Anthony Davis will never forget the day he realized his life had been changed forever.
It was 2009, the summer before his junior season at Chicago’s Perspectives Charter School. Davis had kept a low profile and hadn’t even seen Cortez Hale, his coach at Perspectives, for several weeks, until a chance meeting at a summer league game. Hale went slack-jawed at what he saw: the player who finished his sophomore season as a 6-foot-2 guard had shot up to about 6-7.
“I said, ‘Anthony, what happened?’ ” Hale said, laughing at the recollection. “He said, ‘I don’t know coach. I just woke up.’ And I said, ‘OK, go back to sleep and wake up again. Hopefully you’ll grow some more.’ ”
Davis did grow more, to 6-10. The guard who could shoot well enough to possibly merit mid-major Division I scholarship consideration was about to become the hottest college prospect in the country, recast as a new-age big man who could perform the requisite blue-collar low-post tasks while retaining the skills of a guard.
Those kinds of players aren’t exactly hanging out on every street corner.
Suffice it to say, the rapid growth spurt took Davis by surprise. His parents are taller than average, and one of Davis’ cousins is 6-8, but there wasn’t much evidence to suggest he would become so tall so quickly. His coach’s initial reaction upon seeing the dramatic change foretold of a future where Davis would no longer have to worry about attracting the attention of college coaches. No, they would find him, all because his growth plates had shifted into overdrive.
“It came out of nowhere,” Davis said. “No one was really sure where it came from.”
Eventually, Davis decided, his rapid rise had divine origins.
“I think God just blessed me,” Davis said. “It was a gift that I’m still trying to take advantage of. I’m just glad it happened to me.”
So is Kentucky coach John Calipari and a legion of Wildcats fans around the world. Just 19 games into his freshman season, Davis has already etched his name into the record books of the winningest program in college basketball history, and he’s far from finished.
On Jan. 17 against Arkansas, Davis became Kentucky’s all-time single-season shot blocker, erasing the record of 83 set first by Melvin Turpin in 1982-83 and later matched by Andre Riddick in 1993-94. Turpin needed 31 games to get to those 83 rejections, and Riddick played in 34.
With 89 blocks, Davis is now taking aim at the Southeastern Conference record of 170, accomplished twice by Mississippi State’s Jarvis Varnado, the NCAA’s all-time leader (564), in 2009 and 2010. The single-season NCAA record of 207 set by Navy’s David Robinson in 1986 appears safe for now, but those who know Davis’ game best wouldn’t put it past him.
When Calipari talks about Davis’ defensive prowess, he immediately conjures up a name from his past—former UMass star Marcus Camby, the consensus national player of the year in 1995-96.
“[Davis] goes after balls,” Calipari said. “The best shot blockers I have seen are the ones that let people release the ball and then go get it, and that’s what he does. Marcus Camby, when I had him, that’s exactly what he did; he never blocked it in the guy’s hand, he just stayed down and waited for him to release it.
“[Camby and Davis] also block more shots away from their own man. [Davis] adds a dimension to our team that makes us pretty good. You don’t get layups that you think you have.”
Given his innate sense of timing, leaping ability, Plastic Man dimensions that includes a 7-3 wingspan and surprising strength, Davis’ intimidation factor is high, as Arkansas found out. Davis blocked seven of the Razorbacks’ shots and altered a few more.
“Looking at him on TV, he’s really tall and lanky and you don’t think he’d be that physical, but actually that guy is pretty physical,” said Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade. “He gets in there; he’s relentless. You hit him one time, and he’s just going to go back into you again. He gives a second and third effort.
“He’s always on the move. He’s always on attack. I went down there one time, and he just told his guys, ‘Just bring him in here, I’m going to block everything.’ ”
If blocking shots were all Davis could do, he would still be one of the most impactful players—freshman or otherwise—in college basketball and a certain choice as the nation’s defensive player of the year. But Davis is much more than that. He’s a triple-double waiting to happen and far more accomplished an offensive player than anyone outside the program might imagine.
Sure, Davis is a dunking machine (a team-high 56 so far) who gets a lot of his points off pick-and-rolls—a new wrinkle Calipari installed in his offense just to take advantage of Davis—and dribble hand-offs. But perceptive fans may already have noticed that Davis is starting to expand his offensive repertoire. It wasn’t all that long ago that Davis was hoisting 3-pointers when his role—and size—were much different. But he hasn’t forgotten how to shoot them.
Hale knows what Davis can do, and he looks forward to the day when the big man can showcase all the tools on his belt.
“I already knew he was going to exceed all the expectations people set out for him,” Hale said. “But there’s a lot more he can do. I can’t wait.”
That’s a scary thought for Kentucky opponents. What else can Davis possibly do that he hasn’t already shown?
“I’m still waiting on him to take it coast to coast,” Hale said. “Get the rebound and take it the length of the court. He can take his man off the dribble a little bit more and take it to the hole.
“I’m also waiting on him to shoot it a little bit more. The last couple of games he’s starting to shoot more outside of 15 feet. He’s also a great passer at 6-10. He’s shown it a little bit. But it’s crazy how good he is.”
Davis, content to let the game come to him within the framework of Calipari’s offense, has no problem with how he’s being utilized, and in fact doesn’t care all that much about scoring. “Points don’t matter much to me,” he said. “Winning does.”
Hale recalls having to beg Davis to shoot more. And Calipari has been more than encouraging.
“If I’m open for a shot, [Calipari] definitely tells me to take it: Don’t look to pass, look to score,” Davis said. “He lets me shoot the ball and lets me play.”
Davis has racked up impressive numbers so far. He’s averaging a double-double (13.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and has flirted several times with a triple-double: 15 points, 15 rebounds, eight blocked shots against St. John’s, 18, 10 and six against Louisville, 12, 10 and seven against South Carolina, and his career performance to date: 27, 14 and seven against Arkansas.
A triple-double is coming, probably sooner rather than later. Oddly, that feat has been rare in Kentucky’s recorded history; only Chris Mills has done it, all the way back in the 1988-89 season.
In recent weeks, Davis and fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seem to have taken ownership of the No. 2-ranked team in the country, not by any conscious effort but because they’re both so good. Their ascension has come naturally.
“He’s coming along faster than I expected,” Calipari said. [Because] he listens. He has let us present him instead of trying to show himself. Instead of trying to do everything, he just looks at me and asks how we want him to play.
“He’s [Kentucky’s] leading rebounder and shot blocker, and the other guys want to shoot the ball and he doesn’t say a thing; that’s probably why we are where we are.”
As modest and unassuming as he is within a team framework, Davis, who knows what he’s capable of better than anyone, nevertheless knows he’s making strides. Rapid strides.
“I feel myself getting better and better after every game,” Davis said. “Coach Cal gave me the challenge, and I accept the challenge. I just go out there and play hard and have fun. But I know I’m getting better.”