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Anthony Davis vs. DeMarcus Cousins: Who is the NBA’s Next Premier Big Man?

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

There is a plethora of talented big men in the league right now. “LMA or K-Love???” discussions dominate Twitterverse each time one of them has a big game, with Mavericks and Clippers fans shaming those who neglect to throw Blake Griffin’s and Dirk Nowitzki’s name into the mix. Comparisons of Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, and Tim Duncan are constantly surfacing in some form. Meanwhile, you have guys like DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis — younger and less established players — who are laying waste to the league in a million statistical categories.

We’re not paying Davis and Cousins enough attention. You can argue for an eternity about whether you prefer Love’s rebounding or Aldridge’s defensive edge, but shortly it won’t matter because those guys will have reached their ceiling. Dirk reached his ages ago, as did all the notable players at center. Blake Griffin’s ceiling may not have been reached quite yet, but his hair curls are grazing it — we have a pretty good idea about where it stops.

In every case, the output of these players is in grave danger of ultimately, if not soon, being outshined. Enter Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins: two big men with gifts that most of the league’s other elite big men just plainly don’t, and can’t possess. Here in the 2013-2014 season these gifts have started to really shine through, with neither guy showing signs of an approaching ceiling.

Between the two, who’s the NBA’s future premier big? To arrive at an answer with any sort of clarity — it’s not an easy distinction to make — we’ll need to take a good look at what Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins provide.

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Anthony Davis

Age: 20

20.1 PTS  / 10.5 TRB / 1.3 AST / 1.6 STL / 3.1 BLK / 1.8 TOV in 35.6 MPG on 57.1% TS

26.2 PER / 3.9 IPV / 1.5 NPI RAPM / -0.03 RiRAPM

Reasons for:

  • Two-way player. Anthony Davis’ presence is mostly felt on defense, largely due to his excellent mobility and shotblocking (evidenced by a huge 7 block game yesterday). But Davis is capable on both sides of the ball. All-encompassing advanced statistics speak to this: He’s 6th in the league in PER, 7th in Win Shares per 48 Minutes, and 8th in Talking Practice Blog’s IPV.
  • Excellent without the ball. Davis is a great cutter. Excellent mobility and length paired with smart timing allows him to break open during pick-and-rolls and off-ball plays, both being areas where he gets a bulk of his points (note: Pelicans guards do a terrific job of ignoring him several times a game, too). Unlike typical top-tier bigs, Davis doesn’t require the ball to be effective. He might spend more time hanging out in the elbow area than anyone else in the league — it is here where he waits idly for offensive rebound, cutting, and screen-setting opportunities.
  • Capable off the dribble. This is a luxury that not a ton of big men have. Davis has a good handle, is very agile in moving out of a facing up, and has a great knack for drawing fouls in these situations. Per mySynergySports.com, when engaged in isolation plays, Davis gets fouled an astounding 20.8% of the time. For reference, that’s 11% more frequent than Lebron James.
  • Efficient scorer. Davis takes most of his shots at the elbow or just outside the key and in the general vicinity of the hoop. Per NBA.com/Stats, his 40.4% clip from the midrange area isn’t outstanding, but it remains above average (39.3% league-wide). He shoots a solid 65% at the rim. At the line, he’s very reliable, shooting at a 76% clip. Overall, Davis is currently scoring 20.6 points a game on 57.1% True Shooting.
  • Great motor. Davis hits the glass hard, cuts with purpose, and buckles down on defense with consistency.
  • Length. Davis’ length is easily his most defining attribute. On defense, an unimaginable 7’5.5” wingspan allows him to bother the handle and shots of guards and bigs alike. He often gets his hands on rebounds he has no business getting, and his long limbs make him a huge target on the offensive end. Coupled with his motor, it’s his length that makes things like his pick-and-roll defense a real force:

AD screen hedge

AD hedge 2

  • Trustworthy with ball. Davis handles the ball with care and doesn’t extend out of his role on offense. This leads to very few turnovers: Davis only turns the ball over 1.8 times per contest despite of using 24.4% of his team’s possessions. For a big man, this has never been done.
  • Athletic. We’ve all seen this on display from Davis. Davis has incredible agility and speed for a player his size, which helps him in both the halfcourt and in transition play — the latter, of which, he may be the league’s best at amongst big men. It is not uncommon to see Davis gracefully slither through two defenders and explode to the rim, dunk from what clearly appears to be too far out, or block a seemingly uncontested shot.

