NBA basketball isn’t actually terrifying, although people sometimes use that word to describe it. It’s just what it is, and you know what that is: a game that most people have played, but played by supremely gifted athletes who do things within those familiar rules that 0.0000000001% of the population could physically do or even dream about, and so rendered spectacularly weird and wonderful for all that new strangeness.
We throw around words like terrifying as a way to express our admiration at the strange and stunning entertainment that results from seeing this recognizable game become unrecognizable thanks to the people playing it. That’s all. No harm, no foul.
But also: Anthony Davis is happening, right now. And things are genuinely terrifying. Not because we should be scared of Davis, who seems like a nice-enough dude. But frightening in the way that any journey into the unknown is frightening. Davis has finally, definitively, arrived as a once-in-a-generation phenomenon.
Through the early days of his second season, the former first overall pick and current franchise pilaster has been a wild, spiraling cataclysm of basketball beauty. And he’s not nearly finished becoming what he will be. As good as he already is, what’s scary about Anthony Davis is what we haven’t seen yet, and what he’s only now beginning to show us. This is why people go to horror movies, incidentally. It’s fun to be scared like this.
Davis is, already, effectively unstoppable most of the time he’s on the court, leaving no area safe for opposing teams to pry or assault. It’s easy to imagine a coach game-planning for Davis as one of the teenage slaughter victims in Nightmare on Elm Street: helpless and hugely out of his element, playing by the rules of a creature more powerfully at home in this realm than they are. Related and relevant: Anthony Davis is 20 years old. T-W-E-N-T-Y.
Here is one encapsulated moment. What Davis does to poor Gerald Henderson—who’s just minding his own business, innocently running a side pick-and-roll—is cruel.
So far everyone’s having fun. Josh McRoberts sets a screen on Eric Gordon, and Davis comes up, most likely looking to hedge or switch.
Already, we’re through the looking glass. Standard defensive procedure doesn’t apply to Davis, which is something the rest of the league has already noted. He sticks his tree branch of a right arm in and taps the ball to the other side, away from Henderson, who’s forced to foul. The tragedy is instant.
This maybe doesn’t look remarkable, until you notice that it’s a seven-footer effortlessly stripping a very competent wing around the three-point line. Look at the various unique properties on display. How many guys who’re Davis’ size also have his speed? Or enough confidence and dexterity to perfectly time a plan of attack within a game-situation in which few players at his position are even allowed to engage?
Maybe a fully healthy Joakim Noah would do it, but Noah fouls Henderson on that play if the thought to take a swipe at the ball even crosses his mind. Coming away with a clean steal is unique to Davis. His one man act an exclusive feature only seen when the New Orleans Pelicans are in town. No one else can do this.
Why is Davis’ clear first to second year leap so significant? For starters, it isn’t outlandish to suggest that the New Orleans Pelicans wouldn’t dare trade him for anyone in the league not named LeBron James. There’s a small group of guys that would warrant similar discussion; from “most” to “least” desirable, I’d make my list as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, and Chris Paul, with all due respect to the Point God. But none are worth missing out on Anthony Davis from the age of 23 to 28, which is how old he’ll be when his “Rose rule” extension expires.
The smartest trades are always the ones made with the future in mind, after all, and Davis is nowhere near his ceiling. The challenge, at the moment, is projecting from his present dominance to imagine where in the stratosphere his ceiling might be. At the moment, Davis does not have one of the 20 highest usage percentages in the league, but by last Saturday he’d accumulated three more made field goals than reigning NBA scoring champion Carmelo Anthony… on nine fewer shots.
It really can’t be stated how great Davis is, or how at this pace of growth he could one day claim a place among the likes of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Davis is the youngest player in NBA history to record a 30 point, 12 rebound, six block game, as he did against the Los Angeles Lakers last Friday. Through his first six games—and, again, there’s really no such thing as a small sample size alert in Anthony Davis’ universe—he’s averaging at least 23 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocks per game. Only three players in NBA history have hit those averages for an entire season: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson. He’s not there yet, obviously. But few players can even claim six games at those heights.
More immediately, there’s really no reason to argue against the possibility Davis becomes the undisputed World’s Best Basketball Player in four or five years. But look at these sentence constructions and the names in them—this is speculation, however fun it may be. What’s more relevant is the here and now, and the here and now for Anthony Davis is a beautiful thing.
To get you up to speed, here’s what Davis does well: Everything. Okay, just kidding.
Here’s what Davis does well, take two: box out, rebound, drive, set screens, roll to the hoop, read the defense, shoot, dribble, defend the pick-and-roll 25 feet from the basket with extreme flexibility, extinguish floaters at the rim, not turn the ball over, glide without the ball, post up, rebound, pass, finish, and rebound. Also he seems like a decent man-child, and one able to handle totally creepy embarrassment fairly well.
On November 2, Davis turned The Time Warner Cable Arena into Dexter’s third season finale, scoring 25 points (7-8 on free-throws and 9-13 from the floor), grabbing eight rebounds, stealing six balls, blocking six shots, handing out four assists, and ending the night by announcing he’s the twisted mind behind the Pelicans new mascot. (Did you think twice about which one of those assertions wasn’t real?) Yes, this is one game. But how many players could run up a stat line like that, even as a fluke? This is the thrill and the terror of watching Davis: for a player defined by how great he could be, it’s awfully hard to project just how great he could be.
Realistically, how far can his game expand? How much better can Davis get? How about initiating side pick-and-rolls on a regular basis? Or attempting at least two pull-up 3-point attempts a game without anyone who knows basketball having a problem. Defensive Player of the Year awards could come to arrive with the regularity of Christmas; there could be a stretch in which he carries the award through a whole six-year Senatorial term.
What’s stopping Davis from one day being able to throw a consistently precise pocket pass? Or how about some good old fashioned physical growth? Davis is only 20 and in many ways still looks younger; his body today won’t be his body in five years. He’ll be even better at everything he appears to already have mastered. His ceiling is as high as you can see, provided you remember that the NBA is still the NBA, and so full of players nearly as miraculous as Davis.
But it can be hard to remember this. Davis doesn’t even look challenged at times, meeting guys at the rim and convincingly winning four out every five mid-air encounters. His recent abuse of the talented Ed Davis and the Memphis Grizzlies was striking. Several times Anthony Davis would make his move, meet perfectly executed resistance from No-Relation Ed, then shrug it off and score or draw a foul. He’d get beat defensively, but still win the possession. What’s a greater sign of future dominance than that? Is there a definition of “unstoppable” more accurate than that?
Yes, it’s just a few games. Yes, Anthony Davis is just 20 years old. But we are already seeing him do things we haven’t seen any player do at his size. We don’t know what kind of career Anthony Davis will wind up having. It already seems safe to say that we’d be cheating ourselves if we didn’t watch him figure it out.
Screengrab via @Steven_Lebron.