The stage is all set for an Anthony Davis takeover. However, a lot of dominos must first fall, both for him and the New Orleans Pelicans, before he can rise to the top echelon of NBA players, the neighborhood populated by the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Only 21 1/2 years old (at his tender age you still count the “halves”), Davis will be expected to lead a talented but inexperienced USA squad to the gold medal and a flawless record at the World Cup.
U.S. teams once went up against players who acted like fans before games and like bowling pins once the whistle blew. Those days are over, and while the road to the final game (most likely against Spain, the host nation) seems paved for the Americans, Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s teams know better than to underestimate the ever-evolving competition.
Now, they have handed the keys over to the second-youngest player on the roster. AD’s next NBA season will be his third. The New Orleans Pelicans are on the clock as they try to formulate a winning roster around his amazing talent. How are they going about it, and just how good can Davis actually be?
Davis has a fairy tale for a life story. As a 6’3 sophomore guard in high-school, Davis wasn’t on a lot of college programs’ wish lists. Then, in his final two years in Perspectives Charter School, Davis cartoonishly grew 7 inches. That’s about the size of a grown squirrel, plus the tail. The ultra-long big who combined guard skills and freakish athleticism had no more trouble getting recruitment letters as he leapfrogged to the top of national rankings. Being a clear “one-and-done” guy, the Kentucky Wildcats were the natural choice. Led by Davis, Coach John Calipari’s team went on to win the NCAA championship, and Davis gave us a glimpse of just how special he is, as he won the title game MVP award without scoring any points in the first half, finishing with only 6 points.
In the NBA, Davis is the new kid on the block, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 Draft, and his stock just keeps skyrocketing. Last year, his second as a pro, he was an All-Star call-up by the NBA front office, spelling for the injured Kobe Bryant. While DeMarcus Cousins, Tony Parker and Goran Dragic may had a valid case to get that spot, you must admit that the league bet on the right horse, with the game played on his home court.
As we try and break down his development and potential, we must keep in mind that superstar’s arc is longer – they keep evolving their game deep into their careers, well beyond other players. The 21 year-old version of Davis was good for a 20-10 season along with a league leading 2.8 blocks a game, fourth overall in PER with 26.5, and countless numbers of plays that had fans wishing they hadn’t blinked. With that in mind, Davis is one of the select few who have the potential to become the world’s best basketball player.
Davis is a unique physical specimen, tailor-made for basketball. Standing at 6-10, with what can only be described as an albatrossian wingspan of 7-4, Davis runs and moves on the court like an antelope. His instincts are sharp. His combination of athleticism and energy is all but unrivaled. He’s flying for blocks on one end, beats his man to the other rim with those graceful giant-man strides, where he is one of the very best targets a ballhandler could hope for. Just toss it up, it doesn’t matter, I’ll get it.
As highly-regarded as he was coming into the league, a lock for the number one pick, the scouting report on Davis was that he is still very raw with the ball in his hands compared to what he can become. After two years in the league, Davis is blowing away even the most optimistic of projections.
Character-wise, Davis is the ideal poster child for the league – humble, focused, and confident with a just a dash of humor. Most importantly for New Orleans, Davis is locked in on winning before anything else. Not falling in love with his own hype, as you listen to him talk, AD doesn’t think before he says “we” instead of “I”, it’s just built in to his personality. It is one thing to say “we.” Thinking in that term is another thing altogether. LeBron is the most obvious of many examples, as a guy who’s saying “we” very deliberately, understanding how the media takes it. Davis is humble and team-oriented naturally. If anything, Davis might be too “nice.”
During the course of a game, you sometimes wish he would get greedier, and look to ‘get his’ more often. In this league, big men who are trusted to be go-to-guys have to be a little trigger-happy in order to dominate. He’ll have to shoot 25-30 shots on some nights when he has a mismatch, or if the rest of his team is struggling for any reason.
On the “Xs-and-Os” side of things, on both ends, AD has the pick-and-roll game nailed.
His game is built for this two-men action; he sets great wide screens, he can shoot (pop), he can roll for lobs or suck in the defense, and he can take the rock and drive around his recovering, often slower defender.
Defensively, Davis can help and recover to his man faster than any big. Guards are terrified of calling his man to screen for them, having nightmares of his octopus-arms draped all over them. But it doesn’t end there – as the help, when guarding the non-screener big, he can singlehandedly erase mistakes, shortcut rotations and reset an offense back to square one. The NBA is a pick-and-roll league, and Davis is a two-way Ace for the Pelicans.
