without a dribble, that he sucks in defenders like Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard — only Davis is also a 79 percent foul shooter. One opposing assistant coach says Davis is the first player since prime Rasheed Wallace who is fast and long enough to help off Nowitzki on a pick-and-pop, and then recover back to Nowitzki before the big German can release his deadly jumper. Another assistant offered up the comparison to a prime Cliff Robinson — a 6-foot-10 guy with elite outside-in ballhandling skills, only Davis, of course, has more potential in almost every other facet.
And the Pelicans? They’re trying to mold Davis into some unholy amalgam of Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, and whichever pick-and-roll smasher you prefer.
“He’s his own player,” says Kevin Hanson, the Pelicans’ player development coach, who works closely with Davis. “He’s got some Dirk, some KG, and some Hakeem. I don’t think we’re even going to see what he really is for at least a couple of years.”
Those goals aren’t crazy. Davis has a ton to learn on both ends, but he’s already so good that contemplating what he might become is an exercise in fanciful imagination. It is Homer Simpson conjuring the Land of Chocolate. LeBron’s decline is years away, but when it happens, I suspect we will have hearty debates about whether Davis or Kevin Durant is the world’s best player. There will likely be a day, during Durant’s mid-thirties, when Davis ascends to the throne as the NBA’s undisputed top player. We haven’t seen a big man with this kind of defensive potential enter the league since Howard. Throw in efficient scoring from all over the floor and you’ve got a league-altering monster.
The Pelicans are building Davis’s offense piece by piece. They started with his jump shot last summer, helping him raise his release point above his head and make sure the ball comes off his right index finger, Hanson says. (Hanson came to New Orleans from the Spurs, where he worked with Chip Engelland, perhaps the league’s most respected shooting coach.) Davis is stronger than he was a year ago, but he’s still skinny; and he doesn’t have much of a back-to-the-basket game yet.
He’s quicker than almost every big man, so the Pelicans have encouraged him to broaden his face-up game. This way he can either launch a midrange jumper from the wing (He’s not an elite shooter yet. Davis has hit 41 percent of his midrange jumpers this season, a solid mark, but not at the Nowitzki/LaMarcus Aldridge level) or drive to the basket. His first step draws heaps of fouls from reaching bigs who can’t keep up.
The Pelicans are wary that this approach could become predictable. Davis prefers to drive baseline, because there are fewer defenders that way and less danger of running into contact, Hanson says. They’d like him to drive toward the middle more, especially since doing so can draw the defense away from the Pelicans’ shooters. “He’s just not comfortable yet taking that initial hit in the middle,” Hanson says.
Having more shooters would help. Jrue Holiday is a solid 3-point shooter, but he has been out since early January. Ryan Anderson might be the league’s best 3-point-shooting power forward, but he’s missed almost the entire season. Even at full health, the Pelicans have mostly started a small forward who can’t shoot in Al-Farouq Aminu and a rotating collection of stiffs at center who mostly just foul and get in Davis’s way. Toss in Tyreke Evans, still a liability when he doesn’t have the ball, and Davis often struggles just to navigate the floor. He has no path to the rim when defenses overload on his rolls, as the Clippers do on this Evans-Davis pick-and-roll:
“What hurts him now,” Williams says, “is that we just don’t have guys who can shoot. We have to add shooting. When we put more shooting around him, he is going to be unguardable.” Davis mentions Anthony Morrow specifically as a guy with whom he enjoys playing, precisely because defenders can’t leave Morrow to crash down on his cuts.
The Pelicans envision Davis as the fulcrum of their offense in the mode of a prime Dirk. They want Davis to get the ball in the center of the foul line, face the defense, and operate from there with shooters around him.
The Mavs have always run a ton of pick-and-rolls for Nowitzki, and defenses early in his career countered by switching defenders. That left a little guy on him, but Nowitzki would continue rolling down the lane, where the second big-man defender along the baseline would switch onto him — a second switch, removing the size advantage the first one produced. Don Nelson and Avery Johnson taught Nowitzki to counter by stopping his roll at the foul line, trapping the little guy in a mismatch, Nowitzki says.
Nowitzki learned to do everything from that spot — shoot, drive, back down into post-ups, and dish to shooters. That’s what the Pelicans want for Davis. “We envision him being able to work from there similar to the way Dirk does,” Hanson says.
