Anthony Davis rejects a close-range shot by Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins

Anthony Davis defensive versatility one reason he’s again contender for NBA blocks title

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Jrue Holiday speaks for many NBA guards when he describes what happens whenever a power forward or center is forced into defending him off the dribble, often the result of a pick-and-roll play. Holiday is virtually always much quicker, much faster and more athletic than the big man tasked with slowing down the 6-foot-4, deft ballhandler.

“Usually as a guard, when you see a big guy on you (one-on-one), you think it’s going to be a cakewalk,” Holiday said. “An automatic bucket.”

Then again, as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, Holiday has the good fortune of never dealing with the situation backcourt players from the other 29 NBA teams face: Trying to navigate past the 6-foot-11 Anthony Davis, a teammate of Holiday’s since 2013. Whatever confident thoughts normally enter a smaller, more skilled player’s head when bigs switch onto them, they tend not to apply when Davis is involved.

“With AD (defending),” Holiday pointed out, “it’s never for sure. There are times when he’s switched onto a guard. In this game, these guards are so dominant, but (against Davis), it’s not going to be easy.”

New Orleans opponents enter every game thinking something similar, well aware that Davis is a two-time NBA blocks champion. In his fifth pro season, the 23-year-old is again in contention for the league lead, averaging 2.43 blocks around the midway point of 2016-17. He’s within a hair of Utah’s Rudy Gobert (2.56), in a race that’s been extremely close for several weeks.

While elite shot-blockers such as Gobert and Miami’s Hassan Whiteside do the bulk of their rejection damage in or near the paint, what makes Davis somewhat unique is his ability to cover a vast amount of ground. Dating back to his national title-winning college season at Kentucky, Davis has regularly blocked jump-shooters, even players launching from beyond the three-point arc. It helps that Davis was once a guard himself, prior to a well-documented growth spurt in high school that still allowed him to maintain the athleticism of a smaller man.

“He’s a great shot-blocker,” Atlanta third-year head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “His athleticism, his range can really have a big impact on the defensive end.”

“(The Pelicans) are second in the league in blocks, which is in large part because of him,” Dallas’ Rick Carlisle said of a New Orleans team that averages 5.9 swats. “He distorts a lot of things on the defensive end. Shots that he doesn’t block, he changes a lot of them.”

Davis isn’t the type of shot-blocker who tries to go after every attempt, partly because bigs who do that often leave themselves out of position to rebound or stay in the play defensively. Many of his swats are the result of him coming from the weakside to snuff out a shot by a man he isn’t assigned to guard.

“I’m doing it within the team defense,” Davis said of his blocks. “We’re big on helping each other, if someone gets beat off the dribble. I’m kind of that low man trying to get a block. It’s about taking pride on defense, guarding one-on-one. Any time I feel like I can go get a shot, I try to. I just try to go get whoever’s at the rim.”

Davis’ versatility also keeps the Pelicans’ defense from breaking down, because he doesn’t need help that other players might require against an opposing guard. New Orleans is ranked seventh in defensive efficiency in 2016-17, a drastic improvement from last season, when key injuries ravaged the Pelicans.

“It just helps us out,” Holiday said. “We can switch anything with him (regardless of the matchup).”

Davis said he takes pride in being able to hold his own against smaller players, trying to make it as difficult as possible for opponents who normally see a freeway to the hoop.

“When that happens, I try to use my length and make them shoot over a contested hand,” Davis said of containing guards. “There are some times then that I’m able to get a block. You’ve just got to take pride in your defense. If you take pride in your defense, the rest will take care of itself. You’ve got help behind you, so you can’t get worried about getting crossed up or getting beat (off the dribble). That’s why you have team defense. I take pride in my defense and try to make sure I limit everybody from what their (scoring) average is.”

Dedication and the right mental approach to defense are one thing, but Davis is also blessed physically with a rarely-seen blend of height, leaping ability, quickness and long arms.

Or as Holiday put it recently, smiling at the unreal nature of Davis’ traits: “Well, he’s 6-11 and athletic. He has great timing, a great knack for the game, for when someone’s going to go up to try to shoot a layup or a jump shot. That’s instinct – it’s not something that can be learned. It just kind of comes naturally.

“And he has like an eight-foot wingspan.”

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