The hype preseason surrounding Karl-Anthony Towns and the young Minnesota Timberwolves was immense, to say the least.
And perhaps it was rightly so.
This is a Wolves team that has a dangerous inside-outside tandem of Andrew Wiggins paired with the former Kentucky Wildcat “KAT” in the middle. Towns turned in one of the most impressive and sound rookie seasons from a one-and-done pick so far, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 54 percent from the field and exhibiting all the decision-making maturity of an NBA veteran.
The Wolves then added a top-notch coach in Tom Thibodeau. Accordingly, some were going out on a limb and not only proclaiming Towns as the best young big man in the NBA—but also the Wolves as a 2017 playoff team.
That was all premature. Or at least it most certainly appears to be at this juncture. Minnesota is 4-10 and despite playing good basketball for stretches, the lack of composure and maturity has made it difficult for Minnesota to maintain leads and lose games. Despite its poor record, Minnesota boasts just a -0.5 point differential. They are in games, just not winning them.
Anthony Davis made sure there were no doubts about it following a 117-96 victory over Minnesota. Davis unleashed his entire arsenal of moves, and the Wolves mostly just struggled.
Davis had 26 points at the half, another 13 in the third quarter, and finished the night with 45 points on 17 of 27 shooting, including 2 of 4 from three-point range. There was simply no answer to his dominance, as he continually hit tough shots.
Gorgui Dieng drew the defensive assignment of Davis to keep Towns out of foul trouble, but Davis covered Towns mostly on the other end.
The result was that the 2016 Rookie of the Year largely struggled, hitting just 4 of 11 and struggling to get decent looks within the flow of the offense, though he did have this impressive up-and-under score:
Dieng, meanwhile, played great defense on Davis, but it really did not matter. He picked up three first half fouls as Davis simply drew contact when he was not hitting the tough contested looks. His speed makes him a tough cover for any NBA big, and even Dieng—who is not slow afoot—struggled mightily at staying between Davis and the basket.
The 45-point outburst was the 10th 40-plus point game of Davis’ career, and it was his third just this season. He is now averaging 30.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game while posting a PER over 30.
There is not another 5 in the Association even close to that level of dominance, and he could become the first big man to lead the league in scoring in 17 seasons. All of that has to garner some MVP chatter, but it will take the Pelicans continuing to roll to make that happen.
New Orleans started the season 0-8 as Davis’ brilliance went unrewarded with an under-performing cast of teammates. However, Jrue Holiday returned from dealing with personal issues and the Pels have since reeled off four straight victories. Davis simply needed a little more help, and Buddy Hield has struggled badly through the first quarter of this season.
It is still early, and the Pelicans are just two games shy of the No. 8 seed despite that abysmal start.
Things are most certainly trending upwards.
And Davis is the clear and obvious reason why. He battled injuries most of last season and a lot of NBA fans, analysts, and even GMs seemed to quickly forget just how good he really is when he is healthy and at his best. His hustle is infectious and rare from a franchise player and superstar. He sat out most of the win over the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night after bruising his knee diving for a loose ball.
Davis dove into the stands again in the third quarter against Minnesota which fed a transition opportunity and capped a 10-2 run to open the half, as the Pelicans pulled away and utterly dominated the third quarter.
It may make Pelicans fans cringe to see Davis so aggressive after “50/50” balls, but he leads the team in loose balls collected with 14 (h/t ESPN), and that is one of the most ignored aspects of basketball.
When a team’s best player is hustling to get those extra possessions, it spreads, and that is how close games are won. The Pelicans are now looking like a team that can go along with Davis as he makes his case for an MVP award.
But perhaps all those awards and accolades should be placed secondary, because mostly what matters now is that Davis has the Pelicans winning games. And that is the bottom line, as Towns and the Timberwolves are still finding out. Amassing top-tier talent and adding an elite coach can only generate hype, while games are still obviously won on the floor.
And to see Davis diving to the floor? To see him using every bit of his athleticism to dominate another team featuring Kentucky’s other major superstar big? That is what solidifies his spot atop the league as the NBA’s best big man. It is his talent and his hustle, his skills and his work ethic.
So while the preseason talks largely revolved around an impressive Wildcat who took the league by storm last season, make no mistake, Davis still is the NBA’s most dominant big man.