Night Line: Player of the Year Award is Anthony Davis’ To LosePosted by EJacoby on February 8th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
On Tuesday night, the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats continued its run of complete domination in SEC play, defeating No. 8 Florida by the score of 78-58 at Rupp Arena in a game that was never in doubt after about 12 minutes. The game featured another commanding performance by Anthony Davis, who tallied 16 points, six rebounds, four blocks, and two steals and, as usual, essentially eliminated any Gator offense at the rim. The freshman center not only dazzles fans with his spectacular dunks and blocks, but he’s become the pre-eminent defensive force in college basketball that truly alters the strategy of opposing offenses during every game. He’s also displayed impressive offensive efficiency to become a perfect fit on both ends of the floor. At 14.0 points, 10.0 rebounds (second in the SEC), 1.5 steals (eighth in the conference), and 4.8 blocks per game (leads the nation), and as the best player on the top team in America, it’s safe to say that Davis is now the front-runner for National Player of the Year.
In addition to his impressive per-game averages, Davis has an incredible efficiency to his game that is visible to everyone watching as well as all the statistics gurus that measure these kinds of things. Davis’ offensive rating of 137.8, which measures the amount of points a player would produce per 100 possessions, is the second-best number of any player in the country. This essentially means that every time a Kentucky possession features Davis making a play (either shooting or off the first pass), it’s wildly successful. Of course, this also plays out like that because he is so infrequently used in the offense. His shot percentage of 18.2% doesn’t even crack the top 50 of SEC players. But he’s nearly unstoppable on lobs and putbacks, and UK has used him perfectly for maximum effectiveness in these areas. You also must give Davis the credit for not forcing his offense and looking for easy baskets, as his 66.3% field-goal percentage and 61.0% free throw rate are both tops in the conference. His 70% free throw percentage is also solid for a player his size (6’11”) and will only get better as he improves the fundamentals of his shot. Those were just his offensive numbers; we don’t even need to break down his defense for you. At 4.8 blocks per game, he’s the most dominant college defender we’ve seen in years, and it takes just five minutes of watching UK play to understand how great his impact is on that end of the floor.
Breaking down a player’s prospects to win an award obviously starts by looking at his competition. Doug McDermott has been a popular Player of the Year pick. He averages 23.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game for a top-20 team, but his Creighton squad has dropped two straight contests and the mid-major star is quickly losing his buzz. Jared Sullinger has been in the mix since day one, but he hasn’t been nearly dominant enough offensively to make up for his defensive weaknesses that are consistently exploited. Davis’ best competition is found in Thomas Robinson of Kansas, who averages 18.0 points (second in the Big 12), 12.0 rebounds (second in the nation), 1.2 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game on 54.8% field-goal shooting as perhaps the most physically imposing interior scorer in college basketball. But he doesn’t pose anywhere near the same kind of defensive threat as Davis, and his Jayhawks also have yet to play some of their most difficult games of the season. Kansas already dropped its two previous tough road games, at Missouri and Iowa State, and his team needs to come out with a win at Baylor or Kansas State to truly state a compelling case for Player of the Year. There are some other candidates, including fellow UK freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but much of his added value to the team is noted in immeasurable ways; something that predictive college analysts and NBA scouts can see, but not something that will win Player of the Year votes.
There’s no shortage of media hype for Anthony Davis, which will most certainly help his cause to win the award. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale showed quite a bit of love for Davis during Tuesday’s telecast, at one point predicting that he will become the first ever Freshman of the Year, SEC Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and National Player of the Year in the same season, and that he’d then have a chance to become the Final Four MVP for the National Championship team. This came after he yelled for sideline reporter Shannon Spake to retrieve him a copy of the poster that was handed out to the Kentucky crowd, one that displayed Davis’s massive wingspan in a reproduction of the classic Michael Jordan Nike ‘wings’ poster from 1989. It is possible to hype up Davis’ candidacy for Player of the Year without comparing him to the greatest basketball player of all time or claiming he could set unprecedented NCAA records, but sometimes the media (especially ESPN, and especially in Kentucky) has a hard time keeping that in perspective. That’s why we’re here.
Davis still has much to prove, even for the rest of this season, and even more to pull away for the National Player of the Year (NPOY). Kentucky is yet to play any of its top SEC competitors on the road, which are the environments that will be the truest tests of a NPOY-caliber player. While John Calipari’s team certainly looks like the best team in the land right now, let’s not forget how difficult it is to win in places like Starkville, Nashville or Gainesville. If Davis can dominate at Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Florida, there’s no question that we’re looking at the NPOY front-runner. Even if he doesn’t dominate, he’s a near lock to alter the course of the game defensively and that won’t go unnoticed by those pundits who are tasked with evaluating his impact on the game. Expect some more trying times for the freshman than most analysts suggest, but also expect him to be effective and have an impact when he’s not filling up the stat sheet. That along with more wins signals a strong National Player of the Year candidate. At least for now in early February, no conversation about the award can begin without mentioning the Lexington freshman’s name first.