Projecting Anthony Davis’s NBA career

From The New York Times…

Over the past 20 years there have been 10 clear franchise players taken with the first pick in the N.B.A. draft. The list includes LeBron James and Allen Iverson, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard — players who immediately became the cornerstones of their franchise, were good pros from Day 1 and gave their team a legitimate chance to win a championship.

Kentucky’s Anthony Davis is that kind of player. He is the clear No. 1 pick in a deep and talented N.B.A. draft class. He is the most dominant player in college basketball. The question is not whether Davis will be a good pro — he is going to be a perennial All-Star — but whether he will become great the way Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan were.

To understand Davis’s position in the pantheon of elite players, the best comparison may be to Chris Webber. He was an abundantly talented player who never seemed quite as dominant as his talent suggested he should be.

Physically, Davis and Webber are not alike. Webber was an electric athlete coming out of Michigan whose dunks were violent in the way that Griffin’s and James’s now are. Davis, at 6-foot-10 and 220 pounds, is different. Lithe and smooth, he glides up and down the court. He makes everything look easy, one of those players whose body defies his position and who looks as if he could play without breaking a sweat — like a bigger version of Rudy Gay, or Kevin Durant with a little less range.

Those types of players can guard multiple positions, but are difficult to match up with when they are on offense. Davis projects to be an effective defender against centers and both forward spots, but it is not clear who will be able to guard him. Against bigger defenders, his quickness, ability to run the floor and deft shooting touch make him a difficult matchup. Against quick defenders, his size, length and finishing ability make him virtually impossible to guard.

Despite his similarities to Durant and Gay, comparing Davis to Webber is instructive. In college, both played with young and fantastically talented teammates. Both have elite skills — shot-blocking for Davis, rebounding for Webber — that translate immediately into success at the N.B.A. level.

And both have perimeter skills that tantalize scouts and fans alike: Webber was a supernaturally gifted passer, while Davis possesses the body control and touch of a guard, allowing him to score in a myriad of different ways from virtually anywhere on the court.

The biggest question about Davis, as it was for Webber, involves his ability to dominate key situations offensively. Webber was often unselfish to a fault, allowing talented teammates like Jalen Rose to take big shots down the stretch. Davis, playing on the most talented team in the country, has the same luxury. In fact, his unselfishness — three of his teammates have taken more shots this season — is cited by Coach John Calipari as a key to Kentucky’s success.

For an N.B.A. scout, that trait should be worrying. Davis is by far the most effective scorer on Kentucky, shooting 64 percent from the field, yet at key times he seems content to let his teammates share the scoring burden. To truly be a great N.B.A. player, one worthy of being mentioned with players like Duncan and O’Neal, Davis will need to have the killer scoring mentality of Durant.

The danger is that he could become a bigger, better-defending version of Gay, content to take what the defense gives him and doing so with such ease that he always leaves observers wondering why he did not simply take over the game. That kind of player is still an All-Star. That player, at Davis’s size and with his game-changing defensive skills, is likely a second- or third-team all-N.B.A. performer.

But that player is not James, Duncan or O’Neal, one who instantly makes his team a championship contender and continues to do so for a decade. It is a testament to Davis’s talent and ability that that is the standard against which he will be judged, but, as Webber discovered, that can also be a curse. When healthy, he was a game-changing superstar and one of the most memorable players of his era, but he was not judged against his peers.

A couple of times a generation, there is a player so talented and so gifted that the only way to truly understand his value on the basketball court is in his ability to carry his team to championships. Shaquille O’Neal did it. Tim Duncan did it. Davis will be judged against these players, but like Webber, his unselfishness may keep him from passing the ultimate test of N.B.A. greatness.

We’ll all find out if Davis and the rest of the Cats leave at 2:00. Follow us on Twitter @nbaCATS to keep up with all the news.

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