NEW ORLEANS — There should be only so many different ways for one player to make you jump off the sofa.
But there’s Anthony Davis posterizing Joel Freeland of the Trail Blazers with a tomahawk dunk; there’s Davis reaching up and back and nearly to the top of the backboard to get a one-handed throw down on Luis Scola of the Pacers; there he is roaring down the lane with the force and ferocity to make Glen Davis of the Magic hit the deck like a bowling pin at the end of an alley.
Then there’s the defensive end, where Miami’s Chris Bosh seems to have him pinned down on the low block and tries to go up for an easy bucket once, then twice. Both times, Bosh has to eat the ball. When the Lakers’ Pau Gasol gets an offensive rebound and whirls away from traffic, Davis goes right along, a figure skater in tandem. At the finish of the 360 spin, Davis slaps the ball back with disdain. And there he is suddenly sprinting way out into the left corner to reach up and slap away a 3-point shot by an utterly shocked Tobias Harris of Orlando.
“How many times have I seen a ‘Wow!’ moment out of A.D.?” ponders teammate Ryan Anderson. “Let’s see, how many games have we played and how many times have I been out there on the same floor at practice? Every day he’s doing something that makes me shake my head.”
The No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft officially became an NBA All-Star when commissioner Adam Silver tabbed him to replace Kobe Bryant on the Western Conference team. Davis’ ascension to that elite level of play has been there since opening night this season, when he scored 20 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked three shots against the Pacers.
Except for a period of two weeks in December when he was sidelined by a fractured bone in his left hand, Davis has been everything the Pelicans had hoped. Yet he’s also shown he is a unique player, one no one could have imagined even with the advance hype that he brought out of his one college season at Kentucky.
His most identifying physical mark remains The Brow, which crawls like a single entity over one of his large, curiosity-filled eyes to the other. But at 6-foot-10 with a wingspan of 7-foot-5 1/2, those long, lethal, larcenous limbs enable him to cover space on the court like a basketball version of the four-armed Hindu god Vishnu.
“He knows what he’s doing on offense and he’s a smart, aggressive player on defensive,” said Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. “Anthony Davis will shine in the NBA for years and years. I’m telling you, he’s the truth.”
Numbers don’t lie
The statistical truth is this:
* Davis’ player efficiency rating is fifth in the NBA, behind only Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kevin Love.
* The last player to average 20+ points, 10+ rebounds, and 3+ blocks was Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-00.
* Since 1985-86, only four players have 1,500 points, 200 blocks, and 100 assists in their first 100 games: Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Chris Webber and Davis
* Davis has had a streak of eight consecutive games with four or more blocks.
* Davis’ PER is the highest for a player 21 or under since the 1951-52 season.
The truth is that Davis won’t be able to have a drink in the French Quarter until March 11. Legally, he’s still a boy. Yet he’s excelling against the strongest, toughest, best men that the NBA has put in his path.
A rookie season filled with nagging injuries limited him to just 64 games a season ago. An overprotective coach, Monty Williams, held Davis down to just 28.8 minutes per game and led a few to wonder if the rookie was all he was said to be. A few, that is, who must have been wearing blindfolds.
Even dealing with the aches and pains and the learning curve and the handcuffs placed on him by his coach, Davis, at 19, became the youngest player in NBA history to get 800 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks in fewer than 65 games. The second-youngest player to reach those plateaus was 22-year-old Tim Duncan in 1998-99.
“A lot of last year was me,” Williams said. “I just didn’t feel like he was ready for that kind of pressure to carry the whole load for the whole team every night. So I took a lot of hits last year because I didn’t play him as much. I didn’t play him in certain situations. But I made a commitment to his growth the right way.
“I’m not trying to take the credit for what he’s doing now. I just didn’t didn’t think it was prudent for him to be out there and get dominated. Most people say, ‘Throw him out there and let him figure it out.’ To me that was counter-productive for a guy that was the No. 1 pick, has all this talent. To throw him out there and have him play against all the bigs in Chicago or to throw him out there to guard Dwight Howard in his rookie season? I mean, who does that? I’ve seen it done with other No. 1 picks. And they’re bigs. And it didn’t work. So why was I gonna do that to him?
“There are so many No. 1 picks who were bigs and didn’t work. Not at all. You can try to build that confidence by playing them and instead destroy it for years. Maybe for good.
