SB Nation

Paul Flannery | November 23, 2014

Sunday Shootaround

Anthony Davis must be seen to be believed

Anthony Davis must be seen to be believed

In pregame bull sessions and off-the-cuff conversations, they talk in almost hushed, reverent tones. These men of basketball who have seen them come and seen them go are reduced to whispers whenever his name comes up, as it often does in these circles.

"He’s going to revolutionize the game," one says. "We’ve never seen anything like him," another offers. When asked the time honored question: Who would you take to start a franchise, a third responds, "You mean, besides Anthony Davis?"

His games have become must-watch League Pass events among true NBA heads, and every night Davis offers up something different for those glazed-over eyes. Like his now legendary double-block against the Blazers in which he not only rejected LaMarcus Aldridge’s unguardable fadeaway, he also recovered in time to get a piece of Wes Matthews’ jumper a split second later.

To describe his game is to lapse into already dated cliches about the wingspans of pterodactyls, and it may be more accurate to note what he’s not at this point.

He is not a scoring virtuoso like Michael Jordan. He’s not Kevin Durant firing up 25-footers like layups. Although blessed with a freakish body and build, he doesn’t have the massive size and advanced skill of LeBron James. If there’s an on-court comparison that make sense, it’s a young Kevin Garnett. But Davis’ offensive numbers have eclipsed KG’s at a similar age and their style and temperament couldn’t be more different. Where Garnett was ferocious and loud, Davis is smooth and subtle.

If anything, his game is still in the rudimentary stages with a developing jump shot and a small package of post moves out of the Hakeem Olajuwon starter kit. That’s the most amazing thing. We have no idea how good Anthony Davis is going to be because he’s only scratching the surface of his talent. What he offers is a tantalizing mix of length, athletic ability and timing. He needs to be seen to be believed.

What makes Davis such an object of fascination is that his reputation has been allowed to take root organically with little marketing push or national television exposure. His crowning achievement as a pro was leading a U.S. squad that was without LeBron, Durant, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Paul George to a FIBA World Championship, a late-summer event that ranks somewhere between golf and preseason football in the mainstream consciousness.

Davis is a throwback to a time when we had to make an effort to watch a phenomenon, like Jordan’s early days in Chicago or even Dr. J in the ABA. As such, his exploits take on the characteristic of myth. One person tells another, who tells another and then word spreads and builds to a crescendo that transcends marketing hype. That this can still happen in 2014 is part of the appeal. He is the last great secret in sports and all of that is about to change.

Davis will make his first network appearance of the season on Dec. 4 in a TNT game against the Golden State Warriors. Less than a week later, he and the Pelicans will be on ESPN for a game against the Mavericks. The original schedule, set last summer well before the season began taking shape, featured the Knicks and Spurs in that spot. That’s how good Davis has been: He bumped a game featuring the defending champs and a team from New York.

"We’ve been keeping an eye on him," says ESPN’s Doug White, the senior director of programming and acquisitions. "His performance for USA basketball over the summer in the FIBA World Cup solidified and crystallized in our minds; he really emerged as leader this summer. We had some inkling that his star was on the rise. You could obviously see the maturity in him in terms of his game and also his leadership skills. That’s translated on the court and into the performance of his team."

When the national television schedule was announced last summer, there was a bit of an outcry from NBA observers who wanted to know why Davis wasn’t featured more heavily. In addition to his one TNT appearance, there was one ESPN game and eight on NBA TV. (NBA TV is available in about half of American homes. ESPN and TNT are far more ubiquitous.)

The TNT schedule is locked in with exclusive Thursday games, but ESPN’s arrangement allows for more flexibility in concert with the league. They were waiting, like we all were, for Davis to put his mark on the league and in the standings.

Davis is a throwback to a time when we had to make an effort to watch a phenomenon.

"We scrutinize every single one of our game windows," White says. "The name of the game for us is ratings. That’s something we have to balance day in and day out. The beauty of it is that if a team is playing well, we do have the ability of showcasing them on our schedule. At the end of the day we do have to make sure we’re putting games on that will rate for us. New Orleans, while they’re an up and coming team, they still have to prove themselves as a ratings winner, as they did with Chris Paul. The good news with New Orleans is I think they’re on their way to doing that."

