The Great Defender

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Raising the Brow

Anthony Davis on his extraordinary season

It didn’t look like a spectacular NBA play. Most people just saw a power forward making a typical eight-footer off the glass. But for two men in the arena, it was the most noteworthy shot of the night. One was Anthony Davis, the man who made the shot. The other was Kevin Hanson, the New Orleans Pelicans assistant coach who has been directing Davis’s rapid development into the most dangerous 2-point scorer in the league.

So what, right? Tim Duncan has been making that move for more than 15 years. It just so happens that was one of Davis’s first bank shots in an NBA game.

We might be seeing more of it going forward. “I work on that shot all the time in practice and pregame, but in games, for whatever reason, I just never use it,” Davis tells Grantland. “When I did it that night, I couldn’t really see the hoop, but I could see the glass. I thought it was a good time to use it. It’s an easier shot than I thought it would be. You could see a little bit more of the bank shot.”

At the end of the play, you see Davis smile and point to Hanson in the same way he might point to a teammate after a beautiful assist. In a sense, that’s exactly what he was doing. “I’ve been trying to get him to shoot that for two or three years now,” Hanson says. “That was one of his first bank shots … I’ve been dying for him to shoot that.”

Shots are just one chapter in what might be the most impressive player-development story in the NBA. Davis — who would be a senior in college had he stayed at Kentucky — is in the middle of his third season. He has turned the increasingly out-of-style territory within the 3-point arc into his personal basketball laboratory. If he sustains his current PER, it would be the highest single-season figure on record. In March, Davis will be 22 years old. He’s already one of the most complete basketball players in the world, and he’s only getting better.

In 2012, Davis showed up in New Orleans as an athletic freak with an unreliable jumper. He had all the potential in the world, but he was raw — something that could be said for virtually every no. 1 pick. Still, Davis’s arrival represented a huge inflection point for the middling New Orleans franchise. If he were to reach his potential, it could change the organization forever. But that kind of development is never guaranteed in a league full of lottery picks who simply don’t pan out.

Throughout his rookie season, it was clear Davis had a dichotomous offensive game — he could score effectively in the paint, but not outside of it. As a rookie, his jumper didn’t scare anyone.

SHOTCHART_1213_1152

Davis had serious struggles in the midrange. He blended volume and inefficiency in ways that would make Josh Smith blush. Out of 94 players who attempted at least 250 midrange shots during the 2012-13 season, Davis ranked 92nd in efficiency.1 He made a lousy 33 percent of those shots. Something had to change. The Pelicans coaching staff wanted to rework Davis’s shooting mechanics, and in Hanson they had the perfect man for the job.

Hanson was a 31-year-old basketball lifer when Davis arrived in New Orleans. The 6-foot-10 power forward was a standout at the University of San Diego, but he didn’t get selected in the 2002 draft. After a bit of international pro ball, he found his way onto the NBA coaching circuit. He cut his teeth in the video room and practice facility in San Antonio, apprenticing under two of the league’s best player-development maestros — Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier — and sparring with Tim Duncan in the gym.

When you work with Duncan on a daily basis, you learn two things: The bank shot is your friend and it gets friendlier the more you work on it. “I learned a lot from just being around him and seeing his professionalism,” Hanson says.

The hardest part of tweaking a lottery pick’s jumper isn’t mechanical, it’s psychological. These kinds of changes naturally require the player to buy in. Initially, head coach Monty Williams told Pelicans.com, Davis and Hanson had a hard time just getting along, let alone agreeing to experiment with the Kentucky product’s shooting stroke.

“At first, I really didn’t want to do it. I mean, for 19 years of my life, that’s been my shot. So to change it … I didn’t think would make sense,” Davis says.

He would come around. The midrange numbers didn’t lie, and looking around the league, it wasn’t hard to find motivation to improve. Davis realized that a reliable jumper was a prerequisite for anyone hoping to be a great power forward in the contemporary NBA.