As the last line of defense, Davis blocks shots all over the floor, but it’s the shots that he prevents from ever being attempted that matter most. As he learns how to affect each defensive possession, Davis will be a permanent candidate to win DPOY for most of his career.
As for his outside shooting – his unlikely to extend behind the 3-point line any time soon, his mid-range jumper is very good, but it’s not in the Bosh/Dirk/Aldridge class just yet. The Pelicans’ player developmental staff has reportedly helped AD to tweak his shot; getting him to launch the ball from a higher spot above his head, and making his index finger the last to touch the ball on the release. I’m nit-picking, but personally I would like to see him raise the ball even higher, to unblockable Rasheed-KG-esque levels. That type of a jumper is almost exclusive for big men with Davis’ touch. Keeping the ball high makes for compact, efficient shooting mechanics, so getting the ball closer to his trade-marked unibrow is nothing but excessive motion.
Davis’ rebounding average was good for 10th league-wide, but he has a lot of room to grow in that area, too. On offense, Davis is a thunderous putback-dunk waiting to happen. He is so long, nimble and active, that you have to face him as you box him out, and just hope.
On defense is where he still has to improve, as he is decent for his position, but has yet to hone his craft the way his potential suggest he can, and really man the paint. Of course his tremendous shot- blocking ability is sometimes in the way of that, but he must find a better balance between going after everything and securing the boards. As he gets stronger, he will find himself shoved and trapped under the rim less frequently. If he can become a real beast down there, he can provide some lineup flexibility for his coaches.
He also has some “coast-to-coast” upside which is always sexy, but he’s still tentative about showing it. If Coach Monty Williams can be to Davis what Nellie was to Dirk early in his career, maybe Davis can get the confidence he needs. We can all have a lot of fun watching Davis, who was a guard just a few years ago, grow into a big-man playmaker. Of course it doesn’t just happen, and Davis will have to learn how to play at that speed and make reads in motion, something his still working on, as his assist numbers hint.
Right now he’s usually limited to one dribble moves in the half-court settings. He has a tendency to use his right foot as his pivot, which is not common. If he can mix it up with his left as the pivot foot, it could give him more options to set his man up for a wider range of moves and counters. Consistently using his left hand to finish around the hoop can also be big for him.
Eventually, guys of his caliber tend to get better and better in those areas, the game “slows-down” for them as they get more experience. That type of leap in confidence and ability doesn’t happen over one season. As funny as it sounds, while he has the ball-handling skills and the guard mentality to be more of an outside force, Davis is still growing into his own body. His height is new to him in terms of basketball, so patience is needed from fans, as he has a whole world of untapped potential.
New Orleans’ coaching staff sees Davis as power forward who’ll occasionally get minutes at center, and I think they have it right. Davis is already getting closer to his optimal playing weight at around 240 pounds and is going to get his “man-strength” without getting much heavier. He won’t get bullied by the bulkier PFs as much as he did in his first couple of seasons, and that position seems to be his best fit on offense.
It is not a stretch to say the Pelicans have a window which is just starting to crack open, it’s going to stay that way as long as Davis is in his prime and happy to be a Pelican.
Saying a player can be as good as he wants to be is an awful cliché. Anthony Davis makes you say it.
The Supporting Cast
Building around Davis, the Pelicans’ higher-ups took the road less traveled. Most noticeably, Tyreke Evens, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon, three ball-dominant guards, populate the perimeter.
We’ll look at their latest moves first, the puzzle starting to reveal a picture.
The team saw their starting small forward, Al-Farouq Aminu, leave this offseason in free-agency, along with sharp-shooter Anthony Morrow. Aminu is more than a nice pickup for the Dallas Mavericks, but he wasn’t the perfect match along Davis. To me, Morrow is the bigger loss.
The team acquired Omer Asik this summer, giving up yet another first-round pick, and will likely start him at center alongside The Brow. Together they can be a force, with enough interior defense and rebounding to translate well in overall defensive rankings. On offense, Asik’s limited range could get in the way, and the coaching staff hopes he can continue to make progress so he is not a liability in half court settings.
