When Anthony Davis was drafted back in 2012, it was a foregone conclusion that he would end up as one of the most dominant defenders in the league sooner or later. As a big man, he possessed (and still does possess) nearly unparalleled lateral quickness, an incredible wingspan, a terrific mind for the game, and a whole bunch of other tangible and intangible qualities that go in to making a defensive anchor in the NBA.
I’ll focus on that end of the floor, in a later piece, but here we’ll go into depth about the side of the ball where Davis’ meteoric rise was, to say the least, a bit unexpected. Back in college at Kentucky, Davis displayed a solid base on offense, but was mostly relegated to lobs and put backs. While it wasn’t out of the question he could eventually become a great offensive talent, the fact that, in year five, at the age of only 23, he has become arguably the best offensive big man in basketball is nothing sort of astonishing.
So, what makes Davis special on the offensive end? Generally speaking, it’s his ability to combine high end volume with top tier efficiency.
Davis ranks highly amongst his contemporaries in every category, but there is one area where he differs from other high-scoring big men.
Other big men have largely abandoned the mid-range shot in favor of the more efficient three-pointer, but after about a season and a half of experiment with the long ball, Davis has gone back to focusing on his strengths and operating more in the in-between area that has become near obsolete in the past couple of seasons.
He has long possessed an excellent touch, but this season he has improved his field goal percentage on shots from 3-10 feet about six percent, and he has mastered the floater, a shot typically reserved for guards operating within the trees. His length makes it an impossible shot to block, and he’s equally adept at shooting if off of a pass as he is after creating the look himself.
Davis has also worked hard to improve his post-game, and he’s quickly becoming one of the better big men in the league down on the block.
He isn’t dominant down there yet, but he is scoring .93 points per possession in the post, and that number jumps up to .99 when he is going against single coverage. Those marks put him in the 51st and 60th percentile, respectively, so there is still work to be done. But, both of those numbers represent a marked improvement from last season, when Davis scored only .78 points per possession overall, and .83 when left against single coverage. Both of those marks left him down in the 36th percentile.
That’s a staggering improvement in only a year, and it’s even more impressive when you take into account that last season was the first time Davis was ever truly used as a post-up option.
In his breakout 2014-2015 season, Davis posted up 203 times in 68 games, per synergy sports. Last season, that number jumped up to 262 despite the fact Davis appeared in seven fewer games. This year, he’s posting up less frequently (16.7% of his possessions come via the post, as compared to 18% last season), but he is already at 232 possessions.
It’s unlikely he’ll ever be a pure back to the basket player, but he has developed a pretty reliable hook shot, as well as a fade-away jumper.
Of course, Davis is most deadly when he faces up. His first step is often all he needs to get by the opposing big, but even when they hang with him he is able to elevate out of trouble and use his length to manufacture a good look.
Synergy Sports has Davis down for 100 face-up possessions this season, and he has scored 104 points on such plays. That’s not too overwhelming, but looking at just possessions occurring on the right side of the court, Davis has accumulated 48 points on just 37 possessions. Most of his possessions on that side end up with him driving to the middle of the court, and it has long been commented upon that Davis prefers going left and then getting back to his right hand.
Those numbers don’t mean that Davis isn’t capable of creating havoc from anywhere on the court. Leave him one on one and you’re just asking for your big to get embarrassed. Davis is simply too quick and too explosive to be contained by one defender for long.
All these improvements and additions to his game have been necessary as he’s ascended to the role of a true number one option, but as his role has expanded, other parts of his game have begun to dissipate.
There was a point in time where, according to synergy, cuts and put-backs accounted for just over a 5th of Davis’ offense plays. Now, they account for just over 12 percent of his offense. Some of that is simply his maturation into an offensive force. Defenses aren’t going to give up easy dump off passes and lobs to a player of Davis’ caliber, meaning baskets like these can be few and far between:
Some of it, however, is rooted in team philosophy. Head coach Alvin Gentry tends to focus more on transition defense than the chasing of offensive rebounds. In fact, the Pelicans are currently tied for 30th in offensive rebound percentage, so it’s no surprise that Davis’ put-back opportunities are so low.
The thing is, Davis just happens to be one of the best offensive rebounders in the league when he’s given the opportunity to chase them. Davis has consistently ranked around the 90th percentile on put-backs, and he’s scoring 1.28 points per possession on his opportunities this season, but he has had only 92 such possessions. That’s tied for 16th in the league, but he is tied for 7th in points per possession among players with at least 60 put-back attempts. Davis is a pogo stick and when he’s on the boards he’s able to beat even the league’s best rebounders to the ball:
Overall, Davis is just 24th in the league in offensive rebounds per game. The fact of the matter is, when Davis goes for offensive rebounds, he gets them. And when he does, he is able to score efficiently off of them. The Pelicans, who currently rank 27th in offensive efficiency, should be exploring any option that could lead to improvement on that end. If the team can manage two to three more easy buckets per game, it could be huge for their playoff push.
One consistent source of offense for Davis throughout his career has been the pick and roll. But, as his game has grown and as defenses have adjusted, so has Davis as a screener.
Davis has been popping with more frequency almost every season since he entered the league, and his comfort level on the perimeter has only increased since then as well. He has been above 40% in the mid-range area for three straight seasons now, and at times defenses have awarded him almost a Dirk Nowitzki level of respect as a shooter.
Here, Draymond Green would rather give up the open dunk than leave Davis free on the perimeter. Some of this has to do with the level of Davis’ teammates, but his growth as a jump shooter in such a short period of time is astounding.
What makes him so deadly on the perimeter isn’t the fact that he can knock down stand still, catch and shoot jumpers, it’s that the Pelicans have been willing to call up plays for him to shoot the ball and he has made those shots with consistency. At times, Davis operates more as a guard coming off of screens, catching and rising into his jump shot on the move. How many big men would even have this play called for them, especially with the game on the line?
Perhaps the most overlooked part of his game, however, is his passing. Now, Davis has an assist to turnover ratio of less than one which is less than stellar, to say the least. It’s not without reason that his passing gets overlooked. But, he does possess the mind to make quick, correct reads, as well as the ability to throw on target passes in a variety of situations.
It’s key to remember that no matter how good of a passer someone is, they cannot physically put the ball in the hoop for their teammates. When reviewing the numbers, it seems clear that Davis’ teammates are the reason for his low assist totals.
Take post-ups for example. Davis himself is in the 58th percentile on scoring opportunities in the post. However, when only passes out of the post are accounted for, he drops all the way to the 34th percentile. When he passes it to a cutter, that number once again drops, all the way to the 13th percentile.
With better teammates around him (and he now has a massive upgrade next to him in the front court), it’s easy to see how Davis might be utilized as a fulcrum of a very efficient offense in the future. Dump the ball down to him in the post and let him pick out shooters and cutters all around the floor, or simply let him go to work one on one.
And there’s no telling just how soon that day will come. Davis has already grown up offensively faster than anyone expected, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to mature on that end. Still years away from his prime, the league better be ready for when Davis finally reaches his peak.