Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson have a bright future together in New Orleans. But in their work to infuse as much talent into their foundation as possible, the Hornets have created a somewhat unpleasant scenario: two of their four core players seem destined to play the same position – power forward – now and in the future.
In order to ensure the Hornets keep their best players on the floor as much as possible, either Anderson or Davis will be forced into the oft-uncomfortable confines of another position. Because neither has the muscle to tangle with opposing centers, one of these bright young players will likely be spending at least some of his minutes at small forward.
Anderson may be a young, productive and improving player in his own right, but the organization’s hopes are tied to the development of Davis. So while Anderson’s value takes a hit with a move to the wing, the conventional wisdom suggests the majority of the lanky Davis’ minutes should come at his long-term position right from the start.
At least this was my position when I saw the two on the court together for the first time during the preseason.
But I’ve come around and am now of the mind that the Hornets should commit to making the small forward spot Davis’s permanent home this season.
Cruel to be kind
Similar to Joe Flom – a real life Jewish litigation attorney from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers — putting Davis on a less than comfortable path early could an opportunity to acquire valuable skills.
Flom begin his law career in 1947, an era in which, despite his qualifications, his background as an immigrent Jew prohibited him from gaining an employment at any high-end law firm in New York. Firms that, as Gladwell explains, “operated like a private club.”
But this exclusion put Flom on a path to work for a far less prestigious firm handling litigation and proxy fights. Those were things the bigger, glamorous, more “gentlemanly” firms thumbed their noses at before outsourcing to a lawyer like Flom. This went one for nearly two decades until business changed in the 1970s and hostile takeovers became all the rage. All of the sudden, the type of lawyer most prepared for that now critical area of law was none other than Joe Flom.
Writes Gladwell: “For twenty years he perfected his craft at Skadden, Arps. [Flom’s law firm] Then the world changed and he was ready. He didn’t triumph over adversity. Instead, what started out as adversity ended up being opportunity.”
It may look awkward at times, but asking Davis to make drastic changes to his game now would put the Hornets’ young franchise cornerstone on a track to develop skills that will make him a uniquely devastating and successful player for years to come.
Adding a 3-Point Shot
For all his talent, Davis entered the league lacking a signature offensive move. At just 19, his game is like an unmolded piece of clay. How the Hornets choose to shape it early on will essentially dictate what type of offensive player he becomes in the future.
Traditionally, teams expect 7-footers to spend their time on the low block. However, Davis’ slight build may always hinder his ability to operate in an area where physicality and lower body power reigns. His length and skill suggest he could become a handful in isolations at the logo or the elbow. But operating in those areas typically produce a steady diet of long 2’s – the most inefficient shot in basketball.
In an era of basketball where those shots are being phased out in favor of the more efficient 3-point shot, perhaps the solution is for Davis to take his game to the perimeter. He isn’t a marksman yet, but Davis has the foundation for a solid, long-distance stroke. Going in with a committed plan to develop that as a reliable weapon in his offensive arsenal could pay huge dividends for Davis and the Hornets offense.
It won’t be pretty. The team will have to remain steadfast in the face of a few airballed 3’s and some overall lackluster play most nights. Though Davis will still likely shoot poorly this year, he will have gained the valuable experience. It is easy to think that Davis can still play the four and develop this shot on his own during the off-season (much like Chris Bosh) but there is a big difference between practicing a shot and learning how to play on the perimeter.
Wings in the NBA execute numerous catch-and-shoot and catch-and-drive attacks each game and receive harsh feedback when they aren’t as economical with their dribbles as possible. A player can practice these skills all he wants all during the summer, but if that skill is never translated and refined in an NBA game, it never materializes into a reliable weapon. If Davis spends all his time situated in the paint early in his career, it will slow or limit his ability to think and move from further out on the floor.
Also, because teams typically gear a player’s in-season development toward augmenting the skills he’ll use in games, Davis’ pre-game and practice reps will include a vast amount of shots moving on the perimeter. So instead of spending his first year (or two) practicing shots coming from areas he’s either not built for (the block) or not destined to become overly efficient from (the elbow or logo) Davis will be spending his time practicing shots that will make him an extremely rare player.
Since the 3-point line was implemented in 1980, only four players have ever recorded over two blocks per game and shot better than 35% from behind the arc in a single season (minimum of 15 attempts).
The only player to do it twice was Raef LaFrentz.
During his time playing for Denver, Dallas, Boston and Portland, LaFrentz brought the rare ability to create space on one end of the floor and deter opponents from driving toward it on the other.
With more information coming to light about the value of shooters to team offense, more and more teams will be filling as many positions as possible with players capable of stretching the floor. As the LaFrentz anomaly shows us, putting shooters at your frontcourt spots typically meant you were losing the ability to play someone else who can control the paint. While the Hornets don’t want Davis to become LaFrentz (he’s a better rebounder and shot-blocker for starters), they’d be wise to want that type of player. But unlike LaFrentz, Davis is capable of doing much more.
Exciting though it may be compared to drawing a charge or forcing a bad shot, just blocking shots is a rather overrated skill. Serge Ibaka may block more shots than Joakim Noah, but there isn’t a coach in the league that would tell you Ibaka is a better all-around defender. Noah’s defensive positioning, pick-and-roll defense and ability to switch onto smaller, quicker players with positive results more than make up for his inability to swat shots. With the amount of pick-and-roll bailout calls late in possessions, the ability for a big to switch out and stay in front of an elite ball handler with a handful of seconds still left on the shot clock is becoming a huge asset for defenses across the league.
Those are the nuances that Hornets fans should be desperately hoping Davis acquires. And being forced to guard wings on the perimeter for his entire rookie season will help Davis rapidly improve his ability to stay in front of them in the future. Things like foot-positioning on closeouts or finding out the ideal balance between cushioning against a drive while still being able to contest a jumper require time and repetitions like anything else in basketball.
If Davis spends his first year guarding in the post, he’ll gain experience as a post defender, but lose out on valuable experience guarding players like Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul Pierce. Though he’s sure to look like a fish out of water on many of these possessions, with the right approach, Davis will learn and improve.
In the short-term it may cost the Hornets a few wins and put Davis on the wrong end of a few Sportscenter highlights. In the long run, however, it will help create a more complete defender. One capable of doing much more than just blocking shots on defense.
Not that novel a concept
It’s somewhat similar to the opportunity that faced the Thunder after drafting Russell Westbrook in 2008. Westbrook was largely considered a smallish, hyper-athletic two guard coming into the league. However, Oklahoma City was committed to developing him into their point guard of the future, a process that was initially a disaster.
Enjoy the devastating playmaker Westbrook is today, but don’t forget that he was positively dreadful his first two years in the league. In fact, in his first year, he flat-out sucked. After his rookie season, not many saw potential for Westbrook to thrive as a point guard. Today, he’s widely considered on par with the likes of Derrick Rose.
If the Hornets choose to keep things conventional for the early part of Davis’ career, they will end up with a player – who while likely still quite effective – is nonetheless conventional. Had the Thunder chose that route with Westbrook, he may very well have become the second coming of Monta Ellis. But by straying from the norm early on, the Hornets could put Davis on the rocky starting path that gives him the opportunity to acquire skills that will eventually allow him to conquer this new era of the NBA.