It’s not as if Davis was a total mystery -- he was the No. 1 overall pick from Kentucky, fresh off leading the Wildcats to a convincing national championship -- but there has always been an air of intrigue about him. Unlike LeBron, who was known to everyone before he even set foot in the league, or Durant, whose college games had an appreciable buzz among NBA fans, we were unsure what to make of Davis when he joined the NBA.

The Kentucky narrative was built around the idea that this was a whole team full of future pros. Davis was clearly the top prospect, but big men take time to develop and his learning curve was steeper than most, having grown eight inches during high school. Even in Chicago, that hotbed of prep basketball, he was a hidden gem and didn’t become a high-level recruit until the summer before his senior season. That was all of four years ago.

His first season, while promising, was spent with an otherwise forgettable New Orleans team that won only 27 games. Portland’s Damian Lillard was the clear pick for Rookie of the Year. His second offered steady improvement, but a wrist injury cost him 15 games and injuries to Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson wrecked any hopes the Pelicans had of competing.

Not even an All-Star berth with the game in his franchise’s city was enough to make him the star of the show. Davis was a late addition, chosen to replace an injured Kobe Bryant who nonetheless commanded the spotlight with his own packed press conference an hour before the game. Davis was more of a local curiosity on media day, but his fellow All-Stars knew.

"He’s going to be here for a decade, plus," Dirk Nowitzki said. "That’s how good he is. He’s going to be in the All-Star Game every year. He’s long, he’s skilled, he plays defense and rebounds. He’s the future of power forwards."

"He’s the future of power forwards." -Dirk Nowitzki on Davis

Team success was the missing ingredient and while it’s early, the Pelicans have been off to a solid start. The offseason acquisition of Omer Asik allowed Davis to move to his natural big forward spot. Freed from the physical responsibility of banging heads with other low post giants, he can cause havoc all over the court.

The price for bringing Asik to New Orleans was a first-round pick, just as it was for Holiday the year before. With Davis in place, GM Dell Demps has eschewed the Oklahoma City model of building through the draft and instead gone after sign-and-trade deals for free agents like Anderson and Tyreke Evans.

But OKC does offer a parallel as far as national exposure is concerned. As long as Durant plays there, the Thunder will be on the map. That’s what Davis is doing for New Orleans and that’s why he and the Pelicans are graduating from League Pass cult status. Our secret is out and about to go mainstream.

"It’s a great opportunity for us to showcase him," White says. "It’s a great opportunity for him and the New Orleans Pelicans to showcase their team to the basketball world. It’s a great opportunity for all of us."

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

The Milwaukee Bucks stumbled badly over the weekend, but after running off five wins in six games they became the latest team to claim the moniker of This Year’s Suns, a distinction previously held by the Kings. It’s early and the Bucks have taken advantage of a soft schedule, but what’s interesting is they are more like the Bizarro Suns.

There are no expectations, but everyone is a contender in the East: Like last year’s Suns, this was a team that was supposed to be in the running for a top lottery pick, not a playoff spot. Playing in the Eastern Conference aids their cause greatly, and with teams like Indiana, New York and Detroit struggling, the Bucks could hang around the periphery of the playoff chase without having to win 50 games like Phoenix.

They play defense: The Suns made hay with a fast-paced, guard-dominated system that covered up for their lack of size. The Bucks go the other way with a defense keyed by long, athletic players like Larry Sanders and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks D thrives on turnovers and forcing misses. In its own way, Milwaukee’s defense is as frantic as the Suns’ offense.

They have a funky roster: Any team with the Greek Freak is bound to be a little unconventional, but the Bucks have odd players up and down the lineup. The Suns were built around point guards and undersized forwards. The Bucks don’t have a true point guard but they do have a half-dozen power forwards ranging from rookie Jabari Parker to Sanders, who functions as an undersized center.

Jason Kidd isn’t afraid to experiment: This is the most similar parallel. Like Jeff Hornacek, Kidd has no head coaching experience when he took over the Nets last season, and like Hornacek, he has adapted quickly. There were glimmers here and there in Brooklyn after Brook Lopez got hurt, but in Milwaukee he’s taken it to a new level. Employing an 11-man rotation, Kidd’s lineups rarely look the same way twice once the subs start checking into the game.

