SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs’ strategy against Anthony Davis was simple: Manhandle the manchild.
One big man after another attempted to ruin Davis’ New Year’s Eve by grabbing, pushing and just being a general nuisance to the New Orleans Pelicans power forward. But San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich knew the strategy had little chance of success — since he has seen it fail himself.
For 18 seasons, Popovich has watched Spurs star Tim Duncan overcome nearly every defensive strategy thrown at him. Regarded as the greatest power forward in NBA history, Duncan continues to frustrate the opposition with his length, intelligence, competitiveness and ability to affect play on both ends of the court.
Davis is causing the same frustration — and doing so at a younger age.
“(Davis has) turned into an elite player,” Popovich said of the 21-year-old. “He came in just finding his way and wondering where he fit in. Being a guy that just kind of deferred to everybody else, respectfully waited his turn in a way. At this point, he’s in the top categories of players, somebody who has really progressed in every facet of the game at both ends of the court.”
Davis has been hailed as the “next Tim Duncan” since being drafted by New Orleans with the top pick of the 2012 draft. It’s a lofty comparison, considering Duncan is a certain Hall of Famer, but Davis’ performance through his first three seasons has done little to diminish the talk.
The 6-foot-11 Duncan averaged 23.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 0.9 steals in his first two seasons after he was the top pick in the 1997 draft. Davis averaged 24.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 1.6 steals in his first two seasons.
Through 32 games this season, the 6-10 Davis is third in the league in scoring at 24.3 points, ninth in rebounding at 10.5 and leads in blocks at 2.9.
He had 21 points, 12 rebounds and four steals in Wednesday’s game at San Antonio, slamming home a miss by Tyreke Evans to give New Orleans an 84-82 lead with 0.7 seconds remaining in regulation. But Davis could only watch as Duncan was credited with an inadvertent tip-in by Omer Asik off an inbound pass to send the game to overtime, where the Spurs prevailed 95-93.
After initially having difficulty freeing himself from the Spurs’ phyiscal play, Davis helped the Pelicans rally by going 8-of-12 from the field and 5-of-6 on free throws.
“He still played pretty well,” Duncan said. “Still made shots, still made plays. He’s having an MVP-type season. We just changed something on him. Those guys just tried to bother him as much as possible and make his life as tough as possible.”
Davis handled the roughhouse tactics calmly and patiently, another factor in the comparisons to Duncan. They display the same stoicism and selflessness on the court and are both hailed as great teammates.
“(Davis has) done it in a classy way,” Popovich said. “There’s no braggadocio about him or anything like that. He just comes and plays. He reminds me a lot of the way Timmy has approached the game his whole career.”
New Orleans coach Monty Williams, who played with San Antonio in Duncan’s rookie season, agrees with the comparison.
“They both just like to play basketball; it’s a privilege for both of them,” Williams said. “Tim, he was never one to show a lot of emotion that was fake, (and) Anthony is the same way. They both look at the game as a sanctuary. AD is one of those guys, a lot like Tim, that is always looking to make the right play, and somehow it always comes back to them. They’re great teammates, never put themselves above the team, even though they very well could.”
But while Davis and Duncan have much in common, there are also big differences between the two. Duncan entered the league after four years at Wake Forest. Davis left Kentucky after his freshman season.
“We all get smarter as we get older and appreciate things a little bit more,” Popovich said. “Talent-wise, physically, that prime is probably a little earlier than (ages 28 to 31), but he’s got nothing but great years ahead of him.”
And while Duncan played with veterans like Doc Rivers, Steve Kerr, Avery Johnson and Hall of Famer David Robinson in his first few seasons, Davis has played on a youthful roster filled with contemporaries. Williams has tried to provide that veteran presence.
“Even though I had a lot of conversations with AD about Tim, I just think that’s who he is,” Williams said. “Yet he is still, to me, blazing his own trail. People forget that AD is younger than Tim (was when he entered the NBA), so the maturity level is a bit different. AD has still got a jovial side to him; Tim was serious right out the gate — crotchety on the tough days.
“I think that’s what made him great, and I think that’s coming for AD as he continues to get better.”
How AD measures up
Comparing the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis’ statistical averages in his first two seasons in the NBA with the opening two years for some other standout big men:
Player, Team, Points, Rebounds, Blocks, Steals
Anthony Davis, New Orleans, 24.4, 10.5, 3.0, 1.6
Tim Duncan, San Antonio, 23.2, 12.4, 2.2, 0.9
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota, 18.5, 9.6, 1.8, 1.7
Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston, 23.4, 11.4, 3.4, 1.8
David Robinson, San Antonio, 23.2, 12.1, 4.5, 2.3