Let’s get this out of the way: Anthony Davis is on his way to becoming one of the best players in the NBA this season.
He handles the ball like a guard who grew 18 inches in eight months in high school and had to fashion his game to meet a new position. He shoots 40 percent on field goals 10 to 16 feet from the basket, but his 7-foot-5 wingspan makes him a nightmare matchup for bruisers and stretch-4s.
Heading into his third season in the NBA, he already has two gold medals — one as a member of the U.S. men’s team in the 2012 London Olympics, one as the fulcrum of the FIBA World Cup team this summer — an all-star selection, 2,261 points, 1,195 rebounds and 301 blocks.
He also carries the weight of expectation; weight that comes from being considered a dark horse candidate for the most valuable player award, being ranked the sixth-best player in basketball by Sports Illustrated, the fourth-best player by Slam Magazine and the third-best player by ESPN; weight that comes from being tasked to carry a team to the Western Conference postseason that’s won a grand total of 61 games the past two seasons. It’s weight that only someone with an unfathomably diverse array of gifts is asked to shoulder.
The expectations are clearly warranted: Last season, Davis produced a Player Efficiency Rating of 26.5 — the fourth-best figure in the NBA and the highest figure of any 20-year-old in league history. He led the league with 2.8 blocked shots per contest, was third in total blocked shots with 189 despite missing 17 games due to injuries, is one of 13 players in league history to tally more than 1,300 points, 150 blocks, 100 assists and 600 total rebounds in the first two seasons of a career (only Ralph Sampson, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal did it in both seasons and all play the center position, while Davis predominantly plays power forward); is one of 10 players to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks per game and more than 0.2 Win Shares Per 48 Minutes in the first two seasons of a player’s career; and is one of three players since 1985 to post 20 or more points, 15 or more rebounds and eight or more blocks in a game prior to their 22nd birthday.
Between his first and second season, Davis’s game saw a 20.8 increase in scoring production and a 2.7 percent increase in blocks per 100 possessions. The progressions were glaring as were the burgeoning conversations regarding his stake at the top of the league’s throne.
Nobody had a better season opener than Davis. CBS Sports’ Zach Harper had a well-articulated look at it last week. In 36 minutes of playing time, Davis dominated the Orlando Magic to the tune of 26 points, 17 rebounds, nine blocks and a plus/minus score of 19. He followed it up with a 31-15 double-double — becoming the fourth player to register more than 50 points, 30 rebounds and 10 blocks in the first two games of a season, joining Bob McAdoo, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing. The Pelicans know Davis is their marquee player (Sorry, Tyreke Evans) and Davis has the 27.9 percent Usage Rate to prove it (Zach Randolph, for context, has a USG% of 25.2; Tim Duncan’s figure is 24.9).
Using SportVU’s newly unveiled shot clock data, it’s even more evident that the Pelicans are going to their star immediately, rather than late in the shot clock.
Just three of Davis’s field goal attempts this season have taken place with fewer than five seconds remaining on the shot clock, 25 percent have take place with more than 20 seconds remaining on the clock. This shows that not only are the Pelicans a somewhat inept team offensively, not barreling through their possessions only to hoist a last-second desperation jumper, they’re also going to Davis early in the half court. Davis has only taken more than a single dribble prior to a shot attempt three times this season. So while Davis’s versatility and ballhandling ability makes him incredibly unique, the Pelicans have positioned him in the low-post as a more traditional power forward. For reference, Marc Gasol — who has played three games to Davis’s two — has 12 field goal attempts after taking more than a lone dribble.
Despite Davis’s clear role in the Pelican offense, he’s not seeing the touches a player of his caliber normally does. Blake Griffin, for example, is given 64.5 front-court touches per game, Chris Bosh is given 48 and LaMarcus Aldridge is given 44.5. Davis has gotten 41.5 front-court touches per game, which, while a higher figure than DeMarcus Cousins and Joakim Noah, isn’t a whole lot. He possesses the ball exactly one minute less per game than Griffin on average this season. But he does have the second-most field goals attempted per game this season (James is No. 1) and is still shooting 44.2 percent.
Ultimately, Davis’s ceiling isn’t quantifiable. He will almost certainly improve and be one of the five best players in the NBA this season, if not in the conversation for top three. But if he wants to be the best power forward in the game or make an MVP run, getting the ball more wouldn’t hurt. After all, his numbers and success are pretty hard to refute.
Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Rivals, Denver Post, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. He currently writes for Wall Street Journal Sports, the ESPN TrueHoop Network and The Cauldron. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter (@JPlanos).