As I was putting the finishing touches on my College Basketball Primer article last week, internally, I had a pretty tough decision to make: Should I include a few paragraphs on the National Player of the Year or not?
On the surface, that seems like a dumb, ultimately trivial problem. Believe me, I know. But still, I was torn. On the one hand, if the article was to truly serve its purpose (essentially, to get fans caught up on everything they needed to know about college basketball after a long football season), then it did only seem appropriate to talk a bit about the best players in the sport. At the same time, with the race essentially whittled down to two players- Thomas Robinson of Kansas, and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis- was it really worth it? Frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I was more confused than Erving Walker trying to run a set play out of a timeout.
Eventually I decided against adding anything, and ultimately it is now looking like the right move. That’s because as the calendar has turned from January to February, and as we continue to creep toward March, the National Player of the Year race has basically boiled down to one guy. With all due respect to Robinson, and his almost effortless ability to put up 18 and 10 every night, this award is Davis’ to lose. And assuming nothing crazy happens (like John Calipari pulls a “Home Alone” and accidentally leaves Davis at the airport or something), the freshman from Chicago is going to take home this award. Simply put, no player impacts a game in more ways than Davis does, and no player has swung the National Championship race in his team’s favor because of it either.And please, don’t just take my word on that last point, but instead, ask some of college basketball’s best analysts and writers. During Saturday night’s Vanderbilt game, Dick Vitale said that Davis “gives his team a 15-point edge every time he walks into the building,” in terms of his ability to not only block shots but alter them too. I’ve seen writers like Mike DeCourcy (not to mention announcers like Vitale too), compare Davis to players like Ewing and Shaq, guys who were not only some of the best of their generation, but of all-time as well. Then again, considering that Davis is in the process of obliterating pretty much every shot blocking record in college basketball, and averaging a cool 14 points and 10 rebounds a game in the process, those comparisons aren’t all that surprising either.
What is surprising though, isn’t so much that Davis is putting up those numbers, but the context in which he’s doing it. Because in an era where most one-and-done players come to college with the stigma that they’re in college because the NBA forces them to be, there’s something enjoyably old-school about the way Davis carries himself. In a weird way, it’s almost like Davis the only one in the building who doesn’t realize just how good he actually is.
And it’s that attitude, much more than anything basketball related, which is what makes Davis so truly unique.
Looking at college basketball in the big picture, please understand that there aren’t many people who love the sport more than me. There really aren’t. There also isn’t a topic that divides fans more than the one-and-done rule, a rule which is one of the biggest reasons why a guy like Davis even showed up at Kentucky in the first place. And while I won’t waste everyone’s time with the particulars (since again, everyone already has an opinion on it), what I will say is this: As a general rule, the sport of college basketball has benefited much more from one and done players, than the players themselves have benefitted from actually being forced to go to college. I love college basketball. But even I’ll admit that.
To explain, let me give you an example.
Back in the fall of 2007, I remember watching Derrick Rose for the first time. It was the fourth game of what turned out to be his only year at Memphis, and to this day, I remember the one play that basically told me everything I needed to know about Derrick Rose the basketball player.
I was watching the game with some friends, and early on "it" happened. UConn missed a shot, and the ball was quickly passed to Rose on the wing, who caught it in the middle of a pack, went from second gear to fifth in about .000000000001 seconds, and blew past everyone on the court (including A.J. Price, now in his third year in the NBA), for an uncontested lay-up. This all happened in the snap of a finger, and left everyone I was with speechless. Damn, who was this guy? What planet was he from? At the same time, that one play symbolized everything we needed to know about Derrick Rose: He was a sheep in wolves clothing, a pro masquerading as a college player. It was clear on that one play that from a basketball sense, there was very little Rose could gain by playing at the college level.
And for better or worse, that really has kind of become the reality of the one-and-done era. Take most players, be it Rose or Kevin Durant, Greg Oden or Michael Beasley, and while they do learn valuable lessons off the court (things like how to handle themselves in front of the media, how to deal with coaching, how to interact with teammates), on the court, playing college basketball is simply a formality on their way to the pros. I mean seriously, was Kevin Durant a substantially better player the day he left Texas as opposed to the day he arrived? Same with Rose at Memphis, Derrick Favors at Georgia Tech, or even John Wall at Kentucky? Give me a break. Those guys didn’t need college basketball, any more than I need another angry phone call from my credit card company. At the same time, there’s no doubt that college basketball sure did enjoy having them.
