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2016-17 Player Preview: Anthony Davis is already great, but we always want more

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Mere greatness is not enough for Anthony Davis. Moving him closer to the basket is the path to transcendence.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Media Day Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Make Anthony Davis Great Again? Anthony Davis is already great. A “down” year according to expectations for Davis last season ended with him averaging 24.4 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. It was the second straight year averaging at least 24 points and 10 rebounds a game for the former Kentucky big man. A player has averaged 24 and 10 just 11 times in their first four seasons; Anthony Davis, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, and Karl Malone are the only players to do it more than once. Only Davis and O’Neal did so before their age 23 season.

Before we dive into expectations for Davis this year it is important to understand the company his short career keeps. Hall of Famers who began their NBA careers far older and more physically mature are the only real benchmarks to measure Davis by. Greatness is somehow not enough; not when we expect transcendence. Anthony Davis provided such otherworldly performance in 2014-15 and, fairly or not, he is expected by many to reach that rarefied air repeatedly. No, not just repeatedly, routinely.

Those expectations begin on the offensive end. Unique among superstars Davis is primarily a finisher and does poorly creating his own shots. That creates a dependence on shot creating point guards, especially one Mr. Jrue Holiday. In 2014-15 Davis posted an incredible 62.5% TS% with Holiday on the floor and a less than impressive 56.0% TS% without Holiday setting the table. That trend continued into the 2015-16 season where Davis went from a 59.6% TS% with Holiday to a (relatively) putrid 50.8% TS% without Holiday.

(Before the Tyreke Evans fans join in; Davis went from a 58.1% TS% with Evans on the court to a 61.4% with Evans on the bench in 2014-15. Evans actually decreased AD’s efficiency.)

Unfortunately for Anthony Davis the Pelicans will begin the season with his best setup artist in uniform. However, there are a couple areas Davis could regain some of his lost efficiency.

The biggest area for improvement is geography. While Davis played more center (offensively) last year than he ever has in his career he took 50.6% of his shots beyond 10 feet, up from an already high 47.7% in 2014-15. That makes no sense. The primary purpose of playing small ball, for the New Orleans Pelicans, is not simply to spread the floor. It is to open up the paint for Anthony Davis to operate. Not take more threes.

Amar’e Stoudemire in his last year in Phoenix (under Alvin Gentry no less) should be a more apt target. Surrounded by shooting Stoudemire crashed the glass (9.7% OReb rate compared to AD’s 6.4% last season) and took nearly 70% (!) of his shot attempts within 10 feet of the basket. Yes, playing with Steve Nash helped. However, making a point to get Davis into the pick and roll (regardless of the point guard) and playing center on offense are reasonable goals. Eschewing this needless love of three point attempts (which negatively affect offensive rebounding opportunities) and post ups (where Davis struggled mightily ranking in the 36th percentile) will markedly improve both AD’s efficiency and increase the open shots for role players around him thanks to the attention his dives to the basket generate.

Even if the Pelicans continue to focus Davis on taking more three pointers and aimlessly posting up rather than running the pick and roll relentlessly AD should still be fine offensively. Again, he averaged 24 points and posted a 25.0 PER last year surrounded by D-League talent far too often. The biggest concern is on the other side of the ball.

Coming out of college Davis was compared to Marcus Camby most frequently. To say Davis has been a disappointment defensively is a massive understatement. Just once, in 2014-15, were the Pelicans substantial better defensively with Davis on the court than off. Last season the team’s defensive rating was practically unchanged when Davis was on (107.3) or off (107.2) the court. That is despite a complete lack of depth for the Pelicans much of the season.

If New Orleans is going to take a significant step forward this season progress on the defensive end is practically required. Anthony Davis must find a way to organize and lead the Pelicans on the floor as a big man. That Davis began his career as a guard and thus has a better than expected handle and shot for a big man is frequently referenced as a great strength. However, since Davis played as a guard much of his life that also means he’s not properly accustomed to communicating as the quarterback of the defense.

Each season I have compared Anthony Davis to Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan statistically. From a quantitative standpoint Davis is still far ahead of either future Hall of Famer through four seasons. Yet, there is still so much beyond the box score that puts both Garnett and Duncan, even at this stage of their prospective careers, leagues beyond Anthony Davis. Even at an impossibly young age Garnett learned how to anchor a team defensively; the Timberwolves finished 11th in defensive rating during Garnett’s fourth season. Davis has yet get the Pelicans within the top 20.

Communication, as the Pelicans have frequently mentioned throughout the preseason, is key. No player is in a better position to take the lead in that regard than the big man. Even better still, that big man is also the face of the franchise and the organization’s highest paid player. It is on Davis to become the coach’s voice on the court defensively by calling out rotations and coverages and demanding accountability of his teammates.

This is where being a guard (who oftentimes rely on the communication from big men to navigate ball screens) all his life quickly becomes a negative for Davis and one where he must be deliberate in his personal improvement. It’s not enough for the Pelicans to identify what things breakdown defensively on film without recognizing the deafening silence when they are trying to defend in the first place. It is clear having watched a number of Pelican games up close this team does not have many players who are natural talkers defensively.

Anthony Davis talking should make the defense better, but beyond anecdotal evidence from fans and reporters sitting close enough to the court to hear or inferring based on the defensive rating of the team at large there won’t be a way to measure it. Can Davis take on a different persona on the court than his laid-back nature? The Pelicans’ prospects on defense, and thus success overall, depend on it.

This season expect Anthony Davis to do tremendous things (hopefully) a little closer to the basket on offense. The biggest thing he needs to do is talk on defense. Unfortunately his points per game or player efficiency rating won’t tell you if Davis is improving in the area New Orleans needs the most.

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