Some sports moments are special not just because of the excellence they carry, but because you know that a sport is evolving before your very eyes.
What Anthony Davis did on Sunday afternoon inside The Palace of Auburn Hills rates as that kind of moment in the life of professional basketball.
If the Golden State Warriors are revolutionizing the way the NBA operates as a whole — embracing the three-point shot in ways that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson never imagined in the 1980s — Anthony Davis is transforming the way big-man basketball is played.
We could look back in 10 years and remember the day we first saw the future: February 21, 2016.
59 and 20.
This is a moment to remember for one of the game’s most luminous talents… who is not yet 23 years old.
The month of February has been kind to Davis. The third-year star for the New Orleans Pelicans is averaging 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 2 assists in 36 minutes per game this month. He is also shooting 53.2 percent from the field. Davis also had an amazing All-Star Game, in which he threw down highlight-reel dunks and scored 24 points in 15 minutes.
The feel-good vibes of the All-Star Game carried over to the Pelicans’ first game after the break against Jahlil Okafor and the Philadelphia 76ers. Davis showed the Sixers why he is one of the game’s dominant big men, scoring 34 points in 38 minutes, while converting 16-of-20 shots from the free throw line to lead New Orleans to a 121-114 victory.
If Friday night was the appetizer for Davis’ second half of the season, Sunday afternoon was the main course.
Davis dominated the Detroit Pistons to the tune of a career-high 59 points, on 24-of-34 from the field, leading the Pelicans to their second straight victory. In the process of scoring a NBA-high 59 points, he also grabbed 20 rebounds.
Against the Pistons, Davis proved to the NBA that the center position is not dead; he showed that it is being revolutionized. We all have seen what the Golden State Warriors have done by playing small, featuring Draymond Green at the 5. It’s a deadly lineup that most teams cannot match because they play with a traditional center. Saturday night, the Los Angeles Clippers were the latest team which failed to take advantage of the matchup between their traditional big man — DeAndre Jordan — and Green, who remains a constant puzzle to the Warriors’ opponents. In that sense, the center position is being redefined. However, that’s a team-concept version of how to re-imagine the 5 in the modern NBA.
Under Draymond Green’s former assistant coach, Alvin Gentry, we’re seeing the center position undergo a transformation in a more individual way.
Davis was unfazed by any of the defensive looks thrown at him by Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy on Sunday. Aron Baynes, who is 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds, was entirely uncomfortable against Davis, who used his quickness, height and scoring ability to make Baynes defend farther away from the basket. Continuously throughout the game, Davis took Baynes off the dribble, hitting him with the jab step and knocking down mid-range jump shots with ease.
After Baynes could not slow down Davis, Van Gundy decided to put Marcus Morris on him because he is quicker than Baynes and can defend better on the perimeter. Davis promptly took Morris down to the low post and went to work. He used his height to make life hard for Morris, creating a mismatch for Detroit by playing over the top of a smaller man. Yet, while Davis is longer than Morris, he was still quicker in getting to various spots on the floor. In the third quarter, when the Pelicans ran the pick and roll, Tobias Harris and Morris were left scrambling to get back to defend Davis as he drilled a three-pointer to put New Orleans up 69-66.
Finally, when All-Star center Andre Drummond had the tough task of defending Davis, it did not go so well — Davis took advantage of him, too. Just like Baynes, Morris, and the previously unmentioned Anthony Tolliver, Drummond couldn’t keep up with Davis’s quickness. With 3:18 left in the fourth quarter, Davis set a pick for point guard Jrue Holiday. Davis rolled to the basket and left Drummond in the dust.
To cement his 59-point performance, Davis had Drummond one-on-one and knocked down a fadeaway jumper.
What Davis did on Sunday afternoon was nothing less than historic for a player his age and size.
As Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver points out, Davis’ stat line is on the level same with Shaquille O’Neal, but they are two different types of centers. O’Neal used his brute force and strength in the paint, while Davis is more of a finesse player in the paint, using his quickness and playmaking ability.
Anthony Davis finishes w/ 59 points & 20 rebounds. Last player with 59/20: Shaquille O'Neal w/ 61 & 23 for Lakers vs. Clippers on 3/6/2000.
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) February 21, 2016
We’ve seen another center hit 50 points this season: Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins scored 56 points, shot 21-of-30 from the field, and grabbed 12 rebounds in a loss versus the Charlotte Hornets on Jan. 25. Cousins was 9-of-12 on shots between 3-10 feet. On jump shots, he was 7-of-13 from the field, shooting 53.8 percent. This shows that the center position is evolving from more of a back to the basket game to a face-up game in which perimeter jumpers are a regular, even efficient, part of the overall skill set.
It will be interesting to see how Davis follows up this 59-point performance on Tuesday night against the Washington Wizards. Currently, the Pelicans are 22-33 but only 5.5 games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. For New Orleans to make a serious playoff push, Davis needs to continue to revolutionize the center position and prove that the position isn’t dead yet, despite what the Warriors show us on a nightly basis.