The New Orleans Pelicans added both Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans to the lineup during the 2013 offseason, but according to HOOPSWORLD's Alex Kennedy, head coach Monty Williams is more excited about Anthony Davis' potential improvement than either of the new additions.
For good reason.
The Unibrow was the No. 1 draft pick in 2012, and he's still one of the fundamental building blocks for this suddenly competitive bayou-based squad. When he was coming out of Kentucky, Davis was viewed as a player with enough upside that he could eventually compete for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.
Davis enjoyed a solid rookie season in 2012-13. He lost out to Damian Lillard for the NBA Rookie of the Year award, largely because a stream of injuries knocked him out of the lineup for too many games. Still, he was both productive and impressive whenever he actually stepped onto the court.
Now it's time for him to break out.
It's an aggressive timetable for a 20-year-old big man with only two years of combined experience at the college and professional levels.
But Davis isn't a normal talent. He's a potential star, and he can fulfill that potential in 2013-14 if he addresses these three keys.
Run All Sorts of Off-the-Ball Action
Let's play a game called: "See if you can tell where Anthony Davis thrived as a rookie."
It's pretty simple. Just look at this chart, the one that shows his ranks for points per possession produced in each type of offensive situation, courtesy of Synergy Sports (subscription required):
Can you tell that he thrived moving without the ball (other than offensive rebounding and subsequent put-backs, of course)? See, that game wasn't difficult at all.
Davis was able to achieve such great success during his rookie season because he was playing alongside Greivis Vasquez, one of the best distributing point guards in the NBA. The Maryland product has since departed for the Sacramento Kings, but he's been replaced by Jrue Holiday, who also thrives as a facilitating point guard.
That, plus the offensive attention drawn by a presumably healthy Eric Gordon and the newly acquired Evans, will help Davis maintain his level of offensive output.
In particular, the Kentucky product thrives running pick-and-roll action. He sets solid screens, and his lanky arms and springy jumping ability allow him to elevate on the run and catch passes that aren't even thrown on target.
You can see how easy he makes it look by viewing the accompanying GIF, which features an underthrown lob from Vasquez.
With the exception of No. 6 and No. 2, both of which feature Davis' shot-blocking abilities, his entire top-10 plays video features one off-the-ball highlight after another.
I'm particularly impressed by No. 6, when Davis corrals an errant pass with his weak hand and still finishes the dunk. Very few NBA players have that level of athleticism and hand-eye coordination. It's just part of what has always made the Unibrow such a special player.
Now that he's playing alongside a trio of stellar guards, Davis doesn't have to worry about creating offense. He can basically forget about the post-up game for the time being, relying instead on plenty of movement away from the ball while showcasing his athletic ability.
And there's one other part of his offensive game that needs attention.
Develop a Better Spot-Up Jumper
While Davis has shown signs of future greatness as a floor-spacing big man, the pieces didn't all come together during his rookie season.
According to my pure-shooting metric (full explanation here), the former Wildcat finished 135th out of 172 NBA players, with a score of minus-22.43. Here you can see the value he added from each set of ranges on the court.
Davis' work from three to nine feet was his saving grace, but he struggled as a mid-range shooter, failing to hit open looks with any semblance of consistency. According to Synergy, he made only 33.7 percent of his spot-up shots.
Without a consistent jumper, Davis will not be a legitimate NBA star. Period. End of story.
It's unclear in a guard-heavy offense how many post-up opportunities Davis will get. If Davis sets up down low and clogs the paint, what happens to the driving lanes for Gordon, Holiday and Evans? And without a reliable jumper, Davis will be unable to help space the court for his teammates.
Just look at how much space defenders consistently gave Davis throughout the 2012-13 campaign.
When you're afforded that much room to operate, you have to make the defense pay. A failure to do so means that the opposing team has successfully shut off the paint and thus the driving lanes. For a team like the Pelicans, one that's going to be dependent on drive-and-kicks and finishes around the rim, suitable spacing is of particular importance.
But Davis' improvements and much-needed presence are not only needed on the offensive end of the court. There's a defensive key for him as well, and I'm not talking about his low-post defense, because with experience and some extra weight, improvement in that area will come.
Less Aggression Against Spot-Up Shooters
Davis' defense as a first-year player was a mixed bag of results, a potpourri that featured plenty of good and plenty of bad.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Pelicans defense was moderately better in terms of allowing points when the big man played. They allowed 111 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the court and "only" 110 without him.
That's not a mark for Davis to be embarrassed about, especially because he was playing in a rotation with some other established post defenders. What was worse is his Synergy evaluation, one that shows he allowed 0.97 points per possession, 401st among players who had enough possessions to qualify.
Causing Davis the most trouble was his work against spot-up shooters.
At times, it seemed like he legitimately had no idea what to do against them. Should he close out hard and prevent a jumper? Should he ease cautiously out to the perimeter to prevent a drive at the rim? How much help should he give his teammates?
If the NBA were portrayed in cartoon form, Davis' head would have been surrounded by giant question marks in different fonts. And more often than not, he gave the wrong answer.
Take this play against the Sacramento Kings as an example.
If anybody can explain to me why Davis thinks it's a good idea to play such aggressive defense here, please do so.
It makes no sense for the him to shift over and trap Tyreke Evans when that's exactly what Ryan Anderson is already doing. Yet as you can see by his gaze, Evans is drawing all of Davis' attention at that moment.
That doesn't change.
Even as Evans obviously has nowhere to go and is looking for a kickout, Davis is still in help mode. He's completely forgotten about his man.
Once Jason Thompson gets the ball, Davis overpursues and is left in the dust as the Kings forward drives to the rack. The rest of the Pelicans defense can't really help him either, else they risk leaving shooters wide open beyond the arc.
Chalk up two points for Thompson and another spot-up basket allowed by the rookie. It's only one example, but it's representative of a consistent trend of over-helping and overpursuit.
Until Davis becomes more disciplined on defense, especially when his man doesn't have the ball, he's going to struggle to have the impact that many thought he'd make when he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft.
Fortunately, the big man's problems are ones that can be fixed with proper coaching and a dedication on his part to improving his skills. Davis still possesses elite athleticism, a ridiculous wingspan and some great fundamental skills for such a young big.
It won't be long before he's a stud, and that studliness will manifest itself on both ends of the court.
The question is, will it happen in 2013-14?
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