Reasons against:

  • Stick-thin. Anthony Davis needs more meat on his bones. The NBA is a league where skinny players can get by and even excel (Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Stephen Curry are some examples), but Anthony is a far cry from “basketball strong” — a terminology that carries more weight at Anthony’s position of power forward. Anthony is routinely pushed around when in pursuit of a rebound, and when he’s setting screens or cutting, the opposition has little trouble pushing him off course and limiting his effectiveness. On defense, he is sometimes unable to keep the bulky forwards out of the paint, and this surrenders position and grants shot opportunities:

  • Developing IQ and unlearned nuances. You’ll find Anthony Davis on the court during tight games, but this is hardly a tribute to his IQ. Davis has a lot to learn. Despite his already good defensive presence, he can get confused. He bites on pump fakes. He prioritizes incorrectly at times, and is often late with his defensive “help” or unsure of whether to help his teammates at all. See below:

The statistics also hint that Davis is sticking too close to his man (priorities) and isn’t providing a ton of help to his teammates. Per Seth Partnow’s work at whereoffensehappens.com where he takes a look at SportVu data, Anthony Davis holds opponents at the rim to a respectably low field goal percentage of 45.7% (rank 28 of 118). He however contests only 6.12 shots per 36 minutes (rank 101 of 118) — this is more than two shots less than the average amongst power forwards and centers. He contests just 27.4% of opponent field goal attempts within 5 feet of the rim; the average is 36.3%. In other words, Davis is great at bothering shots but he’s not bothering shots all that often.

The eye test suggests that with his developing game, Davis’ overall defense is currently overpraised, and he lies somewhere between a good to very good defender…with an extremely high ceiling. Advanced metrics provide mixed results regarding Davis’ overall defensive output. Talking Practice Blog’s IPVd suggests Davis is very good on defense, in the top 10, at +3.6. However, RAPMd puts him at below average at -0.15. 82games.com’s defensive on/off puts him at -4.6 — a good but not great mark. His defensive rating is at a slightly above average mark of 104. We might also note that the Pelicans are currently an unimpressive 30th in defensive efficiency despite having capable defenders at multiple positions.

On offense, Anthony Davis still has things to learn about timing, the tactics behind nabbing favorable positioning, and knowing where his teammates are. But none of this is surprising for a 20 year-old who has been celebrated for his defensive play.

  • Lack of post game. This is not an entirely separate issue from Davis’ weight problem, but Davis simply doesn’t have much of a back-to-the-basket game. Per mySynergySports.com, Davis only posts up on 13.4% of his plays; many of these are simply turnaround jumpers where he utilizes his extra-high release. The rest of the damage he inflicts in the post is almost entirely through face-ups where he is able to use his agility. If he can start working in pumpfakes and a go-to move or two, it’ll help him considerably.
Extension! This jumphook is rarely seen from Anthony, but would be an excellent addition to his arsenal

Extension! This jumphook is rarely seen from Anthony, but would be an excellent addition to his arsenal

Projected future:

Expect Anthony Davis to end up as a top five player. Though he has much to learn yet, he’s shown that he’s an intelligent player with good instincts and solid fundamentals, and he’s dedicated to his craft. His physical tools are all-time, and his soft shooting touch is already starting to pay dividends. If he becomes a threat in the post and adds a decent passing game into the mix — neither out of the question — Davis could end up as an incredibly dominant two-way player capable of challenging for the title of the league’s best player.

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DeMarcus Cousins

Age: 23

22.6 PTS  / 11.6 TRB / 3.0 AST / 1.8 STL / 1.2 BLK / 3.4 TOV in 32.0 MPG on 54.9% TS

26.4 PER / 4.7 IPV / 1.0 NPI RAPM / 0.29 RiRAPM

Reasons for:

  • Passing. Cousins combines good control with great vision and timing. You’ll find more acute passers in the halfcourt, but Cousins is outstanding with an open floor ahead of him:

