University of Kentucky supporters read about their team voraciously, basking in positive coverage the way many smaller fan bases get off on “getting no love” from major media outlets. Their guilelessness is completely at odds with coach John Calipari’s reputation as the cynical sleaze forever winking a gimlet eye at NCAA sanctimony. Much of their current enthusiasm is directed at Anthony Davis, the 19-year-old big man as famed for his unibrow (and his uncertain feelings about it) as his transformative play.
These fans trawl for Kentucky shrine materials, erecting miniature cathedrals on insanely popular message boards and YouTube beachheads. A representative Wildcat paean begins in the middle of a mundane, and seemingly irrelevant, UNC-Maryland game. The 6’11” John Henson—athletic, impossibly long—calmly swishes a fading jumper a few feet below the elbow. The ball is released above high above his head. The defender’s raised hand is perfunctory, futile. An announcer gleefully exclaims, “He put it where no one, I mean no one could get it!”
The clip fades to black and white text slowly materializes: “Did He Really Just Say That?” The gleeful announcer’s exclamation is replayed, followed by more text: “Big Blue Nation Doesnt Forget” [sic], which lingers for a beat before it’s shoved out of the way by the final play of this year’s heart-squeezing UNC-Kentucky duel. North Carolina is down by one, with a few ticks left. Henson gets the ball at that exact spot where he calmly swished a jumper against Maryland. He is open.
As Henson leaves the ground for the same fadeaway, Davis pivots in John’s direction from the middle of the paint. Davis does a quick hop toward Henson, as though priming a diving board. After the hop, Davis vaults at a 45-degree angle, his arm extending like a triggered switchblade. Before the ball even leaves Henson’s hand, Davis pokes it straight up in the air, where it floats softly like a volleyball set up. Davis lands lightly, knees bent. Henson stumbles on the way down and buckles backwards. The UNC center, himself a prolific shotblocker, is used to nullifying a scorer’s sense of place; he appears scrambled when on the receiving end of Davis’s unexpected rejection. Anthony immediately bounces high and snatches the rock. Game over.
Davis has jumped three times to Henson’s once, making a play on each move. This is per usual for AD. On defense, he isn’t just faster, or one step ahead. He’s operating at a different frequency, to such an extent that it totally disorients even the sharpest and most athletic opponents. He disrupts not only their timing, but their confidence in time itself.
Blocked shots are often a reaction, the coincidental marriage of spinal reflex to an unusually long limb. Otherwise unaware players can shine in this aspect of hoops, which does not reflect well on the skill as an art form. Tyrus Thomas and Javale McGee come to mind as players who struggle with nuanced aspects of defense, and yet swat shots with ease.
Physically, Anthony Davis is similar to Thomas and McGee. Yet in Davis’s case, the body is not taken for granted and expected to produce. It’s merely the most evident facet of a complex defensive identity; Davis’s physique is practically worshipped. The university gave away 30,000 Anthony Davis posters wherein the kid’s 7-4 wingspan extended over ten basketballs. The poster started selling on Ebay for $150 dollars per sheet (that’s $1500 for the full likeness), forcing Kentucky to begin a process of sending cease and desist letters to sellers, as non-NCAA members are not allowed to profit from “amateur” athletes. Kentucky simply did not anticipate that the poster would stoke such want among Wildcat obsessives. Yet fans were just that desperate for a demonstrative explanation of how the hell Anthony Davis, and his 4.6 blocks per game, happen.
At the risk of hyperbole, there has never been another defender like Anthony Davis. He doesn’t merely react, or anticipate. A former guard who grew eight inches in 18 months, Davis controls a big man’s game with a small man’s bag of tricks. Anthony Davis turns the art of shot-blocking into a manipulation of the opposition.
My DVR holds a cherished example from Kentucky’s February 25th game against Vanderbilt. Vandy’s small forward Lance Goulbourne receives a pass near the hoop and Anthony Davis meets him with a timely rotation. Davis pauses, waits for Goulbourne to rise high off the ground. Freeze the moment and Goulbourne is two head-lengths above Davis, with the ball raised up for the shot. In that frozen frame, Anthony’s feet are planted on the floor, knees crooked in a tensile pose. Suddenly, an invisible geyser blasts Davis upwards as he slaps the ball against the backboard. Goulbourne whips his head, his expression a blur of utter confusion. He fell for it. Like a spider, Anthony’s length is an ancillary weapon, a complement to his booby-trapping of what appears to be open space.
Davis also operates with a facility, and efficiency, simply not seen in the paint. When Marcus Camby, a frequent comparison for Davis, averaged 3.6 blocks as a freshman at UMass, he needed nearly as many fouls (3.48) to get there. Davis averages just two fouls per game, fewer than three other Kentucky starters. This is precision in the guise of havoc.
In college, Anthony Davis is otherworldly, and will almost certainly be the top pick in this summer’s NBA draft. As a pro, he has the chance to fundamentally alter our conception of defense. This has as much to do with the ways in which basketball has evolved over the last ten years as it does Davis himself.
In the nineties, the sport was restricted by the man-to-man edict. Attempts to shade or shift defensive help toward an operating post player would get whistled as “illegal defense.” The NBA opened defenses in the 2001-2002 season, despite an intense anti-reform lobbying effort from Pat Riley and Rudy Tomjanovich. Coaches slowly warmed to their new defensive dimensions, a movement that ran parallel to the more publicized new wave of fast-paced, guard-driven offenses. Perhaps this defensive shift was muted because guarding an area was arbitrarily stigmatized as an unmanly abdication of responsibility; it also took a while for coaches to adjust. Still, today’s stingiest five-man crews now shift about as one ominous entity, even if the division of labor is not equal. Since these units are more devoted to collapsing offensive space than hand-checking foes into oblivion, the most responsibility falls on the best space-shrinkers. This is why centers like Tyson Chandler and Joakim Noah command huge salaries.
Offenses have responded in this space race with sharpshooting power forwards who, by further expanding space, burden defensive coverage. The position is now stacked with net shredders like Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kevin Love.
Anthony Davis is the antidote to this new breed of player—the archetypal new school shut-down four. He would be, in effect, the first of his kind. Kevin Garnett came closest to defining this role, but his career straddles the pre-zone and post-zone eras. Josh Smith suffers for his lack of height and a series of coaches who have simply never been able to conceive of this role for him. Davis has the potential to not only star at the next level, but set off a chain reaction of new ideas. Here’s a player who blocks three pointers with regularity, while simultaneously daring any player to face off with him in the paint. Ubiquity itself, in other words, capable of not only shrinking but commandeering the space that NBA offenses so cherish—pushing back their advances with his own creativity.
Illustration: Joseph Applegate