- Elena Bergeron
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UNTIL 24 MONTHS AGO, Anthony Davis was a nondescript set of initials. "Most people call me AD; I've never had nicknames based on my game," says the Kentucky forward. Of course not. Nicknames are a statement, affectionate and brief, describing the most obvious hook of a person.
When he was an oversize infant born in Chicago, his family took to calling him Fat Man -- a name that held most of the way through high school. But when puberty (and the basketball gods) stretched him seven inches over a few months during his junior year, it was time for a new moniker. Now, seeing the
6'10" Davis creeping along the court in practice, sticky limbs shooting out from nowhere, Kentucky coach John Calipari has taken to calling him Spider-Man. "He just goes 'pfft' and his arms go and he's hanging in the air," Calipari says.
Davis is just starting to get comfortable inside his taffy physique -- his version of a superhero suit. Two months into the season, the 220-pound freshman has already saved a win against North Carolina, snuffing John Henson's last-second jumper like spit on a birthday candle. On that play alone, Davis showed why he isn't just Tall Guy or Big Fella.
It also proved that he's figured out how to control those yards of limbs to his advantage. And people are taking notice. Fewer than 10 games into his college career, Davis was already being eyed as the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Says a Western Conference scout of the Henson block, "I saw that and I just thought, He's the type of player who justifies the entire NBA draft process."
But this wouldn't be a good superhero origin story without some pathos. Part of Davis' drive to develop a game on both ends of the court owes to the fact that he remembers being a 6'3" guard who didn't play travel basketball or get high-major scholarship offers until the summer after he grew. Instead, he practiced with his cousins Jarvis, Marshaun and Keith Chamberlain (who played pro ball in Germany), going through guard workouts put together by their dad, Keith Sr. -- Davis' elementary school athletic director.
Then the Spurt happened. Davis played exactly one summer on the travel circuit before his out-of-nowhere talent made headlines. Within a month after his first tournament during his junior year, he was a top-10-ranked recruit. Although he got offers to spend his senior year at Chicago's public school powerhouses, Davis decided to stay at Perspectives Charter School, where he averaged 32 points, 22 rebounds and seven blocks per game.
"When I grew, it made the game a lot easier for me," Davis says. "I didn't have to try to shoot floaters over these giant guys."
Now he's a menace. Davis had blocked 14.74 percent of two-point field goals taken against him through Dec. 17 (fifth nationally), with 4.4 rejections per game (second). When Davis had seven blocks in a win over Kansas at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15, Calipari says he texted 16-year NBA vet Marcus Camby (whom he coached at UMass): "Remind you of you when you were younger?" Camby laughed and responded yes. Then Cal gets serious: "Anthony is ahead of Marcus at this stage. Marcus was good but not like this as a freshman."
Davis' impact on defense is where his length and athleticism are most apparent, but it's his offensive potential -- the ballhandling skills and shooting touch Uncle Keith instilled -- that persuaded Calipari to switch up his dribble-drive motion (DDM) offense. At both Memphis and Kentucky, DDM always worked with a big who ran the floor for mostly transition buckets or putbacks. But with soft-handed Davis playing alongside preseason All-America post Terrence Jones, Calipari tweaked the strategy to include more pick-and-roll action. So far, Davis has scored on half the pick-and-roll possessions he's run (1.11 points per possession), mostly on a solid-looking 19-foot jumper.
Of course, things are more interesting when Davis goes up for breakaway dunks, which is how he scores most of his 11.8 ppg. He's easy to find on lobs, and his explosive vertical makes for a show. "He puts his teeth on the rim," Calipari says. "He's jumping that high with his size, which means his arm is probably a foot above the square." It's just one more way Anthony Davis has made a name for himself.
Anthony Davis was a nondescript teenager until the basketball gods blessed him with an enormous growth spurt. For ESPN The Magazine's Next issue, Elena Bergeron writes about why the Kentucky Wildcats forward is college basketball's newest star.