The first time I really understood athletic greatness was the time Jerry Stackhouse and the Oak
Park Hill basketball team came to Roanoke. Southwest Virginia is not exactly a hotbed of athletic talent, save for a handful of sharpshooters and former Lakers sixth-man George Lynch. So a team with three future NBA players (journeyman point guard Jeff McInnis and Makhtar N'Diaye) was like the camp meeting coming to town. Stackhouse was, at the time, the latest next Michael Jordan, and they beat the best team in the city by a good 30 points or so, though it wasn't as close as the final score suggested. It was the first time I'd ever seen high schoolers thrown an alley-oop on the break in person. Stackhouse was kind enough to autograph a program for me, though it felt weird, even as an 11- or 12-year-old, to be requesting a signature from a kid just six years older than me. That was around the time that Felipe Lopez became a national name, and I was realizing the inconceivable gap between scrubs like me and future NBA players.
So it's odd in this day and age that the recently-crowned college basketball player of the year was practically an unknown quantity, even in the heavily recruited Chicago high school basketball scene, less than two years ago:
Few know, however, that nearly two years ago, his only college scholarship offer was from Cleveland State.
“Anthony Davis went from non-top-100 player to the top player in the country in a span of five or six weeks,” the ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep said. “I can’t say that I’ve never seen anything like it, but probably on the stage and the magnitude of it, it’s extremely rare. We won’t see it for a long time.”
Davis entered a school without a gym, Perspectives Charter School, as a six-foot-tall guard: already tall by mortal standards, but heading towards a modest college basketball career as a lightly recruited two-guard. Around the end of his sopomore season and beginning of his junior season, he'd hit 6'2" or 6'4", making him a more plausible shooting guard. Then he grew eight inches and is now the best shot blocker in the country:
"One day I went to the doctor and he was like, 'You're 6-10,'" Davis recalled. "I was like, 'Are you serious?' When you grow, you personally don't feel it."
And at first glance, Davis's numbers aside from shot-blocking aren't mind-bending either: 14.4 ppg (not in the top 100), 10.1 rebounds (22nd) in about 30 minutes per game. But for statheads, Davis really shines in ways that don't make the headlines:
There’s only one mega-shot blocker with an NBA résumé that has not committed at least three fouls per 40 minutes and that was Colgate’s Adonal Foyle, who was picking on non-scholarship Patriot League opponents in the late '90's. Davis isn’t immune to foul trouble, obviously, but among shot-blockers he’s as foul-proof as one gets.
During the regular season, Davis averaged 2.36 blocks per foul. This was slightly behind C.J. Aiken, but Aiken plays in the less competitive mid-major Atlantic 10; his closest competition in the major ranks, tonight's opponent Jeff Withey of Kansas, averaged 1.3 blocks per foul. (Like Aiken, Davis is extremely thin: the former is 6'9" and 200, the latter 6'10" and 220. Their defense is finesse, not strength.)
Oh, and he's really good at offense:
His 35.4 PER [player efficiency rating] leads the nation, and is the highest since Blake Griffin's 37.3 in 2008-2009. His 19.7 WS [win shares] lead the NCAA, his turnover rate is an absurdly low 9%, and he converts 67% of his twos (one of the top-15 marks of the last decade), ranks #1 in dunks, and #2 in second chance points. Davis is primarily an off-ball player at this point, which is one of the main reasons his 16% usage ranks fifth on his team.
Lots of people, including John Calipari, have compared Davis to Marcus Camby, another former guard who hit a massive growth spurt and went on to play for Calipari. But for Chicagoans, the most immediate comparison is probably a combination of Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas, a thin, fast, tremendously athletic big man:
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.
But Davis is much more polished than Noah or Thomas were at the same age. That's where his growth spurt comes in: Davis had to learn basketball as a guard, so he brings that skill in movement in space to his new position as a four. He's a tremendously smart and controlled player; for the best player in college basketball, he doesn't score a lot of points or get a lot of rebounds, but he does so efficiently on both ends, revealed by his field-goal percentage and blocks-per-foul. He has a low "usage" rate, but he makes that usage count.
Davis is so good that he arguably makes his teammates worse. Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn touched off a Twitter spat after pointing out that Kentucky's defensive numbers really aren't that much better with Davis on the floor, a strikingly counterintuitive conclusion. Hoopspeak ran the numbers:
When Davis was on the floor and a teammate was beaten by his man, the freshman forward rotated and contested the shot 51% of the time (54-of-106). That means in less than half of those instances did the original defender recover to challenge the play. When Davis was on the bench however, the number of plays in which a help defender contested a shot plummeted to 22%. That means when Mr. Unibrow isn’t on the floor, Kentucky defenders that get beat off the dribble or a pick-and-roll recover to contest the shot better than three out of every four plays. The knowledge that arguably the top interior defender in the nation isn’t on the floor suddenly changes the defender’s approach, whether he realizes it or not.
This is part of how a well-coached but inferior Louisville team kept close to Kentucky in their Final Four matchup. Louisville only shot 35 percent to Kentucky's 57 percent, but beat them 16 to five in offensive rebounds, and took 20 more shots over the course of the game. (Kentucky also choked at the free-throw line, shooting an abysmal 55 percent.) Against Kansas, Davis will be matched up with two of the best big men in the country: Jeff Withey, who has been out-blocking Davis in the tournament—seven against Ohio State, ten against N.C. State—and Thomas Robinson. If you like defense, tune in.