Within a league built upon and highlighted by a herd of “Unicorns” that will roam the NBA terrain, Lakers center Anthony Davis — one of these dribbling anomalies — is on the verge of evolving. That should be a frightening, and potentially even unfathomable prospect for his adversaries.
But how does the 6’10” big who possesses guard-like skills, an ability to score effectively at all three-levels and has the knack for sending his opposition’s shots into popcorn vendors across the nation go about getting even better? It begins with giving up the rock.
While he has a myriad of skills, Davis’ passing has never quite reached the level of his other abilities. Only three times has Davis posted a season in which he averaged more assists than turnovers, and the art of dishing out helpers has never seeped into the big man’s forte. That is, potentially, until now.
Fresh off an eight assist performance in the Lakers rout of the Warriors, Davis topped off what has been a steadily impressive passing showcase this preseason by displaying his full arsenal.
Dimes came quick and often Wednesday night for the big man via hand-offs, kick-outs, lobs and even fake injuries. You name it, and Davis did it. But when asked after the game on his thoughts regarding the evolution of his passing, Davis chose to downplay what has been a visible improvement:
“I’m just making the right plays. I always want to get my teammates better, get them open shots,” Davis told reporters on Wednesday night. “Tonight I just found the right guys, guys who were in the right spot at the right time and just trying to get them involved.”
The former No. 1 overall pick has done just that in his four games this preseason. Not only is he third on the Lakers in assists (15; and only six turnovers), Davis has also displayed a conciseness and confidence in his passing that is bordering on uncharted territory for his career up until now.
The most direct method in which Davis has exploited the defense’s eagerness to send extra help has come from operating out of the post. That’s been Davis’ most frequent play-type on offense this preseason (22.4% of the time, according to Synergy).
And while he has been shockingly been the worst player (0th percentile) in the league in terms of individual efficiency on his post-up possessions thus far, his kick-outs out of these actions have been on point.
On passes from Davis out of the post, the Lakers have yet to miss from the field. While that’s been on a minuscule sample (4-4 on pass outs; 1-1 on passes out of ‘hard-double’ coverage) the more credible, and projectable takeaway from this should come instead in the decisiveness Davis has shown, not only in getting rid of the ball at the right time, but almost luring in the defenses before swiftly slinging a bullet to a teammate for an open three.
That’s a nuance Davis explained is just one of his approaches in handling double teams this season.
“(I’m) just trying to figure out how teams play me, knowing that a lot of guys like to come from the top and get in doubles. Just trying to be patient and when I’m moving, not going so fast and kind of almost letting the double team happen to get advantage on the weak side,” Davis said. “Just studying film and just knowing my personnel.”
Davis’ mindset is the appropriate one. There is no secret that the Lakers will operate almost entirely with Davis or LeBron James holding the ball, and defenses will scheme accordingly to counteract that.
The best method in which Los Angeles can go about countering the counter, is to do what Davis illustrates: be patient and take advantage of the double that will be there a large portion of the time. And with a roster that finally projects to have the capability to cash in on these open looks, this approach could prove to be a devastating formula.
And while it might be easy to simply dismiss Davis’ growth as yet another preseason apparition, this is a positive trajectory that traces back to last season. In his final year with New Orleans, Davis not only posted a career-high in assists (3.9) but he also took a significant step in his overall playmaking acumen.
According to Bball-Index's talent grades, Davis graded out in the 92nd percentile in playmaking amongst “ bigs” last year. In the season prior, Davis was only in the 53rd percentile amongst the same criteria.
Davis’ teammates are not the only ones who stand to benefit from the his uptick in passing, either. It’s also bound to make his new head coach Frank Vogel’s job much easier as well.
“I think with any player, the first couple of years in the league, the game’s a little quick for them and when they enter their prime the game really slows down,” Vogel said Wednesday. “He’s ready, he’s able right now at this point his career to really identify help, either early on in his catches, or late in his drives to the basket.
“He’s recognizing help and where the extra pass is and he’s making great decisions. He’s a make-the-right-play kind of player, and you saw that tonight.”
Although the universal proclamation that it’s “just preseason” does carry legitimate weight when getting too high or low in the realm of player and team analysis, aspects like composure, demeanor and flashes of progression are difficult to dismiss.
Davis has shown both in his short time as a member of the Lakers, and like Vogel alluded to, that’s often the case for players as they enter their prime.
There is no skirting the fact that Davis will have to carry a lot on his shoulders and his plate this season on a team with clear championship aspirations and a window that is slightly ajar. But if he somehow shows he is able to climb yet another rung in his developmental ladder and build upon what has been an utterly historic start to a career, Davis could potentially dish out his biggest assist to the Lakers’ chances yet.
All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.