Coming out of college, Anthony Davis was supposed to be the NBA's next great defensive big man, locking down the paint against all opponents with the intimidating rim protection of a throwback player. He was hyper-athletic and long, with a 7-5½ wingspan, and in college he had run away with the NCAA defensive player of the year award. On offense, he was a rawer prospect with the explosiveness to finish around the rim but a questionable jumper and lack of a polished attacking style. His comps: Marcus Camby, Bill Russell, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan.
Fast-forward six years and Davis is in the midst of a late-season surge into MVP runner-up. He did remain a strong shot-blocker, ranking second in the NBA with 2.2 BPG this season, and he has made the NBA All-Defense second team in two of the past three seasons. But, surprisingly, scoring has become his calling card as a pro. Davis is second in the NBA in points this season with an efficient 28.2 PPG on 61.6 percent true shooting, and he has finished in the top seven in scoring for four straight seasons. Davis worked hard on his perceived scoring weaknesses, and he's made them strengths with an excellent face-up game off the dribble that is bolstered by a consistent jump shot that he can knock down out to beyond the 3-point line.
Instead of Russell, Camby or even Duncan, Davis' pro game has been more reminiscent of a combination of two legendary bigs who weren't often mentioned before the 2012 draft: David Robinson and Dirk Nowitzki.
Davis, like Robinson, had a late growth spurt that took him from playing guard to center. Robinson was 5-foot-9 his junior year of high school, grew to 6-7 in his senior year, then up to 7-1 while at the Naval Academy. Davis was 6-3 as a junior in high school but hit 6-10 by the time that he graduated. Both players retained much of the quickness and skill of their shorter selves even after they attained their full heights.
Like Robinson, Davis is a dangerously fast big man who can fly down the court to finish on the break. He is a nightmare finisher around the rim on alley-oops (82.4 EFG on 370 lobs since 2013-14 season, per Second Spectrum) and offensive rebounds (66.1 EFG on 263 tips since 2013-14, per Second Spectrum). In iso situations, Davis has a Robinson-like lightning-quick first step with the confident handle of a former guard on drives (52.7 EFG on 628 driving layups since 2013-14, per Second Spectrum). The latter feature is one of the keys to his face-up offensive style that has served him so strongly as a pro.
The other primary feature of Davis' scoring prowess is his jump shot. In college he had excellent mechanics but only made 34.3 percent of his jumpers overall -- 29.8 percent in catch-and-shoot situations and 25.0 percent on unguarded looks. In the pros, he has improved his jumper dramatically to the point that his face-up game is reminiscent of a young Nowitzki. Both have the length that forces opponents to typically guard them with big men, but they have the quickness and comfort on the perimeter that most opposing bigs aren't capable of matching.
Both Davis and Nowitzki are adept at moving without the ball, finding soft spots in the defense to nail open jumpers off the catch. Both have consistent shooting range on deep midrange jumpers, with distance out beyond the arc. Nowitzki was the more natural 3-point shooter early, but Davis is displaying this season an ability to knock down the trey at slightly higher volumes.
Plus, Nowitzki was one of the greatest pick-and-roll bigs of all-time because of his ability to either shoot or drive against an imbalanced defense. Davis is following in those footsteps, generating 0.960 points per play in 8,048 direct picks as the screen-setter since 2013-14, per Second Spectrum.
Here's how the three compare during their first five seasons as All-Stars.
Davis' numbers are an almost exact meld between Robinson's more interior approach and Nowitzki's more outstanding perimeter jumper.
Now, a similar comparison for their more volume-based production over the same time:
Again, Davis' production measures out as a combination of the two greats. Davis has a slightly higher scoring volume than his predecessors did (about two more points per 100 possessions), but he's a bit less involved in setting up teammates. Young Nowitzki had the best assist-to-turnover ratio here, with Robinson having higher volume of assists but also turnovers, and Davis producing low volumes of both. This plays a part in his overall offensive impact, because in most situations creating offense for teammates generates a greater effect than being purely a finisher.
Robinson and Nowitzki went on to win the MVP trophy in the next seasons after the ones cited here. If he had played at his current level over the entire year and the Pelicans were able to finish among the top few teams in the West, Davis may have been a viable lead MVP candidate over James Harden in 2018.
His candidacy next season depends on being able to lead the Pelicans off to a big start before DeMarcus Cousins is fully healthy (assuming Boogie returns in free agency) and helping the team maintain a great record all season. If he can do those two things while even maintaining his new peak, Davis may just be able to join his stylistic predecessors in hoisting the MVP trophy next season.