CHICAGO — In the ever-evolving NBA, size hasn’t necessarily been devalued; rather, the number of quality players towering over their counterparts has diminished immensely. But the desire to find a potentially franchise-altering big man remains the same — perhaps more than ever in a league dominated by point guards — and the New Orleans Hornets will have a rare opportunity to draft a potentially dominant, shot-blocking forward who just happened to be a 6-foot-2 guard three years ago.
Anthony Davis did not have a problem learning how to play big, partly because he already had honed his talents before undergoing an astounding eight-inch growth spurt that elevated him from unknown high school prospect to the nation’s top recruit.
After dominating college basketball in his only season at Kentucky — he won every major individual honor and a national championship — the freakishly athletic and high-flying Davis is less than three weeks from being the first player chosen in the June 28 NBA draft.
“It’s very crazy for me. Overwhelming,” Davis, 19, said last week of his startling ascension. “I’m just trying to take it all in. I used to just look at all types of magazines and say, ‘I wish it was me on this cover.’ I had no thought of ever being here right now.”
Soon, the 6-10 Davis will not only see his face on the cover of magazines, but also on billboards and signs throughout New Orleans as the Hornets promote their new franchise player less than a year after trading the previous face of the organization, Chris Paul, in a controversial deal with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Nine players 6-10 or taller have been drafted No. 1 overall in the past 15 years.
Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, Yao Ming and Blake Griffin have had success; Andrew Bogut and Andrea Bargnani have had solid but undistinguished careers; and Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown and Greg Oden didn’t pan out for various reasons. Davis believes that not being far removed from his days as a savvy dribbling and slashing guard will give him an advantage at the next level.
“To be able to run the floor faster than most guys, ballhandling, shooting, soft touch around the rim, catching the ball, it’s been very great, just to have the basketball IQ, knowing what to do in the open floor,” said Davis, who averaged 14.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.7 blocked shots at Kentucky. “Because I played guard makes it a lot easier on me. I really had no problem transitioning from a guard to a big. It was kind of easy. I don’t know where it came from.”
Kentucky Coach John Calipari said Davis would be a power forward or small forward in the NBA given his lanky frame.
Davis knows that he will have to add some mass but believes he can still help a team with his quickness, agility, ability to block shots while keeping the ball in play and an array of skills — shooting, passing, low-post moves — that he often had to suppress for the good of the team at Kentucky.
Davis has yet to sign with an agent and said his selection as the top pick is “not set in stone.” But the Hornets are the only team that has contacted his father, Anthony Davis Sr., and he watched Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals with Hornets Coach Monty Williams last week in Chicago during the NBA draft combine.
The location of Davis’s next home wasn’t lost on Calipari, who sent Davis a text message immediately after the Hornets overcame the fourth-best odds to win the lottery. “He said: ‘Congratulations. I hope you have fun there. You won one national championship there. Go try to win a world championship,’ ” said Davis, a Chicago native who will join John Wall as the only No. 1 picks to ever come out of Kentucky.
Davis understands that his responsibilities to New Orleans would likely extended beyond the court. He would be the center of attention for a franchise and a city that has experienced some hardships — from Hurricane Katrina to the BP oil spill — in recent years.
He experienced the city a little; it hosted the NCAA basketball Final Four this past year.
“New Orleans is great. Great city. Great places to be around,” Davis said. “They’ve had a lot of downfalls. I’m going to try to help the city as much as I can.”
Davis said he has to “make sure I always stay humble,” though he made a surprising entrance to his first interview with reporters during the combine. He showed up wearing a boastful T-shirt that read, “Check My Stats.” Kansas forward Thomas Robinson responded that if the No. 1 pick were based on statistics, then Robinson would “easily” be the top choice.
Davis was unfazed, stating that he hadn’t heard the comment and didn’t have a comeback. He got used to being challenged at all times at Kentucky — and he doesn’t expect it to change in the NBA.
“I think it prepared me,” Davis said of playing in Lexington. “That was a big stage for us, everybody who played on that team. Every game, everybody wanted to come after us. Everything we do, guys was watching. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the same.”
As for his new-found fame, Davis said, “Got to get used to it, I guess.”