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Watching Anthony Davis, Dunking In Purgatory

This was supposed to be the year that Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans made their move. It hasn't been, but that hasn't made Davis any less fun to watch.

by Robert O'Connell
Mar 1 2016, 2:49pm

Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

This NBA season has mostly unfolded as predicted. The defending champion Warriors are still the league's best team, which they prove in increasingly egregious ways each week. The establishment Spurs and Thunder are their most daunting opponents, and the Cavaliers continue to treat the Eastern Conference as a fiefdom. Last year's MVP will be this year's MVP, and last year's champion will probably be this year's champion. Kobe Bryant's farewell has been as full of synthetic nostalgia and flat jumpers as everyone expected, DeAndre Jordan has made as many trips to the foul line as any game theorist could have hoped for, and the 76ers have prolonged their basketball filibuster. You already knew all this.

One of the few plotlines predicted in October that has failed to materialize as expected is the ascent of the New Orleans Pelicans. After shouldering their way to a surprise playoff berth last season and bringing in prized Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry as coach over the summer, the Pelicans showed all the markers of a team on the upswing. They had some intriguing talent, a new and presumably improved system, and a young star entering the stage of his evolution when nascence tends to give way to nightly ass-kickings. Prognosticators entertained visions of them in the second round, pushing a contender to six or seven games.

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Instead, the Pelicans have stunk. Injuries have hurt them, but even at full strength this team has looked nothing like the experimental gatecrashers of July dreams. Their offense stole few of Golden State's tactics and none of its world-beating efficiency, and their defense is mostly theoretical. They sit more than 10 games below .500, as close to the Timberwolves as they are to the playoffs. It's bad. They're bad.

For the fan without a particular investment in New Orleans, the Pelicans' lousy year matters for one main reason: it has extended the portion of Anthony Davis' career spent on the fringes of relevance. The 22-year-old power forward/structural impossibility has had a fine campaign, neither building on nor falling off from last season's All-NBA numbers, but a player can thrill only so much from last place in his division. So, the odd explosion notwithstanding, Davis continues to bide his time. If this rightly frustrates both Davis and an expectant public, both parties can take solace in the fact that no player in recent history has ever made a better subject for speculation. Even amid his team's regression, he looks like the future.

When you realize that you are on the Pelicans. — Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Davis has a listed height and weight. Someone, back when it seemed relevant to do so, measured his wingspan and timed him running sprints. Scouts and coaches laud his intelligence, his sense of timing, and his command of a frame that others might have inhabited with knob-kneed awkwardness instead of virtuosity. There are any number of quantifiable ways to understand why Davis is one of the rarest basketball talents in the world. You could also watch him play, of course.

There is a tendency, when dealing with a player like Davis, to praise and limit simultaneously, to prescribe a simple program because his skill doesn't require a more complex one. He's too big for forwards, too quick for centers. Post up or step out. It's easy to imagine entire seasons of 28 and 12, with the only decisions he makes depending on whether he has to look up or down to meet his defender's eyes.

And yet, when he is playing, Davis does not look like just a bundle of inherent advantages applied in obvious patterns. Perhaps his best and most promising trait is his ability to call upon his various gifts—those ladder-long arms, his nimble feet, combustible hops, steady handle, and glossy shooting stroke—at any moment, and in any combination. Davis does not use moves and counter-moves so much as switch at will between entire tactical modes. One possession, he works from a triple-threat position along the baseline, his jab step pushing the defender back the length of a station wagon. The next, he comes sailing down the lane, back arched and fingers splayed, to wrangle and stuff a way-too-steep alley-oop.

A week and a half ago, on a Sunday afternoon when most of the sports world tuned in to watch the Cavaliers and Thunder play on national television, Davis put up 59 points and 20 rebounds against the Pistons in Detroit. He took 34 shots and made 24 of them, all coming in a kind of progression. Each successful maneuver goaded the defense into a subsequent overreaction, at which point Davis changed tacks.

A useful thing to be able to do, basketball-wise. — Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In a dizzying two-minute stretch of the fourth quarter, he scored on poor Andre Drummond in just about every way allowable under the rules of basketball. He drove, stopped, and drained an elbow jumper. He cut backdoor for a dunk. He curled around a screen for a three, and finally, when you could almost hear Drummond muttering to himself, absolutely swearing that he wouldn't allow a bucket this time down, Davis dropped in a fadeaway that just cleared Drummond's stretched hand.

The afternoon immediately took a place among this season's individual masterpieces, but it was of a different type than the rest. Davis's breakout was not one characteristic chapter of a season-long thesis, a la Steph Curry's 50-point outings or Russell Westbrook's revved-up triple-doubles. Rather, it was a trial in an ongoing experiment. Davis's genre-spanning play reflects the scope of his talent and curiosity, but it also sometimes provides a perch for youthful inconsistency. He still has occasional off games, when none of his roles seem to take.

Two nights after the Detroit game, Davis mustered only nine points in a loss to Washington. Two nights after that, he scored 30 in a win over the Thunder. A healthy chunk of basketball fandom eagerly awaits the moment when those 30-point nights become standard, and the nine-pointers disappear altogether. Pelicans fans, too, no doubt look forward to appreciating their team as constituted, instead of as some abstracted projection of potential.

Whatever bouts of unevenness Davis still has, though, testify to his nearly limitless ability. The challenge of his early career has been dictated not by a coach or team—or by some sort of pre-thwarted playoff push—but by his own talent. It is to merge habit and exploration, to fashion his encompassing skill into something even more reliable.

For now, the project produces some aggravation and a lot more awe. Eventually, that ratio will tip even further in the positive direction. Davis's brilliance will pass through a filter of accumulated professional expertise, and his bad games will be better, and his good ones will be routine. The Pelicans will stumble towards greater competence, if only out of a lack of alternatives. The significance of Anthony Davis is that we know all this will happen. The fun of him is that we don't know what it will look like when it does.