Anthony Davis destroyed the All-Star game as we knew it.
Davis repeatedly ran to the rim during last year’s game, finding creases in the Eastern Conference defense. And his teammates kept feeding the Pelicans star in New Orleans. Davis scored an All-Star-record 52 points, making 19 assisted shots alone. Nobody has ever made more total shots, assisted or unassisted, in an All-Star game.
Essentially, Davis just kept exploiting a major flaw of the exhibition: As uninspired as on-ball defense is, off-ball defense is almost non-existent.
After the game, Chris Paul told NBA commissioner Adam Silver something needed to be done about the All-Star game’s competitiveness. The league is debuting captain-drafted teams this year. We’ll see whether that increases intensity – Davis is on LeBron James‘ team – but Davis’ style hasn’t changed.
The Pelicans star is scoring a lot, most of his points coming on assisted baskets. That’s a double-edged sword. Is Davis the ideal team player, comfortable working in the flow of the offense? Or is he incapable of creating for himself, dooming New Orleans in critical possessions?
The truth lies somewhere between.
Davis is averaging 27.4 points per game, and 70.1% of his baskets have been assisted. Only Karl Malone with the 1997 Jazz and Shaquille O’Neal with the 1998 Lakers have matched that combination in the last 22 years (as far back as NBA.com data goes).
Here are the highest rates of field goals assisted among players who scored at least 24 points per game in that span:
Notice Davis’ inclusion four times on the leaderboard. This isn’t an aberration. It’s his style of play.
And it bears no resemblance to this season’s other top scorers:
Davis’ high percentage of shots assisted is due in part to his position. Perimeter players tend to dominate the ball, allowing them to create for themselves whenever they want. Bigs like Davis have to wait for the ball more often.
But other high-scoring bigs – like Joel Embiid and Davis’ own teammate, DeMarcus Cousins – are assisted far less often. Davis, who famously played guard before a growth spurt in high school, is also a modern big capable of handling the ball and shooting from deep.
Yet, Davis depends on passes to set him up.
The Pelicans seemingly acknowledged that by surrounding their biggest star with plus passers. Point guard Rajon Rondo‘s passing has devolved least among the skills that shone at his peak. Shooting guard Jrue Holiday is a former point guard. Cousins is an excellent passer for his size, though he’s out for the rest of the season due to injury (which has pushed Davis back to center even more often).
For now, Davis seamlessly fits Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry’s ideal style. New Orleans ranks second in the NBA in assists per 100 possessions (behind only the Warriors).
“We pass the basketball,” Gentry said. “We’re not an isolation basketball team. That doesn’t say that he can’t do that, but we would prefer to have flow and movement to our offense.”
But Davis was also heavily assisted Gentry’s first two seasons with the Pelicans, when they were slightly below average in assists per 100 possessions, and when Monty Williams coached the team. This just appears to be who Davis is, regardless of offensive context.
The concern: Davis can’t do more.
A free-flowing, unselfish offense is nice. But there are times – especially when the shot clock is running down – a player must create a shot for himself. Those situations come up more often in the playoffs, when the game slows and defenses set.
“I feel like, if we need a bucket or a team is going on a run and we need to calm them down or we need to get a look,” Davis said, “I’ll take it upon myself to try to get the ball and make something happen for the team.”
The results are uninspiring.
Davis holds an effective field-goal percentage of 44.7% on shots off multiple dribbles – well below league average of 50.3% on such shots. Ish Smith, who averages just 10.7 points per game to Davis’ 27.4, has scored more points per game on unassisted shots than Davis this season.
Davis doesn’t try to create for himself often, but when he does, he usually stumbles. Maybe he’d perform better in a larger sample but just chooses not to push that part of his game. And to be fair, he was awesome in his lone playoff appearance – a 2015 sweep at the hands of the Warriors – at a time when his style should get harder to play.
It’s commendable Davis scores so much, even if he rarely creates for himself. Heck, it’d be commendable he scores so much, BECAUSE he can’t create for himself.
Many players increase their scoring by seizing the ball and hijacking the offense. Davis has done it within the team construct. Scoring while working so much off the ball is not easy.
So, how does he do it?
To start, he runs the floor hard. He leads centers in fastbreak points per game by a fairly wide margin:
That’s in part because Davis plays so much (36.4 minutes per game), but that’s also to his credit. How many players can handle such a heavy load and still run the floor as hard as he does?
Davis alone is outscoring 27 other teams’ centers combined in fastbreak points per game:
In the halfcourt, Davis uses a variety of methods to gain an advantage.
“Like most really good players, I think, really good offensive players, he moves well without the ball,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “He cuts well to get into the post area. He comes off screens that they set for him.
“Certainly, Steph Curry is great without the ball. But you look at LeBron and Kevin Durant. Those guys are fantastic players off the ball. You have to be aware of them, cuts. It makes them very tough to guard. I think that’s something that’s really underrated about scorers in this league.”
Defenses must account for Davis in so many parts of the court. He’s an elite finisher, capable mid-range shooter and emerging threat on 3-pointers:
Davis also possesses an impressive catch radius. He’s 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, major hops and soft hands.
“He’s an easy target,” Rondo said.
Rondo said he can throw passes in Davis’ direction with the expectation the big will catch them.
“Hell, yeah,” Rondo said. “He better. Or else I’m going to cuss him out.”
Once Davis catches a pass, he’s decisive and often attacking. He leads the NBA in shots off exactly one dribble.
Davis isn’t strong enough to bump his man off balance regularly, which might partially explain why he’s so dependent on teammates to set him up. Davis wouldn’t gain much ground working one-on-one with the ball for an extended time. But he more than makes up for it with quickness and agility.
We’ll eventually learn more about how Davis’ style translates to the playoffs. New Orleans (31-26) is tied with the Nuggets for seventh in the West, just 0.5 up on the Clippers and 1.5 games up on the Jazz.
But Davis isn’t simply putting the Pelicans on his back and trying to carry them into the postseason without Cousins. Davis needs his teammates to set him up.
That could put pressure on them to ensure their star player gets the ball often enough, though Rondo and Holiday both said they don’t have to consciously seek out Davis.
“There might be games where he hasn’t got a touch or something like that,” Holiday said. “But for the most part, he finds it in different ways.”