Davis is the next Russell. Maybe.

Is one transcendant skill enough to make an NBA All-Star?

Updated: June 14, 2012, 4:25 PM ET
By Bethlehem Shoals | ESPN The Magazine

Anthony Davis and Bill RussellUS Presswire, Getty ImagesBill Russell led the Celtics to 11 titles in 13 years. That's a tall order for Anthony Davis.

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"I'll tell you exactly what Anthony Davis is -- he's a young Bill Russell ... And Russell was by far, and will always be, the most valuable player ever in sport." -- Bob Knight, former college coach

FOUR MINUTES into this year's NCAA championship game against Kansas, with his Kentucky Wildcats up 9-7, Anthony Davis did what he does best -- and what he might do better than any man alive. Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor received an inbounds pass and slalomed down the court on a one-man fast break. Davis, trailing the action, shadowed Taylor from a 10-foot remove like a shark stalking a darter fish. When Taylor reached the lane, oblivious to the looming threat from the right, he juked a nearby defender and lofted a lefthand runner.

It's not exactly a law of physics that a defender cannot block a layup when he's farther from the basket than the shooter is, but it's still a strong argument for the existence of the DVR. That's especially true when that defender owns a 7'4" wingspan and a jaw-dropping vertical leap. In one sweeping motion, Davis elevated from the middle of the lane -- a giraffe on a pogo stick, skinny legs and all -- and swatted the ball directly to Kentucky guard Doron Lamb. For a split second, even Lamb appeared stunned, unsure how the ball had found its way into his hands. But when Lamb turned and sprinted downcourt on the way to a layup, the genius of the moment was clear: Davis had not just blocked a shot. He had coerced his opponent into helping him deliver an outlet pass.

"When I was growing up, I saw Oscar get 56 in the Garden. I've watched Wilt forever. I saw Russell in the Holiday Festival when I was a young kid. Davis is in that class ... When he enters the draft, the team that gets him is gonna win over 50 games." -- Larry Brown, former NBA and current SMU coach

"There's one player in this draft who changes the course of a franchise, and that's Anthony Davis." -- Jon Barry, ESPN analyst

FEW THINGS IN LIFE ARE GURANTEED. One of those things is this: Davis, the rangy Kentucky big man with a knack for thwarting field goal attempts, will be the first pick in the 2012 NBA draft. With apologies to the producers of the upcoming draft telecast, any effort to manufacture drama regarding this is futile. Davis has had the top spot locked down since last fall. And the moment the New Orleans Hornets' pingpong ball popped into place, his fate was sealed: Whether he wanted to or not, Davis would be taking his talents to the French Quarter.

Never mind that this year's draft holds the most promising crop of prospects in years. Never mind that Davis remains oddly unformed, even inchoate. Never mind the nettlesome fact that he made all of one shot in the biggest game of his life to date. Never mind that Davis is expected to make an impact in the league without anyone quite knowing what that impact will be. Davis is about to transform a franchise and quite possibly the way defenses in the NBA structure themselves. Or, perhaps, he is the most ridiculously overrated one-trick pony in the history of the draft.

"Blocking shots is about more than just blocking shots. JaVale McGee was second in the league in blocked shots this year, but no one really thinks of him as a great defender. He's just one of those guys who's trying to block everything -- getting a bunch of goaltending calls, getting a bunch of fouls. Davis is the opposite of that." -- Kevin Pelton, author, Basketball Prospectus

ANTHONY DAVIS DIDN'T EVEN NEED to block a shot to seal Kentucky's victory against Kansas. He just had to imply it. With under a minute left, the Jayhawks had the ball. They had reduced Kentucky's once-commanding 18-point lead to six. Kansas guard Elijah Johnson received the ball in space out on the left wing off an interior screen with an opportunity to create against the rotating Kentucky defense. Davis' legs are so long that he typically covers ground effortlessly, almost laconically. But in that moment, sensing the urgency, he surged toward Johnson and leaped at full extension. It was a pre-emptive strike, shot blocking as playmaking, and the effect was mesmerizing -- as if someone had hurled an extension ladder at Johnson.

Johnson, having already opted for what he thought was a wide-open jumper, was hardly expecting company. Davis soared above him like the sword of Damocles. Johnson flinched in midair like a man who suddenly wanted to be somewhere else -- anywhere else. While in midair, he tried to bounce the ball to reset his dribble. The referee called a travel.

Game over. NCAA tournament over.