They may not be that good: The Suns may have been an early surprise, but it quickly became evident that despite their unorthodox style of play they were a solid team full of talented players who simply needed a chance to play in the right system. The Bucks have taken advantage of one of the softest schedules in the league and while their defensive progress has been encouraging, their offense remains one of the league’s least efficient. There is talent here, but we should probably hold off on making postseason plans.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Kemba fights again

Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker has had to prove himself everywhere he’s been, and if the Hornets are going to make a move in the East he needs to continue evolving. Mirin Fader profiles Walker in this terrific piece.

A team the Sixers could beat

Ricky O’Donnell details all the way the 76ers would take apart Kentucky in a theoretical game that will never happen. Can we put this one to rest, already?

Gortat Alert

Sarah Kogod catches up with eccentric Wizards’ center Marcin Gortat for the first episode of Gortat Says.

Thank You Masai

Nuggets GM Tim Connelly was taken apart in a detailed feature by friend of the program Kevin Arnovitz. Yet, Tom Ziller wonders how much of Denver’s mess is on Masai Ujiri.

Not so Smoove

Josh Smith was benched in the fourth quarter of a two-point loss to Phoenix by Stan Van Gundy. Kevin Zimmerman examines the issues with Smoove.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"This is more challenging than me trying to win my first championship." -- LeBron James.

Reaction: The most fascinating subplot in the league right now is LeBron’s relationship with his new team. From Kyrie Irving to Kevin Love to new coach David Blatt, James has sent several messages through the press. How long will it take for them to absorb all of his lessons?

"I thought it was kind of funny that you guys were marking down how many times I held a clipboard, did you do that with Hollins? Oh good. Let me know how many times he holds the clipboard." -- Bucks coach Jason Kidd in his return to Brooklyn.

Reaction: It’s notable how quickly sentiment turned against Kidd, considering he’s the best player in franchise history. Of course, this is a franchise that has all but abandoned its history so maybe it’s not that unusual.

"We can't allow the status quo to remain, i.e. people to act in defiance of the rule because the rule is the rule. But I also want to try to do it in a way that makes sense for everyone. If it appears that the rule is not something that we can work around, then it's time to enforce it." -- Union president Michele Roberts, to Ken Berger of CBS Sports.

Reaction: Roberts is referring to a rule that prohibits agents from representing players as well as coaches and management as in the case with Kidd’s representative, Jeff Schwartz. This is an issue for obvious conflict of interest reasons, but it really speaks to the inertia and malaise that characterized Billy Hunter’s regime. There is no end to the amount of things Roberts has to clean up and clarify.

"Guys are wired like that from a young age. I mean I've been playing basketball since I was five, and you're just so used to just starting the game. Even when you're young, it's 'Starters vs. Scrubs.' That was kind of the (mentality). If a guy is in front of you, then it's like, 'Well the guy is in front of me so I've got to go get his job.' Really, in the NBA, it's 'I need to get paid like a starter.' A team is not going to say, 'I'm going to spend $10 million for a guy to come off the bench.' A team is not going to do that. Or it's very, very rare." -- Andre Iguodala to USA Today’s Sam Amick about accepting the bench life.

Reaction: The Sixth Man has long had a mythical appeal in basketball. You can run through all the psychological tricks -- It’s not who starts, but who finishes -- but it’s still a tough sell for competitive people.

"When I was talking a lot of trash, a lot of the guys knew that when I started getting serious was when I started getting a little bit quieter. If I started locking up somebody, then I'd start talking even more and I'd talk more aggressive. But once I stopped, they knew I was really serious. The trash talking would get serious. "Come on. Get me the ball, there's a mouse in the house." That's when they know." -- Gary Payton to Rolling Stone.

Reaction: I can’t imagine how disconcerting it would be to playing against a stone-faced silent Payton. Like, Come on Glove, say something. You’re freaking me out here. He should teach a course on the art of trash talking. Better yet, the league should bring him in to tutor the young fellas, so they know how to do it correctly.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

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About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.