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The Significance of a Silent Superstar

Anthony Davis has long been known as one of the NBA’s bright talents, yet it took an injury to bring him to the forefront of the national conversation. In a league powered by personality, what’s the value of a quietly brilliant player on a non-contending team?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Look long enough at Anthony Davis and you’ll see whatever you want to see. A frame-perfect basketball player. An athlete made of glass. A quiet superstar. A unicorn in need of a better team. He is everything that the modern NBA wants to be, and at the same time maybe its antithesis. Nothing powers the league like personality, which has turned the sport into a year-round source of entertainment. And the Brow, at least publicly, reveals very little.

For some players, being boring is an essential part of their brand. Kawhi Leonard has structured his identity around his lack of a public persona, although he, like Tim Duncan before him, has been thrust into the spotlight by his team’s overwhelming success. But Davis has never played professionally for a contending team. And given that his off-court extracurriculars rarely reach viral status (for the most part), he hasn’t become central to the league’s narrative.

He became a focal point last Friday, though, when he got hurt in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Jazz. It all happened unceremoniously, as is the case with most things relating to Davis. He looked up and prepared to grab an offensive board while boxing out Utah’s Derrick Favors. But instead of jumping, Davis pulled up lame, fell to the floor, and grabbed his groin. Unable to walk, he was helped into the tunnel by a pair of Pelicans staff members.

Davis had been shooting nearly 60 percent from the field while averaging 25.2 points and 11 rebounds per game. He had been playing at an All-NBA level, and as has become the norm, he’d done so off the radar of much of the basketball world. It took the sight of the injury-prone player limping off the court for NBA fans at large to recognize what could be lost. It also begged the question: In an era that rewards winning and showmanship above all else, is there a place for a silently inimitable superstar?

Davis is a specimen built for highlights, with shot-blocking tentacles for arms and a lean, quick, and powerful frame. During his lone college season at Kentucky, the 6-foot-10 big regularly matched up against inferior athletes, and became known for spiking shots into the stands. But Davis added a new twist to the Future Pro Demolishes Lowly College Opponent dynamic. His shot-blocking successes weren’t just the result of physical mismatches or feats of anticipation. They were athletic marvels. Take this play from Kentucky’s win against North Carolina in 2011:

With the Wildcats leading the Tar Heels by one on the game’s last possession, Davis bodied Tyler Zeller outside the left side of the paint. Zeller found John Henson open on the right wing, about 15 feet from the basket. Davis turned, gathered himself, and in one jump closed the gap to Henson and blocked the would-be game-winning attempt. Davis didn’t produce a highlight of this caliber every game, but he didn't have to. The 2011-12 Wildcats were the most compelling team in the country, and ultimately went on to win the national championship.

The Pelicans are not quite the Kentucky of the NBA (though they do have four former Wildcats on their roster). New Orleans sits at 13-12 and on the edge of the Western Conference playoff picture. Before Davis went down with his injury, he and frontcourt mate DeMarcus Cousins were both thriving, propping up a decent, but ultimately lacking supporting cast. That modest bit of success marks the most that the Pelicans have experienced in recent years.

Davis has only played in one playoff series in his pro career: in 2015, when New Orleans won 45 games en route to being swept out of the first round by the Warriors. He finished fifth in MVP voting that year and was spectacular during that series, averaging more than 31 points to go with 11 boards and three blocks a game. That time in the sun was brief and unusual; the Pelicans have otherwise never won more than 34 games in a season since drafting Davis.

Last season, Davis was fourth in scoring behind Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Isaiah Thomas. He was third in blocks behind Rudy Gobert and Myles Turner, and seventh in boards. He made an All-NBA first team and an All-Defensive second team, and was fourth in PER behind Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Leonard. But while all of his statistical counterparts played into mid-April, Davis was nowhere to be seen come playoff time.

He turned in one of the best individual seasons in the league, and did so by playing a distinct and beautiful brand of basketball. Relevancy has always been about more than aesthetic and statistical greatness, though. That’s become glaringly apparent at a time when players are more accessible than ever before.