Moments like these have helped to turn the scouting report on Davis into a combination of slack-jawed awe and contemporary hoops realpolitik. The creativity, the timing, the strategic sense of how and when to strike, all are light-years ahead of the standard help-side shot swatter. Or, considering the many comparisons to Bill Russell, perhaps they're 50 years behind. But what to make of those comparisons to Russell -- the equivalent of wallpapering Davis' face on Mount Rushmore? Are we not engaging in basketball heresy?

It's one thing when Knight says Davis "has one of the same things that made Russell the greatest of all time ... his ability to take a shot away and yet get the ball for his team. He doesn't just swat it up into the bleachers." Knight, after all, can be prone to hyperbole.

One might expect former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who played with Russell and knows a few things about bringing along college big men, to be more circumspect. But even Thompson refuses to dismiss the comparisons. "Davis' arms don't always seem connected to his body in a stiff way," Thompson starts, by way of praise. "A lot of guys can block shots, but they collide into you with their body. Russell had the ability to go into the air, but he also could manipulate his arms in a manner to prevent from fouling. What remains to be seen is if Davis is able to do it strategically and with the mental approach that Russell had to blocking shots."

The creativity, the timing, the strategic sense of how and when to strike are light-years ahead of the standard help-side shot swatter. Or perhaps they're 50 years behind.

It's worth noting that Davis blocked an astonishing 13.75 percent of the two-point shots taken against him -- and that Serge Ibaka, the NBA's leader in blocks this season, rejected 9.8 percent of shots. It's also worth noting that Davis led the NCAA in blocked shots last season with 186 -- a rate of 4.65 a game -- in the process setting a freshman record. Of course, if that's worth noting, then it's also worth noting that the previous record holder was Marshall's Hassan Whiteside, who is now bouncing between the Kings and the D-League (which, with apologies to the Kings, is not much of a bounce at all). Still, it's how Davis blocks shots that has captivated scouts. Of his 186 blocks, 144 were kept in play and 103 went to his teammates -- leading directly to 105 points.

"Davis is a super-efficient shot blocker, which is something that people don't really think about," Pelton says. "He blocks shots, but he's also not constantly challenging every shot recklessly so that he's taking himself out of defensive rebounding. Kentucky was really good at shutting down points in the paint and had a very good two-point percentage. So those are the same kinds of statistical markers that a traditional paint presence would have; it's just kind of you've got this on top of that."

"That young man is going to be a special player. He sees the game differently than most -- sort of how Magic Johnson saw the game and how LeBron sees the game -- because he played it from a guard perspective. That insight is a tremendous thing." -- Pervis Ellison, No. 1 pick, 1989 draft

"You bring the ball up the court and you call a play in the NBA; where does he fit into that play? He's not the type of guy who you throw the ball to in the paint and say, 'Hey, go back that dude down and score on top of him.' You're not going to say, 'Go out to the perimeter, here's the ball -- go beat this guy off the dribble.' You're not going to say, 'Come off this screen and shoot.' So how does he fit?" -- Jonathan Givony, founder of DraftExpress.com

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Finlay MackayDavis rode his length to a sizable offensive rating of 133.5 in Kentucky.

ALL SUPERHEROES have their origin story -- the tale that reveals the genesis of their superpowers. Davis has his too. But his creation myth involves neither spider bites nor government radiation tests gone awry. In Davis' case, it was a seven-inch growth spurt.

In the fall of 2009, as Davis began his junior year at Perspectives Charter School -- a Chicago high school with nary a hoops team to speak of -- there was little to distinguish him from thousands of other 6'3" guards across the nation. Not that he was without ability; Cleveland State had offered him a scholarship. But then came the growth: Within a few months, he'd put on a few inches. A few months later, a couple more. Then a few more. His feet began to hang off the end of his bed. He went from a size 14 to a size 17. By his senior year, Davis was 6'8", averaging 32 points, 22 rebounds and seven blocks a game, and was one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation. By the time he arrived at Kentucky, he was two knuckles shy of seven feet.

The story soon moved from lore to myth, a tall tale in every sense of the word: Talented guard turns into power forward overnight and carries the skills of the little man into the land of the bigs. As Givony puts it, "It's a great story to tell, especially in the middle of the game with the announcer and all that."

The only problem: It's not true.

Working backward, if the best player in college basketball is a former guard who shot up overnight, one might now expect Davis to be a hybrid monster like Kevin Durant. Having learned the guard's game, this hypothetical Anthony Davis -- Davis ex post facto -- would be a highly skilled big man with the ability to handle the ball, stick acrobatic jumpers and set up his teammates for each basket.

In truth, Davis has surprisingly little to show for his former life as a guard. His regular-season high for assists at Kentucky was three, reached just twice. His assist rate, the percentage of team baskets he assists while he's on the floor, would place him only 120th among NBA bigs, behind noted ball hog Michael Beasley. Although his offensive rating was a stunning 133.5 and his field goal percentage eye-popping -- Davis made 65.3 percent of his two-pointers -- his efforts were largely limited to dunks and layups. His midrange jumper is serviceable and nothing more.