“KG, Amar’e, Tim Duncan, all those guys can knock down that jumper,” he says. “I was definitely skeptical about it, but I went with it, because if you want to stay in this league a long time, you gotta make that shot.”

So Davis and Hanson went to work. The first step was diagnosing the problem. “I was shooting the wrong way,” Davis says. “I was more of a push-out shooter, from my chest.”

Hanson didn’t think Davis’s form was terrible, but he did think certain tweaks could make him more effective. “It was a slight adjustment — he already had a pretty good slotting. It was lined up pretty nicely,” Hanson says. “We just wanted to raise it to a more mature shot, a more professional shot. And we really focused on how the ball is leaving his hand.”

New Orleans Pelicans v Dallas MavericksDanny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images

The league’s best shooting power forwards all release the ball pretty high. Guys like Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge unload their shots above their heads — much higher than where Davis was releasing when he entered the league.

Davis spent hours in the gym, learning and relearning how to release the ball higher. It was all about the hands, according to Hanson: “We really focused on one-hand shooting. Shooting 101 is really just shooting with one hand and focusing on the release.”

Davis says his old form was obscuring his view of the target. “When you shoot from your chest and in front of your face, you lose sight of the rim.” One goal of the adjustment was to simply enable Davis to keep his eyes on the prize. “I kind of moved it up to the right side of my right ear, above my head,” he recalls. “Which helps me see the rim a lot easier.”

The results are remarkable. Since his rookie season, Davis has transformed from a bad shooter into arguably the most effective 2-point scoring machine in the league. His progress has been extraordinarily rapid, and this year’s chart proves it.

SHOTCHART_1415_1152

Davis says his favorite shot now is the jumper above the free throw line. It’s the same shot the league’s best scoring bigs can knock down. It’s the career extender; it’s the moneymaker. KG has it. Bosh has it. Dirk has it. So does Aldridge. It separates the men from the boys.

On Monday, Davis and the Pelicans ended the Hawks’ 19-game win streak. This pick-and-pop play from the third quarter perfectly captures how smooth, quick, and clean Davis’s favorite jumper has become.

Recently on the Players Tribune, Blake Griffin, who was once the NBA’s next big big, before Davis, penned a long piece about how he and his shooting coach, Bob Thate, have worked for countless hours trying to perfect that same shot. Griffin deserves credit for improving his jumper — as of Monday, he is hitting 44 percent of those attempts — but Davis is already ahead of him. The Pelicans big man is one of the NBA’s best catch-and-shoot guys in this area. As of Monday, he’s hitting 48.6 percent of his shots there — barely trailing Al Horford.

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Just two years ago, Davis went 30-of-90 (33 percent) from this zone. This season, he’s knocking down 49 percent from that area out of more than 200 attempts. As a pick-and-pop threat, he stands near the top of the leaderboard, along with a bunch of older guys who have a lot more seasoning in their game. Davis is there. And, again, he’s only 21.

Despite the progress as a midrange shooter, that’s not even the metamorphosis Davis is the most proud of. “My first year coming in, I wasn’t as strong. I was 215 maybe. I’m 240 now, and that has helped me a lot with my game, whether it’s boxing out, playing defense, or attacking the basket,” he says. “I think the biggest thing in these two and a half years has been my weight gain.”

That weight gain and strength help him do stuff like this:

And this:

Getting bigger and stronger is another cornerstone of Davis’s development plan. But he didn’t need a guru to put on 25 pounds of muscle. He’s living in New Orleans; you gain a couple of pounds just getting off the plane. “I love food and I’ve just been eating tons of it,” he says, torturing the more waistline-conscious among us. “I can eat whatever I want, and eat a lot of it. Pasta or pizza, burgers. Everything. I just eat a lot of it.”

Davis needs all the muffulettas he can get, especially if wants to dance with Zach Randolph types on the block. His bigger frame has helped him become one of the league’s most effective interior scorers, and it’s not all just putback dunks and alley-oops. He’s learned to attack the rim off the dribble, draw fouls, and finish at weird angles.

