I’ve never been a big believer that you learn much in the opening week of the college basketball season. Too much growth occurs for teams over the course of a full schedule to read entirely into a November loss or blowout win. There may be shades of things to come in the future, but if teams like Duke and Michigan State have taught us anything, it’s that March is a whole new ballgame.
In many instances, I apply the same concept to player evaluation. Mental toughness develops, skills sharpen and in the case of players suiting up for major programs, the competition level increases as the season progresses. Still, early season player evaluation isn’t fruitless; we can certainly start to make deductions about certain individuals the very first time they take a step on the court. One of the most heralded freshman in the nation this season, Anthony Davis, is one of those individuals.
The Kentucky big man – and odds on favorite to go No. 1 in June – certainly lived up to the hype in his debut for Big Blue. In a dominating win over Marist, the 6-foot-10 forward recorded a line of 23 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. But forget about the numbers, no matter how impressive. With all due respect to Marist, a player of Davis’ potential should be dominating in that fashion. It’s the physical ability that was on full display that is so intriguing after only one game – simply put, it’s rare for a player this big and long to be this athletic.
His points came in variety of settings, but the ability he is already showing in transition and out of pick-and-roll sets is impressive. Davis runs the floor very well, on several occasions forcing a turnover on defense, only to finish the play at the other end of the court. He has a nose for the rim in the open court, and with his 7-foot-4 wingspan, he makes for an easy target when teammates lob the ball up around the basket. This is the case as well in pick-and-roll sets. He needs to get stronger in order to better hold these screens, but catches everything thrown his way once cutting to the rim. In one particular instance David took off from outside the restricted area and caught a pass above and behind his head with both hands, before hammering it home. These kinds of plays can be his bread and butter all season and should be in the NBA as well given his physical profile.
The drawback to his game right now of course is his thin frame. At just 220 pounds (listed), Davis doesn’t have the strength or bulk to hold his own in the post. This showed even against a team like Marist where he was inefficient in the post, unable to make a strong move toward the rim, but rather attempt a quick, forced turnaround jumper. This was also the case on the offensive glass as well, where he shows a real inability to finish with contact right now. All in good time, though. He will need to add weight and strength as his career progresses in order to be a truly multi-dimensional offensive player.
Perhaps the most intriguing display from Davis came in the few instances where he caught the ball near the foul line in face-up situations. He is unquestionably quick enough to attack off the dribble and get to the basket against other frontcourt players, regardless if it’s against Marist or an SEC foe – Davis is that athletic. There’s still somewhat of an awkwardness in his move towards the basket and again, the strength factor rears its head. It’s easy to see the current version of Davis getting bumped off his line of attack consistently, but scouts and fans have to be impressed with the quickness the power forward shows.
Lastly, there’s Davis’ presence as a defender – the area of the floor he was expected to make a huge impact immediately. Consider the gauntlet thrown. The freshman was a terror at this end of the floor, guarding big men, perimeter players, blocking shots and deflecting passes. His length makes him a constant threat to challenge shots, but again the quickness of the rookie is what is so impressive. Consider this play:
We pick up the play at the 7:34 mark of the first half (the time if crucial here), with Marist about to hoist a three-pointer from just right of the top of they key. Davis who is a step inside the free throw line charges towards the alleged shooter, closing quickly.
Davis closes a bit out of control – he’s a freshman after all – and the ball handler blows by him, only to be cut off by several other Kentucky defenders. The ball is kicked to a forward near the foul line and Davis continues to chase the ball as the defense collapses into the paint.
The ball is finally kicked out to the left wing where a three-pointer is launched. Davis races to the ball and gets a strong challenge on the shooter, ultimately forcing a missed shot. Now notice the clock: all of this transpires in four seconds. The fact that two passes and a field goal are completed in that time span isn’t overly impressive, but the amount of ground a 6-foot-10 power forward covered in that span is. Again, there are some technical issues here, Davis needs to do a better job of closing on shooters so he doesn’t get beat off the dribble, but the quickness he shows for a big man is eye popping.
Davis will be evaluated, scrutinized and broken down as much as any player in the country this season (we’ll be looking at another one tomorrow), but while his skill development will be the subject of much analysis, it doesn’t take long to see his physical skills. Regardless of who Kentucky opened their season against, be it Marist or a high profile game like North Carolina and Michigan State, it doesn’t change his length, his speed, his quickness and his tremendous upside. Friday was just the first glimpse.