Pelican Fly

Not long ago, Anthony Davis was a March Madness phenomenon at Kentucky. Three years later, the 22-year-old might be the best player on the planet.
by March 11, 2015
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Anthony Davis doesn’t like to brag. Not about his gaudy statistics, his nightly highlight reels, his name being mentioned as one of the top three or four best basketball players walking the planet or even his NCAA National Championship ring (OK, maybe a little). Actually, the only thing Davis does like to brag about is iPhone games. Yeah, you know, like Trivia Crack or Candy Crush. Any hot new game that hits the App Store, AD and his Pelicans teammates are playing it, and Davis is probably beating them all.

“Right now it’s this game Crossy Road, and he’s the best at it,” says New Orleans PG Jrue Holiday. “He’ll send you a text like, ‘Don’t talk to me until you beat my score.’ Stuff like that, he brags about. But basketball? He don’t brag about being a good basketball player. Not like he has to.”

Good point. Anthony Davis is celebrating his 22nd birthday today. Already, the 6-10 stud is a two-time NBA All-Star, an Olympic Gold medalist and a college champion in his one critically important season at the University of Kentucky. He’s joined Dwight Howard and Shaq as the only players to rack up 3,500 points, 1,700 rebounds and 450 blocks by age 22. Unquestionably among the most dominant forces in the L today, the former No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 Draft has already closed the gap between the future and the present. You can stop with the “soon” this and “next year” that. It’s all happening. Atlanta Hawks All-Star Paul Millsap says “he’s in the top five, definitely” when it comes to ranking the best players in the NBA. All across the League that sentiment is echoed.

On defense, he’s a dream. His mythical (but perhaps true) 7-7 wingspan means he can swat shots he had no business contesting, and he clogs pick-and-rolls like he’s two defenders, not one. At the other end, he’s become the best midrange-shooting big man in the game, with still enough brute strength to bang on cats at the rim for poster-worthy tomahawks every night. That Davis has vaulted his way into “Heir to the Throne” conversations is not surprising when you see his superhero-ish play on the court. That he’s considered by some to be the single most game-changing force in the sport less than three years after showing up for his freshman college season as a skinny-ass kid from Chicago is mind-bending. Which is why envisioning AD talking more smack to his teammates about Crossy Road than his explosion into superstardom is so refreshing.

“When I was 20 or 21, I thought I was OK,” says Holiday, now only 24 himself. “But this boy right here is something special. It hasn’t really gotten to his head that he’s in a different bracket. He acts normal, but he has this otherworldly talent. He’s just a freak of nature, really.”

Numbers-wise—like, beyond the ones on his birth certificate—Davis is inhuman. This year, he’s scoring 24.5 ppg, good for No. 4 in the League and a career high. He’s grabbing 10.3 rebounds per game, also a career high. He’s the League leader in blocks (2.8 per game), too.

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Prefer advanced stats? Consider: The greatest single-season PER (Player Efficiency Rating) in history belongs to the legendary Wilt Chamberlain, who once posted a 31.82. Right now, Davis is charting at a League-leading 31.53 (earlier this season, he was actually better than Wilt). numberFire, an analytics platform that uses algorithmic modeling to better understand sports, ranks Davis second in the NBA this season in its Efficiency Rating Derivative (or, NERD) behind only James Harden. His NERD rating suggests that an average NBA team would be expected to finish 20 games above .500 if AD were healthy for an entire season.

Davis is also the most efficient offensive player in the League, adding 1.24 points per possession, despite a ridiculously high usage rate of 27.8 percent. That’s getting awfully geeky, but when you boil it down, that level of efficiency at that usage rate is damn near miraculous. In layman’s terms, you cannot stop Anthony Davis, you can only hope to contain him. And if you’re hoping he’ll beat himself, he won’t. AD rarely makes mistakes, turning the ball over on just 6.5 percent of his possessions—which is, again, incredible given his high usage rate.

Purists and stat geeks can agree, Davis isn’t the next big thing. He’s the biggest thing. Right now.

“Five years ago, I never thought I’d be in this position. It’s still weird. I sit back and realize how far I’ve come and how blessed I am,” says Davis, perched in front of a horde of reporters at All-Star Weekend Media Day in New York City. True enough, at 17, Davis was having a hard time adjusting to a growth spurt that had rocketed him up to a gangly 6-7, 192 pounds. Let alone discussing the finer points of how he skyrocketed up the list of the NBA’s best players. “I go back and look at old pictures or watch high school film, and it’s like, This is how I used to play? This is how I used to look? That’s the biggest thing,” he continues, laughing a little. “I wasn’t good at all.”

Apparently averaging 32 points, 22 rebounds and 7 blocks per game as a high school senior and earning a scholarship to the top NCAA program in the country is “not good at all.” John Calipari came calling and AD went to Kentucky, where in one season the lanky All-American averaged 14.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 4.7 bpg while leading the Wildcats to a National Championship, with some help from fellow first-round picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague. Coach Cal at one point compared Davis to Marcus Camby on steroids.

Davis spent less than a calendar year on campus at Kentucky but credits much of his instant success in the NBA to the way Coach Cal runs his program. As has become tradition with former players since Calipari’s arrival in Lexington, he’s stayed close to the program, returning for games and special events, and taking plenty of public pride in his opinion that the 2012 title team would wreck any other UK squads that have come along. He’s also been a mentor to current Wildcats big man Willie Cauley-Stein, who hopes to follow in Ant’s footsteps and make a splash in the pros. (The two are in part close because, incredibly, AD is only five months older than Cauley-Stein.) “It feels like I was there four years—that’s how close everybody is,” says Davis. When you do the math and realize that this year would have been his senior season at Kentucky, try not to fall out of your chair.

