The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 players under the age of 25.
Last year, in his fifth season, Anthony Davis changed the course of his entire career, staying healthy for 75 games, returning to All-NBA form following a down 2015-16 and being rewarded by the Pelicans’ front office with his best-ever teammate, DeMarcus Cousins.
What that somehow became for Davis, all summer long and through no fault of his own, was far-fetched trade rumors and frustrating under-reactions. Despite being legitimately one of the best players in the NBA, and consistently impacting the game on both ends, he’s mostly only discussed in the context of disappointment — the level his teams ought to have reached or the other rosters on which he might better fit.
Underneath all that is a player who is unequivocally super: simultaneously an elite isolation scorer and rim protector. Davis is a bridge between Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo; he is perhaps the league’s least-appreciated unicorn.
He’s played his cards as well as any young All-Star whose career has underwhelmed. He has stayed loyal to his franchise, signing an extension before the last year of his rookie deal and publicly supporting his players and coaches. More importantly, he has improved every season, developing his shot on offense and becoming more physical and versatile on defense.
The Pelicans may not always have set him up for success as well as other great young players, but that hasn’t been for a lack of activity. They have cycled through upside role players like Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo in an effort to stay competitive despite a tight, small-market budget. And this year, the hyperactivity has blessed the team with Cousins, who changes everything.
Funnily, the presence of the bruising former King will also alter the perception of Davis around the league. It has postponed the timeline of Davis’s availability via trade for at least one season, with the understanding that New Orleans is locked into at least one season of this experiment. It has given coach Alvin Gentry’s team a double-big, all-defense identity to lean on, solving what may have been the biggest problem of all during the beginning of Davis’s career.
Without an organizational identity, the pressure fell on a star like Davis to become the team’s everything. But one player cannot make a team; rather the best players are made by their teams. Now, Davis will count on Cousins, Holiday and recent additions Rajon Rondo and E’Twaun Moore to carry New Orleans to their first playoff appearance since a 2015 sweep at the hands of the Warriors. Fair or not, Davis will be judged on the standard set by an increased level of talent surrounding him.
The offense will change with Rondo and Cousins soaking up so many minutes. Davis posted an effective field goal percentage of 58 last year when he touched the ball for less than two seconds prior to shooting. One would assume there will be more of that next year, with the two former Kings teammates taking on most of the ball-handling duties in the starting unit.
Davis has always excelled picking his spots and making the most of his shots — he’s dipped below 50 percent from the field just once in his career. Expect to see more of Davis running through screens and pulling up from the elbow when Cousins is on the court. He’ll be used less like a traditional big the more comfortable he gets. It’s a great opportunity to show just how freakish he is.
When Anthony Davis came into the league, it looked as if he might set it on fire. There has been a delay on that arson job, but last year was the closest he’s come to showing up like a true superstar. The 2016-17 All-Star MVP and All-NBA first-teamer is on the track to complete domination right as he enters his prime.
There remains no player in the league with the combination of talent and youth that Davis possesses, regardless of his ranking on this list. We’ve forgotten Davis a little bit. Sure he plays in New Orleans on a disappointing team, but we’d be mistaken to let that color our perception of the kind of generation-defining talent that he has.
There’s a whole lot going on in New Orleans to be interested in — let’s maybe stop talking about Davis as the next Celtics trade target and more as the Pelicans’ incredible centerpiece.
Like everyone on this list, Davis is not yet 25 years old. He’s due to peak one or two more times before all is said and done. He’s one of the only real two-way stars in the entire NBA. He is armed with his best teammate ever and a franchise that is all in on this season. It’s gonna be so fun to watch this play out.