All superstars aren’t created equal.
Kobe Bryant isn’t Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul not James Harden, and Kevin Durant hardly LeBron James. That’s no slight to anyone; these are basketball’s true elite. But the specific individual merits of a given player always differ from those of any other, even though they’re never alone in their place on the basketball food chain. That’s true of all NBA players, but especially pertinent concerning those at the very top of the pyramid.
In a time when so-called superteams rule the empirical and narrative day, the league’s proletariat faces mounting pressure. Do they have their guy? A star? A franchise player? The loaded 2014 draft class has received so much attention for a reason – these young prospects represent the next and best chance for bottom-dwelling teams to find the player that could single-handedly turn around the fortunes a franchise.
It’s those types of players from which everything orbits: roster construction, ticket sales and general organizational culture. Find a superstar and reap rewards, the thinking goes, and that’s true to a certain extent. A presence like Carmelo or late-stage Bryant will always glean interest and attention, not to mention perennial playoff births, too. But it’s easier to build the ultimate winner around a different kind of franchise player.
In 20 year-old big man Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans just might have such a force.
Based on hype and scouting reports leading up to the 2012 NBA Draft, that’s not exactly surprising. Davis was the surefire top choice of (what was considered at the time, of course) a solid crop of top-level prospects, and was a member of the 2012 Olympic Team. But then his rookie season quietly came and went; a rash of minor injuries and lack of team success made Davis easy to overlook. And while what we missed was definitely impressive in a vacuum, it wasn’t anything close to the All-Star level impact optimists forecasted for the teenager’s inaugural NBA campaign.
But none of that matters now. Just three games into Davis’ sophomore season, it’s clear he’s made the proverbial leap to stardom that so many anticipated.
It’s the last week’s offensive strides that will make headlines. Davis has flashed a much-improved mid-range jumper, nearly doubled his free-throw rate, and for the most part successfully served as the scoring linchpin some doubted he’d ever become. But there are growing pains here, obviously, and talk of his apparent growth as a primary option – or something close to it, at least – requires the small sample-size caveat. Davis, we can definitively say, has made progress as a scorer; we just won’t safely know its full extent for another month or so.
But the beauty of Davis and the rarified few his utmost potential already inhabits is that their impact is all-encompassing. They influence every possession on both ends of the floor, and can control the tenor a game without the uninitiated even noticing. Davis’ 25-point, 8-rebound, 4-assist, 6-steal, and 6-blockline against the Bobcats on Saturday is overwhelming evidence of that sweeping effect, but still doesn’t do his performance justice.
Below are highlights from the first 4 minutes and 30 seconds of New Orleans’ win over Charlotte on Saturday. Davis, all arms and energy, was everywhere.
6 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks – those are the raw statistics Davis compiled in the game’s first 270 seconds alone. But the real value of his play was manifested elsewhere: on the scoreboard, which read 13-4 in favor of the Pelicans after Davis stole Gerald Henderson’s dribble and was fouled on his way to a dunk.
There’s no way to calculate the amount of points his mere presence prevented on defense; challenging shots, busting up pick-and-rolls, and serving as a general intimidator doesn’t show up in the box score, but certainly wins basketball games. And though Davis has major developing to do on the other end before reaching that same level, the same can be said for his threat as a pick-and-roll finisher or offensive rebounder.
We’ve come a long way in determining the total worth of deep-end superstars with advanced statistics like WARP and RAPM, but the layers of basketball are endless. There’s just no foolproof accounting for the ripple-effect of LeBron’s versatility, KD’s scoring prowess, or the genius of CP3. In that way, some players – defense-first centers with unique offensive games like Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah come to mind – will always be underrated.
But there are a small handful that put up the huge numbers and make the flashy plays while transcending it all regardless. Simply, they’re basketball’s best. Davis isn’t there yet, or really anywhere close. Saturday was a glimpse of such a player, though, and confirmation that potential lies within him. The question now is how long it takes to break through the surface.
Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.