After his no-brainer decision to jump from the college ranks after his freshman season, Davis came into the NBA at 19, weighing 212 pounds. (“My rookie year seems so long ago,” he laments aloud at one point.) Ant’s since muscled up to 240 and will no doubt continue to grow into his body and get even bigger in hopes of winning more battles in the paint. Sorry 4 the weight.

“He’s young. People have to remember that,” says Miami Heat center Chris Bosh. “He just got here. What he’s done so far is amazing. His upside is amazing. His timing, his defense, his offensive ability. It seems like you didn’t see him shoot in college, and now you can’t leave him open.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder learned that lesson the hard way in early February, when Davis capped off a 41-point, 10-rebound performance by hitting a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. In fairness to OKC, it was AD’s first three-ball of the entire season, and Kevin Durant was right in his grill. Davis feasts on the Thunder—he’s averaging 32 and 10 in four games against OKC this season—but nearly every other team has been victimized, too, starting with his absurd 26 points, 17 rebounds, 9 blocks, 3 steals and 2 assists in the season opener against Orlando. On Monday night, he torched the Bucks for a career-high 43 points, plus 10 boards and 6 assists in a Pellies win. At this point it’s no longer complicated: Another year, another giant leap for Anthony Davis.

“He was balling out last year, but I feel like he’s becoming more seasoned. That’s a problem. He’s a problem for people,” says Holiday of Davis’ scoring ability in particular, which he describes as simply unstoppable. “When I get him the ball, I just think it’s an automatic bucket. Like, it’s automatic, B.”

At 22 years old, it’s downright scary to think about the heights to which Anthony Davis will soar. The MVPs and other accolades will come, surely. At this rate, the Hall of Fame will beckon, too. But maybe the coolest part about Davis is that truth be told, he doesn’t give a shit about being famous. He’s deeply honored to be an All-Star, he’s still in awe of the greats around him and he seems genuinely astonished that he’s gotten this good this fast. But he could care less about the fame and the attention, and he’s not about to put on for the cameras.

His required media session at All-Star Weekend, for example, opens with a bumbling David  Letterman intern excitedly asking Davis to paint him a fake unibrow for a Late Show bit. AD gives him a polite “no” and a blank stare. He’s asked repeatedly about free agency and what it would take for a team to lure him to another city at some theoretical point in the future. He answers those questions immediately by saying, with a certain level of GTFOH-ness, that he’s not going to answer them. An overly bubbly, red carpet-ready Hollywood reporter leans in to ask Ant about—what else?—his personal style. She’s met only with a plain, “I don’t really get into the whole fashion thing. I like to dress nice, but not crazy.”

His now-infamous All-Star Saturday night sunglasses notwithstanding, it’s true: Davis is at the moment wearing a comfy Nike Tech fleece sweatsuit and a pair of “Bulls Over Broadway” Air Jordan Xs. He’s got custom wristbands on each hand—one says “AD’s Flight Academy” (the name of his new series of community outreach events) while the other reads “Don’t Geek.” His 6-10 frame is folded awkwardly into a chair designed for a normal-sized person, his knees bent out away from his body to avoid knocking over the table in front of him, where microphones are being jabbed toward his face.

He seems more comfortable when he’s asked to sing the praises of his peers, like Al Horford, Jamal Crawford or the 15-time All-Star sitting one table to his right, Tim Duncan, than when he’s asked about his own game. It’s not to say that Davis doesn’t have his lighter moments, too, whether when admitting that he’s superstitious (“Today is Friday the 13th? Oh shit. That’s scary, I might stay in my room.”) or that his idea of a great Valentine’s Day gift would be a new Bugatti.

anthony davis kentucky

At last year’s All-Star Game—Ant’s first, and in his team’s home city of New Orleans—he admits he was nervous. He tiptoed around his idols, from Kobe to LeBron to KD. Now, those are his friends, mentors and closest competitors in barbershop debates. Along with that has come a natural transformation: This year, he says the biggest change in his game is a considerable boost in confidence. Davis says he walked by a TV screen in the lobby of the players’ hotel earlier and saw a highlight of himself catching an impossible lob. He thought, Damn. “I caught it forward and dunked it backwards, it was something crazy,” he chuckles. “I was like, I don’t even know how I did that.”

And, having earned a seat at the table with the greats of his generation in such expedited fashion, Davis understands that it’s high time to take notes. All-Star Weekend, he says, is one of the best opportunities to soak up knowledge from guys like Duncan. So what would he ask TD? “What it takes to be a champion. I want to be a champion one day—five times. I want to know what that feels like.”

In an age and a sport where we are so often prone to obnoxious hyperbole, Anthony Davis is impervious to hype because, well, he continues to far exceed even the wildest of expectations without ever flinching. Without ever acknowledging that he might waver along the way. Coach Cal has said his former pupil could be the best player in the NBA within five years. We may not have to wait even that long. With Davis the centerpiece to the Pelicans’ plans and AD legitimately pushing LeBron and Durant for that No. 1 spot, winning a ring seems like only a matter of time, too. Now that would be something to brag about.

Abe Schwadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @abe_squad.

images via Getty