Davis so far is only comfortable using one-dribble moves. That single dribble often isn’t enough to get him all the way to the rim, or even into layup range, leaving him prone to the occasional awkward in-between shot:
Davis’s body on these plays looks like it’s almost moving too fast — like his feet are about to slide out from under him as he flings up these floaters. But Davis practices those shots, and he has such great touch that he can make them at rates a normal big couldn’t sniff. “He has the ability to make awkward shots,” Williams says. “For us, it’s weird. But for him, it’s natural. He’ll go left, jump off his left leg, and shoot it with his right hand. You can’t name a big in the history of the league who has that shot.”
His repertoire will be limited until he can nail the second and third dribble, and mastering that is Plan A for Hanson this summer. Quicker power forwards understand that if they can just slide with Davis for that one dribble, or at least stay attached to him, they’ll be able to contest whatever shot he’ll launch. (Hanson cited Boris Diaw as the archetype of this sort of defender.) About 94 percent of Davis’s shot attempts have come after either zero dribble or one, per SportVU data provided to Grantland.
Davis is still uneasy with contact. The first dribble is an escape mechanism; the second and third are bulldozers, and Davis just doesn’t have that in his game yet, coaches in both New Orleans and elsewhere say. The second dribble is also the countermove — the spin back in the other direction, say. “I’m very long and lengthy,” Davis says, “so I can usually get to the basket in one dribble. But if I can get to that second dribble, and get to my counters, guys can’t slide with me. That’s going to be huge for me.”
He’ll also have to hone his passing skills, and the Pelicans are letting him stretch a bit at the elbow, delivering dribble handoffs and searching out cutters à la Joakim Noah. But Davis’s assist numbers are middling for an offensive centerpiece, and passing on the move, with the defense in flux, is a skill that comes only with experience. “Passing is something you can’t really teach,” Hanson says.
Davis will get all of this; he’s too good not to. It’s just going to take some time. Same goes on the other side, where Davis projects as a regular Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He’s a shot-blocking menace, even if New Orleans’s overall numbers don’t reflect his impact yet. The Pelicans are a bad defensive team, 25th in points allowed per possession, and that number has barely moved regardless of whether Davis is on the floor or the bench. Teams shoot more often, and more accurately, in the restricted area when Davis is on the court, per NBA.com.
It’s unclear if those numbers really say anything about Davis. Injuries have decimated New Orleans and removed a strong defender from the point of attack in Holiday. The other pieces brought in to defend either don’t do it well (the centers) or can’t shoot well enough to earn consistent playing time. The roster is young, and young teams are generally bad.
Davis has also spent about 70 percent of his time at power forward, and smart defenses will take him away from the rim by involving his man in a pick-and-roll high on the floor. He’s also had to chase around a lot of stretch power forwards, including Paul Pierce and Dorell Wright in recent games, and like a lot of young big men, he’s had trouble balancing perimeter defense with rim protection instincts. “But that’s beneficial for me,” Davis says. “I love that challenge. I loved guarding Paul Pierce.”
The nuances of NBA defense are hard. Pick-and-roll ball handlers blow by Davis surprisingly often when the Pelicans have him drop back to contain those ball handlers near the foul line. (That is not to say it happens often. That is to say it happens more often than you’d think, given Davis’s skills and reputation.) He has a tendency to turn his body almost completely sideways, parallel to the sideline, giving ball handlers an obvious driving lane: http://i.minus.com/ijlU0lMwhEh11.gif
The Pelicans are aggressive defensively, and Williams asks his players to help and rotate around the floor more than most teams. Davis occasionally has trouble making those reads on the fly, leaving the next pass open.
Those are blips in the learning process. The dude is going to be a destroyer. He already blocks shots no one else approaches. He gets 3-point shooters on flying closeouts. He comes from off your television screen to nail a poor, unsuspecting spot-up shooter in transition. He’ll even tip unblockable shots one-on-one in the post. “He actually blocked one or two of my jumpers,” Nowitzki says. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
New Orleans errs in letting Dennis Schroder get to the middle on this side pick-and-roll, theoretically opening up both a path to the rim and a lane for Schroder to hit Paul Millsap on the roll. But Davis’s length in both directions spooks Schroder into taking the easiest and least efficient out.
Opposing teams have shot just 48 percent on shots near the basket when Davis is near both the shooter and the rim — a solid number, though a bit behind the very stingiest this season, per NBA.com.