“So instead of everybody writing articles about him maybe not being able to do it, they wrote articles about me not being able to coach. And that was basically what I wanted, because the focus wasn’t on him. It was on me and my inane ability to coach. Which is true, but the goal was to keep him from having to deal with, ‘Well, why can’t he play against Dwight? Why can’t he play against Bynum?’ Because they outweigh him by 70 pounds. So why would I put him in that situation where he would fail?
“To his credit, he was frustrated. He wanted to play. But I just told him ‘You gotta trust me. I’m not the brightest guy in the world but I do know this. If I put you out there in some of those situations, you might get hurt and that could destroy confidence like nothing else. You’re going out there and getting hurt because you’re not strong.
“So he just got in the weight room and we had a conversation this summer. I called him and said, ‘OK, I’m taking the handcuffs off.’ And he was like, ‘I’m ready, Coach.’ And I said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re not ready. I took heat all last year. Now you’re gonna get your chance to go out there and show everybody what we know. You gotta prepare yourself to go out there and play 35 minutes every night. I can play him for 40 minutes and he takes it.”
Game still growing in always-ready Davis
When he injured his hand in December, the prognosis from the team doctors was that Davis would miss four to six weeks. But after just two, Davis was hounding Williams to get back onto the floor.
“Hurt or learning or whatever,” Davis said. “Players want to play. I had enough with injuries in my rookie year and I didn’t want to miss a significant amount of time again.
“I understand that [Williams] had the best long term interest of me and for the team in mind last season. I wasn’t really upset or mad. I had to get stronger. Had to work on my game. Get that jump shot. Post defense. Post offense. Overall game. This is league is a lot different than playing the game anyplace else and you’ve got to rise to it.
“But now I want to get out there every night and play. Get out there and get after it.”
Davis believes much of the credit for his rise goes to his experience with Team USA last summer in London.
“Playing with guys that are in my age group, the up-and-coming stars in the league, playing with guys I’m gonna be going against during the regular season, finding out what they’re doing, what they like to do. It was a learning experience and also fun.”
“I’ve watched how Coach K [Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski] is with these elite guys,” Williams said. “He builds such a base of confidence. He talks to them about who they are, what they can be. He gave me some pointers on dealing with certain guys. I think a lot of it has to do with Coach. What he brings to the table. Coach K did a lot to help him. I was there and watching and talking a little bit, but staying out of way and letting him do his thing. When he came to us, you could see and almost feel how he’d grown.”
He’s not a dominant, overpowering low-post force, but Davis has found a way with his wiry strength to survive — even thrive. He reaches over over tall, stronger, more massive bodies, but as in the give-and-go from guard Brian Roberts that led to the takedown slam on Orlando’s Davis, he doesn’t shy away from it. He’s improved his mid-range jumper. And the way he carries himself on the court clearly is different from his rookie season. He understands and accepts that he’s supposed to take the Pelicans to the level of playoff team and beyond.
Pelicans’ star a dual-threat leader, too
“There’s different leadership styles,” said general manager Dell Demps. “Some guys are example, some guys are vocal. I think he’s a little bit of both. He goes out and shows it and his commitment at every level is contagious. His unselfishness is contagious. He’s not afraid to talk to guys. I think his parents did a great job with him. He has great communication skills. He can talk to people. His ability to just be him is a great for our coaches.”
The difference between the phenoms with the physical gifts and the great ones who battle for championships and eventually turn into legends is comprehending the game and you fit into and how you affect it.
“That’s a between-the-ears things, where young guys mature and understand the effect they can have,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s starting to figure that out and he’s doing a great job. You can tell what guys understand the game, to play it and he understands it inherently.
“I think it depends on the individual. He happens to be, fortunately, not a stubborn individual, someone of high intelligence and he accepts coaching. He wants to get to the point where he’s doing it every night. It’s a two-way street.
“The coach can plan all these things out and put a kid in the environment, but the kid has to do something, too. And Anthony has done that. With other people, it’s a little tougher because they expect it to happen so quickly. Sometimes you just have to be patient.”
At first blush, Davis seems a sapling trying to stretch toward the sky. But Davis is already so effective. Is it the height? The extraordinary reach? The versatility? The athleticism? The defensive instincts that lead him to the ball for a blocked shot and then enable him to control it and start a fast break?
It’s the entire package.
The comparisons have been made to Duncan, to LaMarcus Aldridge, to Kevin Garnett and it’s all there. But Davis might be like nothing we have ever seen.
The Brow simply raises up into singular arch. Anthony Davis shrugs his shoulders.
“I don’t try to figure it out,” he said, “just play.”