The Pelicans gave up a lot to get Holiday and his eight figure salary, trading Philadelphia the draft rights to Nerlens Noel. The point guard is a borderline All-Star, and is considered just a notch below the top tier. He is big, athletic, and versatile on both ends of the floor. His fit with Davis is still in the TBD column, as he was injured for much of their only season together. Not known for his outside shot, Holiday will have to keep opposing guards honest and punish them when they gamble on his long-range shooting.
The Pelicans still hope Gordon can stay healthy for a decent stretch, whether he is in their long-term plans or not. With his contract, Gordon, a former USA guy himself in 2010, is basically untradeable for anyone remotely close to his level of talent, unless he is on the court and producing.
Finally there’s Tyreke Evans, the most interesting piece of the puzzle – an elite ballhandler who uses his strength to be an excellent penetrator, but whose lack of a jumper could cause a log-jam to the offense. The 2010 Rookie of the Year had an extremely rare career arc, having all his major stats go down in each of his first four seasons as a Sacramento King. Now, he is trying to redeem his reputation as the super-sub off the bench.
Evans was once trusted to lead a team, something very few still believe he can actually do. Yet, it seems that the role he’s been asked to fill might be perfectly suited for him, behind his highly touted backcourt mates in Holiday and Gordon. He needs the ball to be effective, so his ball-dominant style fits to lead the second unit, when Davis gets a breather. At times when the two do share the court, Evans and Davis put enormous pressure on opposing defenses. When Gordon got injured, Evans stepped up his game as a starter.
The Future for the Pelicans
With the most important building block in place, it’s management’s job not to waste precious time and shorten the road to success as much as possible. The roster moves they have made prove they know the clock is ticking, however those moves are anything but conventional. Three ball-dominant guards, all making over $10 million a year, is a risky way to surround your franchise big. Evans is coming off the bench and he might be the most talented player to do so while in his prime since Manu Ginobili.
Their team identity is not at all set, and I think they should strive to speed things up a bit.
As mentioned, Davis is more agile and athletic than pretty much all of his opponents, and is extremely dangerous in the open floor, running a straight line from basket to basket. His rim-runs get the team cheap buckets. More importantly, rim-runs also scramble the defense in ways that are perfect for the Pelicans’ aggressive ballhandlers, primarily Holiday, Evans and Gordon. Davis, with his youth, athleticism and sheer hustle, can get his creative teammates mismatches all over the floor early in the shot clock. If New Orleans can play an uptempo style, they can cash in on AD’s mere presence on the court, even when he is off the ball. That’s how you use your superstar.
Last season, the Pelicans were 22nd in pace overall, meaning there were only eight teams playing slower than them, according to Basketball-Reference.com. This upcoming season they will have to start picking it up if they hope to take full advantage of this roster, particularly Davis.
As for the postseason, the Pelicans are not contending with their current roster. Young teams have a hard time winning past April. But their core is interesting with Davis being a step further than expected at this point in time. Sprinkle in a vet or two with some postseason chops, and watch them shoot up the standings. The playoffs are a different ballgame, they can be a nightmare first-round underdog in the next couple of years, but can they get out of the brutal West? Can Coach Monty Williams hold his own against the Pops, Docs and Carlisles for a 7-game series?
Williams is a bit of a polarizing figure around the league. Some think he’s coming into his own. Being coached by the likes of Greg Popovich, Stan Van Gundy, Larry Brown and Doc Rivers in his decade as an NBA player surely bodes well for him. In my mind, though, the questions about how much can he move the needle are legitimate. For the time being, he has Davis in his corner, which is big, but if he won’t show progress with this group it won’t matter. He will have to prove his worth sooner rather than later.
While I also have my fair share of doubts about this core’s ceiling in a packed Western Conference, you must appreciate management’s ability and willingness to think outside of the box. Now, with Davis ascending to “transcendental star” levels, the Pelicans have Davis as their anchor on both ends. They must play to his strengths, but it’s not easy to figure out how best to utilize a guy with a skill set so rare.
Whether it’s the birthplace of the heir-apparent, or a glorious failure occurring in slow-motion, a lot of eyes will be focused on the experiment happening in New Orleans, and the Pelicans’ unibrowed centerpiece.
But first, Davis will soon begin to captivate the world by being the leading man on Team USA.
Oren Levi is an amateur scout, a professional writer and a diehard NBA fan. Follow him on Twitter.