Anthony Davis third in NBA’s Most Improved Player Award _lowres

Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH The Pelicans' Anthony Davis attempts a shot against Sacramento on March 31 in the Smoothie King Center.

DENVER — Brian Shaw first watched Anthony Davis play two years ago and came away impressed.

Davis was a freshman at Kentucky, and Shaw, then an assistant with the Indiana Pacers, went to Lexington to see the phenom during the NBA lockout. What he saw was a great ballhandler in a 6-foot-10 frame, a skill often overlooked in favor of Davis’ other assets.

Not Shaw, in his first year as the Denver Nuggets coach.

“Calipari was telling us when he was in high school he pretty much played point guard and then he grew,” Shaw said, referring to Kentucky coach John Calipari. “You can see he has those kinds of skills, those kinds of instincts, even from the power forward position. The touch he has shown on his jump shot, leading the league in shot blocking at such a young age, it is kind of surprising.”

What may be more surprising is Davis’ leap from rookie to second year. The New Orleans Pelicans’ young star is averaging 21.3 points and 10.3 rebounds a game, both are significant improvements over last year, when he averaged 13.5 and 8.2.

The fact every night he is the focus of the opponent’s game plan makes those numbers more impressive and a real candidate for the NBA Most Improved Player award.

“If you base it on where he was last year, who’s made a bigger stride in the NBA other than Anthony Davis? To go from where he was at to an elite level, there’s nobody in the league that’s done that,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “I don’t know why there’s even a question about who’s going to get the most improved player this year. I think he kind of defines it based on how much he’s grown as a player and a leader for our team.”

There’s no need to convince Shaw, who watched Davis tear up his team for 32 points and 17 rebounds in a 111-107 New Orleans win March 9.

Shaw pointed out that many players tend to slip in their second year because teams have more information on them. Davis has bucked that trend.

“The second year, I think it’s a little bit tougher,” Shaw said. “For Anthony, I think it’s a credit to him to be able to improve to the level that he’s playing right now as fast as he is, especially on a young team where he is the focal point and teams are game planning for him every night.”

Davis, who missed one game after spraining his ankle against Utah on Friday, returned to score 22 points in a loss to Sacramento on Monday. He showed some toughness after getting elbowed in the face by Kings forward Reggie Evans, a move that cost Evans $15,000.

Davis showed no ill-effects of the elbow at Wednesday’s shootaround, and received a loud ovation from the sparse crowd at Pepsi Center when he was introduced before the game

Davis’ defense was ahead of his offense when he broke into the league 18 months ago, and he is considered a stellar defender. He is averaging a league-best 2.9 blocks per game, an improvement of 1.1 over last year.

“Defensively is where he has the biggest advantage because he came in more as a defensive player,” Shaw said. “People didn’t really fear his offense, and that’s the part that has come around. Offensively is what has surprised most people around the league.”

Davis said he doesn’t think about being considered for the most improved player honor.

“As far as most improved, it’s for (the media) to decide and the basketball world,” he said. “I’m going to keep working hard and keep playing.”

Hard work is what has helped get him to this point. After helping the Wildcats win the NCAA title in his freshman year, he was on Team USA that won gold at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Playing with veterans like LeBron James helped Davis see what it takes to succeed at the next level.

“That summer he was on the U.S. team and being around those guys and seeing the kind of work ethic that they put in really helped grow his game to where it is right now,” Shaw said.

Williams doesn’t worry about Davis showing up every day. In fact, he has to force him to rest — not always successfully.

“He just works on his game. He’s diligent about that,” Williams said. “He doesn’t take a day off unless I tell him he needs to take a day and he still tries to figure out a way to get into the gym.”

As much as Davis has improved this season, next year he could be even better. The wear and tear of an 82-game schedule took its toll and he was down to 212 pounds, Williams said. He’s back up to 227 and has another summer to get stronger.

“The thing that hurt him at the end of last season, he lost 14 pounds. He was down to 212, and he was just getting hammered, so he couldn’t do the things he wanted to do,” Williams said. “He got stronger last summer. I think it’s going to take an even bigger jump this year because he doesn’t have to go back from 212. He can move forward. He’s going to get a lot stronger and his confidence is already high.”

Being the most improved player won’t impact Davis’ confidence. If he keeps working and improving like he did this year, the conversation might turn from most improved to most valuable player.