He’s alert, and getting smarter every day. He notices things on film the coaches don’t, Hanson says. “He’s so smart,” Hanson says. “He’ll see something else in the clip I didn’t see, and say something like, ‘Hey, Austin has to get through that screen up there.’ And I’ll say, ‘Hey, A.D., we’re not really talking about Austin right now.’”
Kelvin Sampson, Houston’s lead assistant, watched tape of the Pelicans defending side pick-and-rolls with some decoy action taking place on the other side of the floor. He wanted to see how Davis reacts when he’s not directly involved in the pick-and-roll — when he’s guarding the team’s other big man along the baseline: Would he fall for the decoy action and get distracted, or would he monitor the pick-and-roll and be ready to offer help near the basket?
Davis was ready, every time. “Most young guys just gravitate toward their man,” Sampson says. “But he was ready. His biggest strength is going to be that he has no weaknesses.”
The potential is there for Davis to be sort of a super–Chris Bosh — an undersize center who can stretch the floor, but, unlike Bosh, also offer elite rim protection. The Pellies have Anderson locked into a four-year contract, and though they’ve experimented in tiny doses with playing Anderson at small forward, he’s clearly a big man. He unlocks a lot of Williams’s offense, and opens driving lanes for the team’s guards.
The Pelicans have struggled horribly on defense when Davis and Anderson play together, but they’ve also scored at rates well above what the league’s best offenses produce. As Davis and the team mature, it’s appealing to see these guys as their own version of Miami — a smaller team that overwhelms with speed and shooting, and does just enough on defense to survive.
That won’t work every night, of course. Davis just isn’t big enough to check Marc Gasol, or even Robin Lopez. He weighs 225 pounds now, and Williams expects him to max out around 240 or so. But everything is a matter of resource allotment for a team close to the cap. The ideal center for Davis would offer bulk and rim protection on defense, and be versatile enough offensively to stay out of his way regardless of which element — the pick-and-roll, posting up, driving — Davis happens to be emphasizing that night.
Those guys are rare, and they’re generally taken. The Pelicans had a reasonable facsimile of one in Lopez, but they dealt him to open up cap space for Evans. The three-headed center they’ve deployed since Jason Smith’s injury just hasn’t been good enough, though the team has hope that Alexis Ajinca might work well around Davis.
Even if that ideal center were available, the Pelicans don’t have the resources to get him. They’re slated to have about $5 million or so in cap space in each of the next two summers, a small enough amount that they may just choose to stay over the cap and use the full midlevel exception. They owe Philly a first-round pick that will likely change hands this June, and the Evans and Eric Gordon contracts will be very hard to trade; Evans, of course, is on fire right now as a starter.
New Orleans won’t have real cap flexibility until the summer of 2016, when Gordon’s contract expires. Davis will probably be a free-agent draw by then, but he’ll also be starting his second contract in the 2016-17 season, which means the Pelicans will be well into the “on the clock” phase in convincing him to stay for a third deal.
If you can’t find that ideal center, at some point you have to decide between force-feeding lineups with Davis at power forward or leaning more toward smaller groups that will destroy teams offensively. Sometimes you just have to play your five best guys. Williams will use both sorts of lineups regardless, but right now, he says he leans toward Davis-Anderson as a rare pairing.
“I don’t think is ever going to be a center,” Williams says. “I think he’s a power forward who will sometimes play center.” Davis says he doesn’t care about the positional designation, and that Anderson is strong enough to defend some low-post centers.
Some of the caution is about preserving Davis’s body. A lot of the bulkier centers who might bully Davis can’t actually score in the post; Davis could guard them fine, despite the size disadvantage. But that would take its toll. Perhaps New Orleans, when it becomes a playoff team, can slot Davis at center more often in the postseason.
The Pelicans will need a lot of wings to play that way; Miami can play small only because it gets rim protection from LeBron and Dwyane Wade. Aminu is the only New Orleans wing who can offer that, and he’s a free agent. So is Darius Miller, and Morrow will probably decline his player option. We still haven’t really seen if Holiday, Evans, and Gordon can work together, though Evans’s killer play of late as the undisputed lead dog suggests he needs the ball and good spacing to live up to his contract. Rivers has shown signs, particularly on defense, but to describe his play as “uneven” would be generous.
The Pelicans have time to sort out the roster, but only limited flexibility. But they have the most important ingredient in building a championship roster: a true blue superstar. The Brow has arrived.