Anthony Davis works on his post-up game with Pelicans assistant coach Kevin Hanson

Kevin Hanson working with Anthony Davis to add even more aspects to offensive arsenal

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

He’s far too athletic and quick for many opposing centers and power forwards to defend, so during the latter portion of the 2014-15 regular season, a few Western Conference teams figured they’d try something else, something a bit unconventional. Besides, not much else was working against Anthony Davis.

With New Orleans’ two-time All-Star forward regularly rolling to huge scoring nights – including averaging 33.5 points over a four-game stretch in early March – Houston and Sacramento gave small forwards Trevor Ariza and Rudy Gay, respectively, the surprise assignment of defending Davis. Although the 6-foot-10 Davis still averaged 23.8 points in four late-season games vs. the Rockets and Kings, the strategy illustrated the fact that opponents are generally less fearful of him posting up against smaller players than of his ability to overwhelm bigger defenders with speed.

Partly with that in mind, Davis and Pelicans assistant coach Kevin Hanson have spent this offseason continuing to work on the three-year pro’s low-post skills. Davis has gradually become a more comfortable offensive player with his back to the basket, but as a former guard, his natural tendency is to face the hoop when he’s in a one-on-one situation. However, when matched vs. smaller defenders like 6-foot-8 Ariza and Gay, facing up somewhat negates the height advantage Davis has on those players; Hanson is working with Davis to be able to punish defenders who are undersized. In another example, during the playoffs Golden State relied heavily on 6-7 power forward Draymond Green to defend Davis. Although Green couldn’t stop Davis from racking up 31.5 points per game in the series, at times he used his mobility, particularly away from the basket, to be disruptive and force some of Davis’ 13 total turnovers.

If Davis can add further to his offensive repertoire in the paint and in isolation situations, it should make it even more difficult for opponents to figure out a way to slow him down, reducing their matchup options.

“There is no way (shorter small forwards) should be able to guard him,” said Hanson, a 6-foot-10 former pro center overseas. “It’s just a matter of him getting more comfortable with his back to the basket. We’ve worked on him punishing guys with his back to the basket, and working on his footwork to create shots for himself.”

Opponents have begun throwing a variety of defensive looks at Davis, something that will continue after he finished fourth in the NBA in scoring average (24.4 ppg) last season. While Houston and Sacramento have occasionally gone small, teams like the Clippers (with DeAndre Jordan) and Memphis (Marc Gasol) sometimes use centers on Davis, a luxury few others have without an All-Defense-caliber player at the 5. The Grizzlies have at times been relatively successful vs. Davis in slower, grind-it-out games, but that may be more difficult to accomplish while facing Alvin Gentry’s attack, which emphasizes an up-tempo pace.

“If a team puts a center on him, (Davis) is going to look to shoot over him or go by him,” Hanson said, explaining how Davis’ approach changes depending on the defender. “If they put Blake Griffin or a natural matchup (a similar-sized power forward) on him, then you might mix it up and change up your medicine; you’re not going to just give them one thing. But if they put a small forward on him, now he’s going to be able to use his size as an advantage. He saw more (small-forward defenders) last year, so this summer we were able to cater his workouts to different types of defenders.

“It’s a matter of recognizing matchups and how defenders are guarding you. For instance, are they blitzing you or doubling you on the catch, or on the dribble? Knowing how to react to all of that comes with time and experience. He got a lot of that experience last year. He’ll get more of it this season.”

“I’ve definitely been working on passing, reading defenses better,” Davis said. “I’ve kind of just been doing some basic drills out of the post, playing against double-teams… That’s definitely going to be helpful once I figure out what plays we’re going to run, what sets we’re going to run, and try to incorporate my passing out of double-teams a lot easier.”

Another much-discussed new wrinkle in Davis’ offensive toolbox is his three-point shooting, an element that could make Davis even more of a problem for bigger defenders who don’t want to stray far from the paint. Since early in the offseason, the 22-year-old has worked with Hanson on corner three-pointers; a June workout video showed Davis repeatedly sinking threes from the left side.

“We’ve been adding that aspect to his game and emphasizing it,” Hanson said. “He’s already shot it well enough in the past; we just haven’t gotten game reps. But now we’re trying to get his repetitions up so that it’s just a natural shot and there are no changes in his shot movement or shot slotting. He uses a bit more legs (to shoot threes), but we don’t want it to change the natural motion of his shot. To do that you’ve got to do a lot of reps, so that it becomes a natural movement for him.”

Davis is a career 3-for-27 three-point shooter (1-for-12 last season; his lone make beat Oklahoma City at the buzzer), but the Pelicans previously did not run any plays designed for him to launch a trey. According to Basketball-Reference.com, 10 of his 27 career attempts have been from the corner, a number that should rise in Gentry’s system, which puts greater emphasis on spacing the floor.

By adding a couple feet to Davis’ shooting range, along with continuing to hone his post-up game, the Pelicans are working to make the rising star imposing from an even larger portion of the court. Davis already piled up 30-plus points 19 times in 2015-16, including two playoff games.

“His back-to-the-basket game, I think we’ll see serious improvement going into next season,” Hanson said. “That’s the one area I hope stands out. His natural development in the post will probably be the most noticeable (to fans), how much more comfortable he is down there.

“I think teams are trying to figure out how to guard him best, but he’s still effective pretty much against everybody. I mean, he was first-team All-NBA. He’s a matchup nightmare.”

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