On a crucial play with 24 seconds left in the NCAA national championship game, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis had both feet in the lane when Kansas’ Elijah Johnson popped out off a screen out behind the three point line on the left side and took a pass for a standard catch-and-shoot three. Make it and this is a one-possession game.
Except Davis is so long and so quick he closed on Johnson and could have blocked the three (Davis is a center who blocked 12 threes during the season). So Johnson — who had left his feet — tried to put the ball on the floor and got called for the travel. Ballgame.
That is why scouts drool over Davis. That and the sweet 18-foot baseline jumper he hit earlier (yes he was 0-8 up to that point, that isn’t typical or scaring anyone off). Davis is long, athletic, has decent handles, takes pride in his defense, doesn’t have a massive ego and… you get the idea.
But where does a guy with this skill set fit in the NBA?
The correct answer is “anywhere he wants.”
If you are stuck in a traditional basketball mold you can spend time arguing where he fits on the NBA position scale. His own coach John Calipari said postgame he is not a five in the NBA, which is true. He’s not going to have the build to bang with Andrew Bynum or even Brendan Haywood on the low block. (Although when he bulks up you maybe can use him at the five in a small lineup, like Boston has done with Kevin Garnett recently.) Others have suggested he has he skills of a three. ESPN’s Chad Ford wrote this:
Scouts debate a bit on what position Davis plays at the next level. While his elite shot-blocking and rebounding abilities scream center, most NBA scouts and GMs see him as a 4. If he is, he’ll struggle less with players who are stronger and just as long as he is.
I say it’s moot. What position is Dirk Nowitzki? He’s a four that plays the two. Is Kevin Garnett a traditional four? He has helped change how we think of fours, but when he came into the league he didn’t fit the mold.
The definition of players in traditional roles is fading in the NBA as players crush those boundaries. There certainly are traditional point guards doing very well in the NBA — hello Chris Paul — but Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook are not traditional points who lead title contenders. Today’s big men have skills on the perimeter (or even steady midrange jumpers) that were a rarity 15 years ago.
There is a place for some tradition in the NBA — for example, notice how the handful of NBA champions had a more traditional center on the roster who could defend the paint. But overall traditional roles matter less, you can modify a system or sets to fit the talent you have. But you need talent to win at every level.
Davis could be a once every few drafts talent, a true franchise player. He’s like Marcus Camby with more athleticism and offensive skills (and if you remember Camby in college you remember he was special then). We’ll see how he develops.
But there are only a few such talents in the league, a handful of guys you could truly build a franchise around. Are there even 10 in the league right now? If you get the chance to draft one, you do it and figure out the rest later. Who cares about traditional positions?