Sam Vecenie, who has been gracious enough to allow me to come on board here, posed a question to me right after the Team USA exhibition game against a veteran Brazilian team. Anthony Davis didn’t dominate but showed flashes, with an absurd around the backboard tip-in and several blocks on Brazilian jump shots. Sam wondered about the maturation and development of Davis. Would he become a center who would function as a matchup nightmare on offense while filling out with enough muscle to use his skyscraper length to become similarly excellent on either end. Or would he become a Kevin Garnett type of player that posts up but also stretches the floor? Maybe a hyper-Serge Ibaka player that excelled on weakside help while doing more than the Thunder forward does offensively? Or, perhaps the most frightening scenario for opponents, something else entirely?
On offense, Anthony Davis is special, both now and in theory. For a man, or child, with his size and wingspan, he glides at a guard’s pace. There’s no weird gait akin to the Greg Odens and Yao Mings of the world. It’s a weird thing to say but Davis functions like he was born to play basketball. That goes for both awareness and talent, two things that often aren’t portrayed as innate features.
First, let’s watch how Davis gets his positioning, a learned ability for all big men.
The Pelicans’ offensive schemes are rather vanilla. If it isn’t a HORNs set, then it’s a misdirection dribble hand-off between a couple of guards that lead to a pick-and-roll up top. There are variations off the HORNs set that are quite juicy at times. Here’s another one where Davis fights for positioning.
It’s apparent that Davis has some Kevin Durant syndrome in him. And not the good kind. He’s pushed out of position by smaller players way too often. Davis doesn’t go to a drop-step hook shot – though his righty hook over the left shoulder in the middle of the key is going to be quite unstoppable once he knocks it down consistently – simply because he doesn’t venture that far into the post and he isn’t the Shaquille O’Neal type to back someone down. He’s a mediocre isolation post-up player, shooting merely 40.3 percent and ranking 67th amongst all NBA players. But mediocre only in results. The second video does give us a glimpse into just how quick he can be when he does start from the extended free-throw line. He doesn’t get the right foot over quick enough, but for a big man his size that is an immeasurably quick pivot to the baseline when he’s strong enough to gather and throw it down.
Davis is 21. And it shows in how he often predetermines his moves. From the left block, he’s likely to spin to his right shoulder. Tim Duncan does his footwork before he even catches the ball. Davis relies on feel, of which he is excellent in showing. From the right side of the court, he’s either turning left shoulder into a fadeaway or a one-dribble jump shot. That’s perhaps not the best result but a scary glimpse into how smooth he makes it look.
Adding mass to his build, which he has apparently done in this summer’s #MUSCLEWATCH, would allow him to back down power forwards while giving him the comfort of blowing by slow-footed centers on the perimeter. And that’s just his isolation game.
As a pick-and-roll player, he shot 54.2 percent from the field, which is a tad below what is expected of a player with his length. Taking away what the Pelicans guards can do or don’t (injury woes stunted the growth of the offense), Davis has trouble finishing at times because the game runs a bit quick.
Davis doesn’t set screens so much as flail his hands out like a freshman at his high school prom. Granted, his guards don’t give him much of a chance to actually set before going by defenders – a pet peeve of mine. That alone throws off the timing of many of his pick-and-rolls, forcing him to shuffle down the lane a half step late and not allowing him to gather his feet before shooting over his defenders. Much of this, of course, is fixable with better and healthier players around him. Also, he can do ridiculous things like this.
Some stuff only several humans on Planet Earth can do. Davis is one of them.
As for the pick-and-pop game, Davis has superb awareness as to where his defenders are and simply catching and shooting in one motion. There’s zero wasted movement between the two-step cradle and shot.
Here, in a neat double pick-and-roll play, Davis waits on the bottom block before setting a screen and floating right under the free throw line. He doesn’t venture too much behind or forward, calmly sinking a simple ten-footer. Davis isn’t an above-average shooter from all midranges areas but steady improvement from Year one to two suggests it’ll only get better. Perhaps the scariest part of that sequence is how he squares up so quickly. David Lee and LaMarcus Aldridge are arm shooters. Much of their shot comes from the upper body, perhaps pointing to the fact they never tried or attempted to stretch their range to the three-point line. Davis shoots his jumpers like a guard, bending from the hips, releasing at its apex, and falling forward thereafter. Chris Bosh is a nice comparison with which Davis can draw from in extending his range.
When Davis wasn’t on the floor, the Pelicans offense dropped 1.6 points (48-minute basis) but there’s a lot of empty noise here. The most explosive Pelicans five-man lineup played just 91 minutes together, outscoring opponents by 16 and was easily their best offensive unit. As Matt Moore tweeted, the Jrue Holiday-Tyreke Evans-Ryan Anderson-Davis foursome only played 145 minutes together but was a scintillating plus-57 in that span. Take the overall numbers with a grain of salt but the singular improvements and physical gifts that Davis exhibits are scary.
The weaknesses, bad screens, trouble finishing against strong defenders, and weak positioning are easily remedied through competent coaching and a weight room. The strengths are already entrenched into a game much more advanced and smooth (I don’t I’ve stressed that enough) than you would expect for a guy barely allowed to buy himself a drink. Davis has unparalleled gifts on the offensive side of the floor, with plenty of room still to grow. And we haven’t even begun talking about his defense.