Posted Feb 14 2012 1:50AM
It's impossible to truly appreciate how long Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis is until you see him up close. You might gain an even greater appreciation of Davis' Plastic Man dimensions after he's smashed one of your shots downward at a considerably faster rate of speed than it was launched.
In coaching parlance, Davis is a "plus six," meaning his 7-foot-4 wingspan is six inches longer than his 6-foot-10 body. Combined with his leaping ability and an innate sense of timing that allows him to wait out an opponent's fakes, those arms have become the biggest defensive weapon in college basketball and, very possibly, will make Davis the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft in June.
Led by Davis, who hides 220 pounds on his lanky frame, Kentucky has become the most fearsome defensive team in the country, and in so doing the No. 1 team in both major polls. The Wildcats, as of last weekend, are second in the nation in defensive field-goal percentage (36.4), first in blocked shots per game (9.3) and 15th in scoring defense (58.5). Before an 86-52 win at South Carolina last Saturday, they had held three straight opponents to under 50 points, something that hasn't happened at Kentucky since the 1950-51 season.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has altered his defensive philosophy a bit this season. His goal is to finish last in the Southeastern Conference in steals. The Wildcats don't gamble for deflections. They try to keep their opponents in front of them. And if they allow one into the lane ... well, too bad for him. That's where Davis awaits.
Davis has obliterated the Kentucky freshman record for blocked shots -- he has 116, while the record was 83 -- and slipped past LSU's Shaquille O'Neal, who had held the SEC freshman record of 115 since 190.
Another high-water mark surely to go by the wayside is the SEC single-season standard of 170, accomplished twice by Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado, in 2009 and 2010. The NCAA record of 207 set by Navy's David Robinson seems safe for now, but if teams like Tennessee (seven blocks) and South Carolina (eight) keep serving themselves up to Davis, who knows?
"What you have to do to get to the basket against that guy is almost impossible," Louisville guard Chris Smith said. "The amount of room he covers around the basket is incredible."
"He's always on attack," said Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade. "I went down there one time, and he just told his guys, 'Just bring him in here, I'm going to block everything.' "
When Calipari talks about Davis' defensive prowess, he has a ready point of comparison from his first head-coaching stop -- former UMass star Marcus Camby, the consensus national player of the year in 1995-96.
"[Davis] goes after balls," Calipari said. "The best shot blockers I have seen are the ones that let people release the ball and then go get it, and that's what he does. Marcus Camby, when I had him, that's exactly what he did; he never blocked it in the guy's hand, he just stayed down and waited for him to release it.
"[Camby and Davis] also block more shots away from their own man. [Davis] adds a dimension to our team that makes us pretty good. You don't get layups that you think you have."
It's hard to believe that a player who has become so impactful began the summer of 2008 as a 6-foot-2 guard. Davis' coach at Chicago's Perspectives Charter School, Cortez Hale, hadn't seen him until late that summer, when Davis turned up to watch a city league game. Hale went slack jawed when he ran into Davis, who had shot up to 6-foot-7.
"I said, 'Anthony, what happened?' " Hale said, laughing at the recollection. "He said, 'I don't know coach. I just woke up.' And I said, 'OK, go back to sleep and wake up again. Hopefully you'll grow some more.' "
Davis did grow more, but he retained his guard skills, something that will ultimately make him as valuable to an NBA team as his defense. Calipari has said that, through similar stages in their careers, Davis' offensive game is ahead of Camby's. Hale, well aware of the full range of Davis' powers, is eager to see him pull a defensive rebound and dribble the length of the floor for a dunk, or set up at the high post and take his defender off the bounce.
Davis has other face-up talents, too -- a deadly elbow jumper, range out to the 3-point line and the ability to find cutters with crisp passes. But so far he hasn't been able to showcase those skills. Though Davis leads Kentucky in scoring, Calipari doesn't even run plays for him.
The Wildcats will utilize an occasional impromptu pick-and-roll or a dribble hand-off and toss Davis a lob as he soars to the basket. But Davis, who averages a team-high 10.1 rebounds a game, gets most of his points by hustling up offensive rebounds and collecting garbage baskets.
This he does willingly, another quality that will endear him to NBA general managers.
"Coach Cal tells me to take the shot if I'm open," Davis said. "He lets me play. But winning is what matters to me. I don't care about the number of points I score."
Davis is much more concerned with the points that Kentucky's opponents don't score. Given his nearly five blocks per game and a conservative estimate of six or seven other shots he alters or forces opponents to reconsider, he prevents more points than he scores.
Davis isn't sure where the eight-inch growth spurt that changed his life came from. His parents are taller than average, and one of Davis' cousins is 6-foot-8. Still, there wasn't much evidence to suggest he would become so tall so quickly. He isn't questioning his good fortune.
"I think God just blessed me," Davis said. "It was a gift that I'm still trying to take advantage of. I'm just glad it happened to me."
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