"If he was a guard," Givony says, "he wasn't a very good guard. There's a reason he didn't have any [major] offers before he grew."

Whether Davis' offense is inconsistent, incomplete or limited remains a subject for debate. He's a blank slate. There have been flashes that suggest a capacity for polished play -- hook shots, midrange jumpers. But freakish athleticism remains his calling card on offense. Then again, it might be all he needs.

If he was a guard, he wasn't a very good guard. There's a reason he didn't have any [major] offers before he grew.

-- Jonathan Givony, founder of DraftExpress.com

He was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. He was a nearly unanimous first-team All-American. He nabbed almost every major player of the year award. His ridiculous PER of 35.71 was the highest in the nation. In the NCAA title game, he notched 16 boards, blocked six shots, altered countless others and added three steals for good measure. He also had a paltry six points on an embarrassing 1-of-10 shooting. The sky-high assessments of Davis are at odds with one glaring fact: For all his brilliance at the college level, we're talking about a rail-thin kid who sometimes labors to put the ball in the basket.

"I've seen guys compare him to Marcus Camby. Well, a great question for Anthony is, 'Are you happy with that?' If he is happy with that, and you as a team are thinking he's going to be more than a Camby, well, you do have a little bit of a situation. He is only going to be as good as he's trying to be." -- Eastern Conference director of player personnel

FOR THOSE WHO DON'T enjoy comic books and superheroes, there's another way to look at Davis' tall tale. Had Davis not grown, he would have spent the (likely short) duration of his basketball life suffering from a case of basketball dysmorphia. He was born to block shots; his mind was in need of a body to match. The growth spurt wasn't destiny, it was the only reason we know Anthony Davis' name.

Still, for a player whose entire narrative is based around unexpected growth, it's hard not to entertain the possibilities. If Davis' body transformed once, who's to say it couldn't again? Davis is skinny. He's one bad stomach virus away from Manute Bol. But could he, like Kevin Garnett, add a layer of muscle that would allow him to work inside while retaining the same build? Or would bulking up rob him of his most transcendent qualities, the gazellelike grace, the pulse-quickening elevation?

As of now, the fact remains: Davis is first and foremost a shot blocker. For the time being, teams have to consider the worst-case scenario: Can a one-way force be worth that much to a team and, indeed, to the league as a whole?

"You can see the potential there. But there is a vast difference between potential and actuality." -- John Thompson, former Georgetown coach

TIMING IS A FUNNY THING. If Davis was, for years, a shot blocker in search of a body, the NBA has been, for years, a league in search of Davis. The league, in fact, has been laying the groundwork for his arrival since the 1990s.

In 1995, Garnett set a new standard for mobile, hyperathletic big men; a few years later, Dirk Nowitzki introduced another archetype: the seven-foot superstar with the range and touch of a 2-guard. In 2004, to counter the sludgelike play that had begun to affect its television ratings, the league altered its rules (or at least their enforcement) to allow greater freedom on the perimeter. No more hand-checks meant guards were now free to create space; shooters could pop out with impunity. Soon, the point guard displaced the center as the game's most indispensable position. Stretch 4's (power forwards with range) emerged as essential elements of most offenses.

Into this world enters Davis, whose search-and-destroy approach to shot blocking threatens the tyranny of guards and long-bomb forwards. "With the exception of Garnett, there's no defensive lock-down power forward who can guard the perimeter and block shots," says NBA writer Ethan Sherwood Strauss. "Davis has the ability to do that, and it could change the game. Teams are excited to get the guy who will eliminate that advantage, the guy who will be the antidote." In other words, the other players in this draft fill identifiable needs. Davis, unless he's a total bust, adds a new dimension. It's less about how good he is than it is about teams feeling he's an experiment they can't afford to pass up.

Unless he's a total bust ...

For the past five years, stats guru Pelton has calculated projected Wins Above Replacement Player for every incoming rookie. In that time, only four such players have netted a projected WARP of more than 5.0 -- DeJuan Blair (5.7), Kevin Love (5.2), Greg Oden (5.2) and Davis (5.2). The first is now a fringe starter. The second is an All-Star. The third is a cautionary tale. The fourth -- as of now -- is little more than a tantalizingly tall tale.

Today, when teams look at Anthony Davis, they see both the future and the past -- the evolution of a rare species once thought to be extinct. The question is: Can Davis actually be that player, or is he just the first to raise the possibility that he exists?

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