However if there was ever an exception to that rule, it’d be Anthony Davis. Not only has college basketball been better because of his presence, but unlike so many one-and-dones before him, he has used college basketball to his full advantage too. Frankly, I can’t ever remember a player who was a presumed lottery pick before his freshman year, growing more in his year on campus than Davis has.
Please, just go ahead and trust me on this one. I saw the Davis in person in November, and comparing him then to where he is now, would be like comparing Jennifer Anniston’s career before she did Friends to where she is at in 2012. Ultimately, it’s not even worth wasting your breath. There’s no comparison at all.
Now please don’t get me wrong; even back in November, it was easy to see what all the fuss was about. All the athletic tools that we’ve grown to appreciate were on full display that afternoon, with basketball potential practically dripping from Davis’ pores. You knew at some point it would all come together, but at the same time, you weren’t totally sure if it'd happen at Kentucky, or later on in his NBA career. The fundamentals weren’t totally there, and at the time he was getting by on instinct and insane athleticism, much more so than confidence and the muscle memory of being a seven-footer. Then again, it’s hard to blame him. After all, at that point he’d been a seven-footer for what, less than two full years?
Of course that was November, and it’s now February, and watching Davis the last few games (including, again seeing him in person three weeks ago) is to see and appreciate how much he’s developed and how much he’s grown. Not to mention how, unlike Durant, Rose and Beasley, how valuable the college basketball experience really has been for him.
On offense the guy who seemed lost back in November (again, you can’t blame him), now goes into the low post, and takes his position in the paint with confidence. On defense, well, he’s blocking more shots, against better competition, but also doing it not only on instinct (although it’s still there), but also because he knows exactly where he’s supposed to be on every single defensive position. And oh, by the way, Davis also still runs the floor like a gazelle, and isn’t afraid to handle the ball in a pinch or shoot the occasional jumper or two. After all, a leopard can’t change its spots, and even at 6’11, you know Davis still has a little “guard” in him that’s just itching to come out.
Really though, what’s been more impressive than Davis’ on the court play to me, is how he’s developed off the court too.
I know I’ve written about this before, but above all, guys like Davis are why I love college sports so much. For all the crap that college sports provides, all the scandals, all those moments when you sit there and say, “Is this all really worth my time,” you forget (or at least I do), that the real value in college is everything that happens away from the court (and field).
Understand that college isn’t about basketball. It's about being away from home for the first time, learning how to deal with new people and circumstances, about becoming a man. Sometimes you see that manifest itself in just one year (the development of DeMarcus Cousins in six months at Kentucky was simply stunning), and sometimes it takes closer to five (it took that long for A.J. Price to totally figure that out, but to his credit, he did eventually figure it out. He’s one of my favorite UConn players ever because it). But it does happen, and it really is the greatest thing a college experience can do for a young person. Heck, even someone like Kevin Durant, who got little from a basketball sense at Texas, has repeatedly said how important his year in Austin was from a social standpoint. Had he not gone to college, Durant has admitted publicly that he would’ve spent his entire rookie year in a hotel playing Xbox. Instead, he has blossomed into one of the best young leaders in the sport.
Davis isn’t quite there yet, but from a social sense, it’s been hard not to notice his development too.
After Kentucky’s win Saturday night against Vandy, I couldn’t help but notice …well, to be blunt, how “cool” Davis was in the postgame interview with Erin Andrews. Understand that as recently as a few months ago, there were a lot of ways you could’ve described Davis: Imposing, timid, shy, you name it. But “cool” was not one of them. At the time, Davis was about as cool as one of Kevin Stallings’ suits.
Except there he was Saturday night, in front of the camera, noticeably different. For the first time that I personally have noticed, he seemed completely and totally comfortable in his own skin. Off the court it seems like Anthony Davis has developed as much as he has on the court too.
And while there are still a lot of games left to be played, I suspect that when I look back on the 2012 college basketball season, what I will remember above everything else is the evolution of Anthony Davis. I’ll remember the evolution from freak athlete to more complete basketball player. From shy teen to cool cat. From boy to man. And I’ll remember him as quite possibly the perfect one-and-done player, a guy who benefitted in every way possible from his one year in college basketball.
I’ve been watching college basketball my whole life, and can honestly say that I’ve never seen a player quite like Anthony Davis.
I’ve never seen a story quite like his either.
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