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Premature adulation: Should we even ask if Anthony Davis will fit the "Bill"?

After reading Times-Picayune sports writer Jeff Duncan’s June 28 column on the NBA draft, only one question remained on my mind: “Who the blazes compared Anthony Davis to Bill Russell?!”

As you’re probably aware, the New Orleans Hornets selected Davis with their top pick in the recent draft. And for good reason. The University of Kentucky forward had just led his team to a national championship (in the Superdome) and was the consensus number one collegiate prospect in a 2012 class bursting with basketball talent.

Still, you can’t compare a teenager who’s played a year of college ball to Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics center who captured eleven NBA championships in thirteen years. In my book, that’s like comparing your favorite college slugger to Babe Ruth– utter folly.

These days, the term “game changer” has been terribly diminished from overuse. But Ruth and Russell truly were game changers. They were far ahead of their times and actually re-invented their respective sports. Ruth’s offense permanently changed baseball, and Russell’s defense permanently changed basketball. Neither sport would ever be the same after those legends-in-the-making arrived on the scene.

So you can imagine my shock when I read the following sentence in Duncan’s column:

Depending on who you talk to, [Davis is] the next Bill Russell, Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan.

Don’t get me wrong. Garnett and Duncan are great NBA champions. They’re certain Hall of Famers. Personally, I wouldn’t put either in Russell’s elite stratosphere, but I can tolerate others doing so. Adding Davis to that elite mix, though, is too much. He hasn’t even played in an NBA game yet. Simply put, the young guy is unproven at the professional level. Who knows how his career will turn out? Perhaps he’ll become an All-Star like everyone expects, or perhaps he’ll fail to live up to the hype.

In our excitement over the Hornets’ promising draftees, we seem to forget that there’s a long list of “Sure Things” who never panned out in the NBA. It’s unfair to Davis (or any 19-year old, for that matter) to mention his name alongside the likes of Russell.

So what numbskull made that absurd comparison, anyway?

None other than Louisville coach Rick Pitino, after his Cardinals team lost to the Kentucky Wildcats in the semifinal game of the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament. Heaping praise on his rival, Pitino remarked:

I will say this, that Anthony Davis is as fine a basketball player as there is…The [difference] between our team and their team, quite frankly…Anthony Davis is the No. 1 player picked in the draft. When you’re playing against Bill Russell at the pro level, you realize why the Celtics won 11 World Championships. When you see this young man at the collegiate level, you realize why they’re so good. Not that their other players aren’t, but he’s so much of a factor.

Wow! Those are some strong superlatives, considering the source. Remember, Pitino was head coach of the Boston Celtics in 1997, and was counting on winning the draft lottery that year so he could select Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest. Despite the Celtics having the best odds, the San Antonio Spurs won the first pick. Even so, Pitino quickly made generous, over-the-top overtures to the Spurs for their pick. Players, multiple draft picks, money…He practically begged them for Duncan, so smitten was he with the skilled forward. His blatant desperation was embarrassing to Celtics fans.

The Spurs declined Pitino’s offers and, sure enough, Duncan turned out as good as Pitino expected and went on to win four NBA titles (so far). Duncan is now widely regarded as the best power forward in NBA history (displacing Louisiana native Karl Malone).

Pitino had little success in Boston without Duncan, and returned to coach college ball in Louisville.

So it’s not like some inexperienced piker from a message board compared Davis to (Louisiana native) Bill Russell. Pitino knows what he’s talking about. He’s a keen assessor of talent, and this year he personally witnessed Davis dominate the NCAA championship tournament.

For me, the following ESPN statistic really puts Davis’ tourney achievements in historical perspective:

Anthony Davis blocked or altered 18.2 percent of opponents’ 2-point field goal attempts during the Men’s Basketball Championship, including 15.7 percent against Kansas in the championship game. Davis finished tied with Joakim Noah (2006) for the second-most blocks (29) in a single tournament and had an additional 28 altered shots.

Whoah. He affected nearly one in every five shots the other team took from inside the three-point arc. That’s mind-bending. And as Pitino well knows, a talented shot-blocker affects the game in ways that a box score can’t quantify. Just the threat of a block messes with an opponent’s psyche. Rattled players lose concentration and rush the timing of their shots. Thus, they miss shots they’re accustomed to making, and turn the ball over more than usual. That leads to fast-break buckets for the other team, and scoring surges.

Shot-blocking and rebounding were Russell’s strong-suit, as well. But Russell took it much further and used those skills to psychologically dominate his opponents and gain subtle but important advantages for his team. It remains to be seen whether Davis can elevate his game to such high levels. However, I do know this: Pitino wouldn’t have compared Davis to Russell if he hadn’t sensed vast potential. After all, Pitino’s from the Northeast. He saw Russell play in the sixties, and he’s a former Celtics head coach. His comparison carries weight.

Here, I almost sound like I’m starting to believe all the Davis over-hype, despite myself.

Not quite, though, because I remember the coda to the 1997 Pitino story.

One of the reasons Pitino’s Celtics were so eager to improve their front-court in 1997 was because their current Center/Forward, “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison, was ineffective. Actually, ineffective is being charitable. Clownish would more aptly describe Ellison in the late nineties. In 1996 he broke his toe while moving furniture, and was hobbled for the next three(!) seasons. And when he was healthy enough to play, he added nothing to the team.

Yet, back in 1989, Ellison was the number one pick in the NBA draft. Pundits were over the moon for him, and proclaimed him to be a “once in a lifetime” type talent. As a teenage freshman he guided the Louisville Cardinals to a national championship. No one knew it then, but that was the apex of his basketball career. In the NBA, he was plagued with injuries and fell far short of everyone’s expectations.

So with that in mind let’s remember that Davis (who is currently nursing an ankle sprain) is an unproven commodity. His stock is high, but it’s not much higher than Ellison’s back in 1989. Davis may, under coach Monty Williams’ tutelage, evolve into a superb professional basketball player.  Heck, I suppose there’s even an infinitesimal chance that he actually becomes the next Bill Russell. But right now, he’s only a teenager burdened with expectations, and the NBA is full of examples of wasted potential (and, to be fair, many amazing overachievers).

Notwithstanding Pitino’s expert assessment, I think we should cut Davis some slack with the comparisons. When it comes to a young player’s future greatness, I’ve learned that nothing is ever guaranteed.

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  • joejoejoe

    As Louisville coach it is Pitino’s self-interest to build up the star of the Kentucky team that just beat him so take the Davis assessment with a grain of salt.

    The Duncan-Russell comparison was more credible because as both GM and Coach of the Celtics, Pitino bet part of his personal career on Boston winning Duncan in the lottery (they had the best chance at 36%). Instead he got two picks in a soft draft (one of which he got right in Billups, only to give up on him almost immediately) and ended up washing out of the NBA with nothing but a fat wallet and some .400 basketball on his resume.

  • John Fitzgerald

    Thanks for being my new local news home. Now about the Anthony Davis hype. Are there no other Hornets fans who remember the Baron Davis hype and how that one turned out? No one player can pull a team into contention. Hornets have weakness from the front office to the last reserve. I welcome the new Davis and look forward to a good season, but let’s be patient and build up every element of the organization.