And considering his alien stature and innate athleticism, those attacks are damn near impossible to stop. Combine that with his new-and-improved jumper and a Davis face-up situation becomes increasingly precarious to defend. Either you give up that silky shot or you risk a blow-by and being a supporting actor in a highlight. Pick your poison.

Just ask the Spurs’ Aron Baynes. Late in a key game earlier this season in San Antonio, the Aussie got a little too close to Davis, trying to take away the jumper. One dribble later, Davis won the game with a layup.

In the past, Baynes might have sagged a bit off Davis, giving him a free look at the jumper. Those days are gone. As defenders have to creep up now, suddenly those rim attacks are more available. It’s a classic example of the chain reaction that can happen when player development goes well. An improvement in one area makes you look better in another.

“That wasn’t a designed play, but he was playing me a certain way and I just ripped it and made a hard move and tried to use my quickness to my advantage,” Davis says. “When I got by, knowing he was going to try to contest from behind, the focus was making the layup. That has been my focus and concentration this year, just locking it in and knowing that I can finish around the rim.”

The list of NBA players who are best at finishing around the rim is kind of deceptive. You see names like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan. And while those guys are good, they are kind of one-dimensional dunkbots, and their efficiency has more to do with the fact that they never take jumpers. Davis is also on that list, but compared to those dudes, his game is infinitely more diverse and polished.

One of my favorite stats from the past few years is that in 2012-13, LeBron James somehow led the league in both close-range scoring and close-range efficiency. And while he’s not quite there yet, Davis is threatening to do the same. He is third in total scoring inside five feet of the basket and second in field goal percentage down there. Is this a good time to mention, once again, that Davis is 21?

“Now that I know I can get to the paint, the conversation is about finishing the shot,” Davis says. “Knowing that a lot of guys can’t block my shot, it’s about just focusing on finishing shots when guys are contesting.”

Hanson is quick to say the team has never really had to direct much of Davis’s close-range genius. “You know, that’s one area we have never really had to work on,” he says, laughing. “He’s gifted.” Davis ranks second in 2-point field goals made this season, and of 30 players who have attempted at least 500 2-point shots, none has a higher field goal percentage than Davis, who is converting 56 percent.

Maybe as a rookie he was blending volume and inefficiency like Josh Smith, but now he’s mixing them up like Durant or Bird.

Player development is one of the least understood elements of NBA success. Everybody knows it’s important, and everyone knows which organizations excel at it. Some organizations routinely transform draft picks into good players, while perpetual lottery teams commonly sit back and watch them fail to pan out. Every once in a while, though, a traditionally mediocre team lands a world-class competitor, doesn’t screw it up, and suddenly their brand changes. This happened when David Robinson went to the Spurs and when Michael Jordan revolutionized the Bulls.

New Orleans Pelicans v Cleveland CavaliersDavid Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

It may be a little too soon to say Davis has had this effect in New Orleans, but it’s not too soon to say that if current trends continue, it will look increasingly likely. Say what you want about the Pelicans coaching staff and their X’s and O’s, but NBA coaching is a lot more than just in-game stuff; some of the most important work is hidden from view, behind the closed doors of practice facilities, where duos like Davis and Hanson spend much of their lives toiling for improvement.

The best basketball players in the world represent the integration of nature and nurture. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to win the genetic lottery, but the D-League is full of long, lean athletes who don’t even make the NBA, let alone dominate it. The truly transcendent guys are willing and able to maximize their gifts and get lucky enough to have coaches and teammates who help them do that.

Davis is by no means the first prodigy to emerge from the NBA draft; however, it is clear that he and the Pelicans development team are aware that the first few years in a superstar’s arc represent a vital window. And just like Duncan did when he perfected his shot from the left block, it looks like they’re learning to use that window. 

Filed Under: Anthony Davis, Kirk Goldsberry, NBA, San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan, New Orleans Pelicans, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki

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Kirk Goldsberry is a professor and Grantland staff writer.

Archive @ kirkgoldsberry