  • Ball-handling. At times DeMarcus can be a little overzealous and the ball is lost in the process, but Cousins effectively mimics guards with his comfort in handling the ball in a variety of situations — he’s highly capable in the pick-and-roll, during the fast break, and while penetrating off the dribble.
  • Scoring. Cousins is one of the league’s most productive players in the post, and is a very capable pick-and-roll scorer. He has a solid isolation game. He has countermoves at his disposal to throw at the defense and he works fakes in naturally. His outside shot isn’t yet efficient, but he does have a smooth touch and is capable of heating up from range.
  • Rebounding. He doesn’t have great leaping ability, but DeMarcus is super lengthy and strong, with an uncanny feel for reading angles and bounces off the rim:

  • Versatility. Most big men can rebound a bit, and a good percentage can do it very well. Some big man can pass, a select few can do it very well. Few big men can handle the ball like a guard. Take all of this and pair it with a smooth shooting touch and an elite post game and you’ve got one of the league’s most versatile big men to ever play.
  • Overwhelming size and strength. Something you probably didn’t know: the 6’11” DeMarcus Cousins actually has a longer wingspan than Anthony Davis, at 7’5.75”. Cousins is a very sturdy 270 pounds, and more importantly, he knows how to use his body. This makes him a terrifying cover in the post, and Cousins fouls guys out just as much as anyone — mySynergySports.com states 13.6% of his post-ups end in foul calls, a rate which exceeds Dwight Howard and Nikola Pekovic. Despite his defensive shortcomings, DeMarcus’ long, wide body can be tough to navigate around inside the key and he’s very difficult to move when digging an armbar into his opponents back.

Reasons against:

  • Efficiency. DeMarcus Cousins has improved here recently; it may not be a lasting issue. But he has exhibited unhealthy levels of confidence in his below-average jumper (37.6% from midrange) and will take some ill-advised shots in traffic. We must note that he’s very productive on the offensive glass: missed tip-ins and passes off the backboard, things that help his team, do hurt his shooting efficiency. He is currently scoring 22.6 points per game on 54.9% True Shooting.
  • Defense. Cousins lumbers around a bit on defense, and will spend lots of time standing upright. He plays defense with his hands more than his feet and has a chronic reaching problem, which may lead to high steal numbers but provide for poor positioning and a high foul rate. See below:

Cousins also doesn’t contest shots very well from the weakside or while playing man-to-man. Seth Partnow’s look at SportVu’s data speaks to this: Cousins contests at a slightly below average rate of 8.03 shots per 36 minutes (rank 50 of 118), and permits a very poor 54% at the rim (rank 88 of 118).

  • Emotional tendencies. Sadly, DeMarcus’ testiness has become his single most defining attribute. He’s ready to explode at any moment in the direction of his teammates, the opposition, or the referees. It has the potential to affect his gameplay and that of those around him.
  • Foul prone. Amongst eligible players, DeMarcus Cousins currently leads the NBA in fouls per game  at 3.9, which is good for 4.4 per 36 minutes of play. His coach will often have to sit him earlier than desired (note: Cousins only averages 32 minutes per contest), especially when his emotions become involved and he starts bashing into his opponents.
  • Turnover-prone. Cousins doesn’t do a great job of protecting the ball: he’ll barge into the lane hoping to overpower people or out-maneuver around them (and often does) but he leaves the ball exposed in the process, and is susceptible to being overtaken by double teams. Charge calls are also frequently seen.
  • Takes his time. At times you can catch DeMarcus sitting idly with the ball where he’s throwing out four consecutive jab steps and effectively killing all ball/player movement.
  • Wavering intensity. DeMarcus has slightly lazy tendencies that extend to both ends. This can affect shot selection, defensive output, and produce for some poopy screens:

dmc screen

Projected output:

DeMarcus Cousins is on the cusp of becoming a top ten player, and he’s continuing to show signs of improvement. His versatile, potent play on the offensive end along with his gift for hitting the glass is highly desirable. But even if he sets his attitude completely straight, given Cousin’s limited defensive output, he probably will never enter the league’s top five.

Who’s the NBA’s future premiere big?

Right now, DeMarcus Cousins is a better player than Anthony Davis. He’s an absolute force on offense who is capable of making his mark on the defensive end from time to time.

Davis remains less developed both mentally and physically, but if he starts picking up on the little things and maintaining other production — not guaranteed but likely — he has the capacity to leave Cousins and other bigs in the dust. Anthony Davis is the smart pick here.

Statistical support from Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise specified

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