Sometimes you see it in his face. Sometimes it’s his body language.
Anthony Davis’ Pelicans are 0-4. He’s drawing more defensive attention than ever and struggling to put the ball in the basket. And there are times when it weighs on him.
“I’m always frustrated,” Davis said. “I just want to be the best I can be, help the team win. I feel like I’m not doing that right now. So I’m frustrated. All that frustration is on me.”
It hasn’t helped Davis that the Pelicans have been hit with a rash of injuries. Three potential starters — center Omer Asik, guard Tyreke Evans and forward Quincy Pondexter — are sidelined, and Evans and Pondexter have yet to play a game. Reserve point guard Norris Cole and backup center Kendrick Perkins also are dealing with injuries.
But it’s also hurt Davis that, while he tries to learn a new offensive system under first-year Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, he’s being blanketed by two or more defenders almost every time he touches the ball.
When the Pelicans took on the Golden State this season, New Orleans point guard Jrue Holiday said, the Warriors guarded Davis with forward Draymond Green, with guard Klay Thompson helping from one side and a third player coming to trap Davis from the baseline.
Even as he averaged 24.4 points per game last season, Davis said, he didn’t draw this much defensive attention.
“Guys didn’t really double team last year like that, except for a couple of teams,” Davis said. “Now it’s, ‘We just want to get the ball out his hands.’ It’s tough, and you get frustrated easy because you don’t get a rhythm. But you got to find other ways to try to score the ball or help the team win.”
Davis still is putting up numbers: He and DeMarcus Cousins are the only NBA players averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. But Davis admits it’s been a challenge finding a fit offensively, not only against new-look defenses, but in a new offensive system.
“Still trying to figure out where I want to score the ball in the offense, where I like to score the ball, what moves to make in the offense in certain sets that we run,” Davis said. “It’s all new, and we’re still trying to figure it out.”
It’s been a struggle at times.
Last season, Davis’ bread-and-butter was as the roll man in pick-and-roll plays. He would set a screen, then dive to the basket to receive a pass.
This season, Davis is in pick-and-rolls just as frequently — he’s the roll man on 24.5 percent of his offensive possessions, the same number as last season — but far less efficiently.
The Pelicans scored 1.1 points per possession with Davis in pick-and-roll last season, according to Synergy Sports Tech. This season that number is down to 0.9. Last season, New Orleans produced at least one point on 58.6 percent of possessions when Davis was in pick-and-roll. That number has fallen to 39.1 percent this season.
Some of that is the defensive crowd around Davis. The Pelicans are committing turnovers on 8.7 percent of Davis’ pick-and-roll possessions, up from 5.5 percent last season. Some of it is Davis and the Pelicans adjusting to a new style of offense.
Whereas the Pelicans last season ran mostly set plays, Gentry’s up-tempo system is based on pace — getting the ball up the floor quickly and taking the first open shot — and space, meaning players should be spread out across the court, moving the ball and forcing the defense to scramble. The offense reads the defense and makes a play based on what it sees.
In the Pelicans’ system, Holiday said, an offensive player being just two steps out of position makes life easier on a defense. When a defender is helping on Davis, the other Pelicans should be far enough away from him that a pass out of a double-team either creates an open shot or forces the help defender to chase the ball, creating space for Davis.
“In my opinion, for Anthony, we just need better spacing,” forward Ryan Anderson said. “I just remember he’s so good when he works himself at the top of the key and he has so much space to work. No one can guard him. Or in the post, we need to move around him. We need to give him space.”
But if the Pelicans are counting on space alone to get Davis going, they’re likely out of luck.
“It’s gonna be crowds around him regardless,” Gentry said. “We can space the floor out or we can step out of bounds and it doesn’t matter. They’re gonna have crowds around him because their whole deal is to not to let our best player beat them.”
So the key, Gentry said — and Davis agreed — is for Davis to make the right read and pass out of the traps that are thrown his way. Once he does, the other Pelicans have to make open shots, and that’s been a challenge. New Orleans was 18-for-50 on uncontested shots in Tuesday’s loss to Orlando.
“We’ve missed a lot of open shots that we’re gonna have to knock down in order to have the defense change what they’re doing,” Gentry said. “Let’s not kid ourselves – most of the teams we play are gonna try to put us in a situation where we got to beat them by shooting perimeter shots.”
Davis, too, has struggled to make open shots when they’ve come his way.
Last season, Davis made 49.4 percent of his shots when he was open (meaning the nearest defender was between 2 and 4 feet away), and 54.6 percent when the he was wide open (6 or more feet away). He’s shooting 57.1 percent on wide-open shots this season, but just 27.8 percent on open shots.
And where last season Davis hit 41.5 percent of his shots from inside the paint but outside the restricted area under the basket, he’s making just 22.2 percent of those shots this season.
Some of Davis’ struggles might boil down to personnel. Gentry said, “Some of the other guys that can help him are not healthy yet.” And Evans assisted on a team-high 167 of Davis’ baskets last season.
But it’s also a matter of Davis settling into a new system and adjusting to what defenses are throwing at him. Though he admits frustration, he’s confident he’ll settle in eventually.
“I feel very comfortable,” Davis said. “I just got to make shots. It’s tough when they’re sending two or three guys as soon as you catch the ball. You try to make a move, there’s a guy right there. You just got to find the right man (to pass to) and hopefully it opens up eventually.”