“He looks like a different player, He looks much more like the player everybody anticipated. He’s so gifted and intelligent, there’s not really anything that he doesn’t have to his game. And now, he’s starting to put it together.” ERIC SPOELSTRA, coach of the two-time defending champion Miami Heat
Things will be quite different for New Orleans Pelicans power forward Anthony Davis this season.
Hailed as a budding star before becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, he fought through injuries and the team’s 27-55 record to have a solid, promising rookie season. Now, as the Pelicans get set to tip off against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday to begin Davis’ second season, he has an upgraded cast of players around him that is a cause for optimism, if not high expectations, for a playoff berth.
“We will have to focus and work hard and continue to get better,” Davis said, “but I think we have the type of talent to win a lot of games.”
Yet the biggest change for Davis is Davis himself. With all the new additions — a more complete point guard in Jrue Holiday and added firepower in guard/forward Tyreke Evans and 3-point ace Anthony Morrow — Pelicans coach Monty Williams knew it was a must that Davis’ vast potential be brought to the surface for his team to have a successful season.
“It goes beyond just statistics,” said Williams, who has vowed to turn Davis loose this season after being careful with him as a rookie. “He’s a better player, which is good to see, because he certainly works hard. But it was imperative for his development, because he is extremely talented, and us as a team.”
Last season, Davis averaged 13.5 points on 51.6 percent shooting and a team-leading 8.2 rebounds, along with 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals in 64 games. His rebounds, blocks, steals and double-doubles led all first-year players, and he was selected to the All-Rookie first team, which was expected for the top pick in the draft.
After a late-season sprained left knee healed, he started immediately on coming back better and stronger for this season. He polished his jump shot, which he already had as a former guard at Perspectives High School in Chicago. When he brandished it during practices and the scrimmage for the United States’ Olympic team this summer, that started the buzz regarding the new and improved Davis, who also was a force as usual blocking shots, running the court and dunking.
“That whole experience helped me out a lot, as a player and also from a leadership standpoint,” Davis said.
He served notice with a strong preseason, averaging 19.9 points on 55.2 percent shooting, 5.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots. More likely is on the way.
Davis worked all summer in the weight room with the Pelicans’ director of player development, Carlos Daniels, and put on a noticeable 15 pounds of muscle. That, he said, was done more to stave off injuries, and improving performance is like a bonus. Teammates, however, say his added strength has been most noticeable around the basket in pickup games and, after training camp began, team scrimmages.
In the Pelicans’ first preseason meeting against the Orlando Magic on Oct. 9, Davis had several spectacular dunks and blocks. He made a similar play against the Miami Heat in Wednesday’s preseason game in which he exploded to the basket from outside the lane without taking a dribble, drawing an audible “Ooooooh” from the crowd of 17,123.
“He’s always had that explosiveness,” Williams said. “He is stronger, so maybe that’s what we’re seeing.”
Davis promises more. During preseason games, he showed an effective jump hook that was not present last season. He said that’s just the surface of his improvement made working with lead assistant coach Randy Ayers.
Last season, Davis’ success came from his versatility, skills, intelligence and ability to adjust to opponents, particularly as the season rolled along. In one game, he might assert himself more running the court for easy baskets against a bigger, stronger foe. In other games, his defense and rebounding came to the fore more. Yet, in others, he was effective as a pick-and-roll option.
“He got better at learning the league,” Ayers said. “He saw that you have to bring different things to the table against different opponents.”
That Davis was consistently effective doing so was impressive. After this offseason, however, the script appears to have been flipped. His offseason put Davis in a position to force foes to adjust more to him.
“I have developed some go-to moves,” Davis said. “But you also have to develop countermoves. Everybody guards you differently, so you can’t just have one move.
“Everybody in this league watches film. If you have one move, they’ll take it away from you.”
Working with Ayers, Davis has some other moves he has yet to show — a turnaround jump shot, and a face-up 10-footer and a pump-fake and drive move off of that. He can be seen daily working, starting with the most basic of shots, the 3-footer directly in front of the basket.
“I’d like to see him add the elbow jump shot and the Clyde Drexler jumper (from the lower wing),” Williams said.
However, since his freshman season at Kentucky, in which he led the nation with 4.65 blocks per game and set a Southeastern Conference record with 186, defense has been his calling card.
Davis said he is just as proud of how he has come along defensively, and he is eager to continue learning and improving and seeing how that manifests itself on the court. Smarter and more fundamentally sound defensively, that could keep him on the court longer and allow him to score more.
“I’m doing a lot better job of being vertical and not trying to block every shot, and that makes a big difference,” he said. “It helps me stay out of foul trouble a lot.
“I’m doing a better job of stopping the ball in pick-and-rolls, but I’m still learning, and I’m going to continue to work on defense and hopefully get better.”
Williams said that means improving his off-the-ball defense.
“But that’s the case with all young players in this league,” he said. “There’s so much happening off the ball that you really have to be ready for.”
Davis said his first season was an eye-opener in that regard, but he is up for the challenge this season.
“It’s tough because everybody can score in this league,” he said. “When you’re playing off the ball, usually you don’t see guys doing back-door cuts, setting pin-downs and getting a screen or setting a cross screen.
“You have to be ready to play every possession, even when you’re not on the ball.”
Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra, who watched film in preparation for the Heat’s preseason game against the Pelicans, said Davis is on the ball as far as his play heading into this season. Already, he said, Davis is showing he’s starting to realize his potential, and that’s exciting to see.
“He looks like a different player,” said Spoelstra, smiling. “He looks much more like the player everybody anticipated. He’s so gifted and intelligent, there’s not really anything that he doesn’t have to his game. And now, he’s starting to put it together.”
Heat guard Dwyane Wade said he’d heard about Davis’ play this preseason. When he saw Davis on film, from the more muscular body to the improved play, it brought him back to his second season. Like Davis, he was in a situation where he needed to step up.
“Shaquille O’Neal got traded to Miami, and I had to step up, and I stepped up a little bigger than I thought I was ready for,” Wade said. “What I saw (in preseason games) was that Anthony scored a lot of points in limited minutes. You just have to be ready and prepared and see what happens.”
Davis apparently is.
“I just want to be aggressive, and I want to win,” he said. “That’s all that matters to me.”