When Davis came into the league in 2012, he dismantled the ideas around athletic compromise. Suddenly, an athlete could be towering, imposing, and agile, like a create-a-player avatar dropped into a world of regular characters. With one arm, he could reach into the cosmos; with the other, he could sink jumpers. He showed us that the future of basketball could be just as absurd and fantastical as any Marvel movie.

In his earlier days, Davis rarely ventured to the perimeter, but during the last three seasons he’s taken nearly 300 shots from deep and made nearly a third of them. Once known primarily for dynamic shot-blocking, the big man now does everything: dunking, swatting, grabbing boards, and surprisingly, making his offensive living in the midrange. For a few years, Davis was the only basketball player who possessed this rare combination of skills. His play alone was enough to make him a cultural figure.

But NBA fans have since moved on. There are more unicorns to watch now. They’re outspoken and wacky; they play in the league’s biggest cities; they’ve improved faster than we could have imagined. They, too, are basketball players who can do everything, and they’re all bigger stars than the Brow ever was.

Consider Joel Embiid, a fourth-year pro with less than 60 NBA games under his belt who also happens to be one of the most-discussed basketball players alive. Embiid is a marvel, a 7-footer who is averaging 23.5 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game while taking more than 59 percent of his shots from beyond five feet of the basket. Embiid is an embryonic Davis, and it’s hard not to fantasize about his fully realized version. That’s especially true when he shows flashes like he did last month in Los Angeles, downing the Lakers with a 46/15/7 statline on only 20 shots.

It’s worth noting, though, that the morning after that big game, the Embiid buzz was perhaps as linked to a geotag on his Instagram account as it was to his dazzling performance.

WHAT A NIGHT !!!!! #TheProcess

A post shared by Joel "The Process" Embiid (@joelembiid) on

Nobody has taken more risks online and come out unscathed than Embiid. He’s labeled Milwaukee as a “shithole,” publicly hit on celebrities who are married to other celebrities, and called for Ben Simmons to dunk on Lonzo Ball “so hard that his daddy runs on the court to save him.” Embiid is a character who has managed to access all of social media’s hilarities while largely avoiding its drawbacks. As otherworldly as Embiid has been on the court, he’s become an even larger NBA personality beyond it. On The J.J. Redick Podcast last week, he said that he wants to “kick ... ass so I can go on social media later and just basically talk shit.”

Embiid, in an extremely right now way, is a perfect NBA superstar. When my colleague Jason Concepcion wrote about Embiid, backlash, and star power in January, he noted that star power is “different from ceiling, though the two are intertwined.” It’s part skill, part situation, and part celebrity—and from a visibility standpoint, the first factor may be the least important.

This is to say that Embiid, not Anthony Davis, is what you would get if you crafted an NBA star in a lab, even though Davis is the player the world hopes Embiid will become.

No matter how much basketball you watch, the talk surrounding basketball unicorns seems to be hyperbolic. Of course Giannis can’t run the floor like John Wall or work the midrange like, uh, Evan Turner, but the NBA community loves nothing more than to imagine a world where this is possible. Watch Davis, though, and it’s clear that he’s already damn close to the cartoonish version of himself touted in scouting reports. Take this play from the fourth quarter of a recent Pelicans game at Golden State.

Here, Davis gets the ball about a foot inside the 3-point line. David West, the defender guarding him, retreats to the paint. Davis pump-fakes, West bites, and Davis puts the ball on the floor and darts toward the hoop. Then he plants his lead foot near the block, takes the world’s most colossal stepback, and drills a fadeaway from the left wing. This sequence of events is totally unguardable, and it was soon forgotten. Davis racked up 30 points and 15 rebounds that night against the Warriors while doing all the amazing things that Davis typically does; the Pelicans lost, and the world moved on.

Basketball happens for only short snippets at a time. Players stay on the court for bursts of a dozen minutes every few nights. Storylines, for better or worse, play year-round. In that vein, Davis has been largely irrelevant to a wide swath of NBA fans, with the exception of an uncharacteristic outburst last week. His appeal is basketball as an art form. That’s easy to take for granted until it’s gone.

It turns out that Davis’s injury won’t cost him a full season or even a substantial part of one. He was diagnosed with a left adductor strain and returned to the floor on Friday. Perhaps this development will lead to a newfound appreciation of his talents, of the unicorn best equipped to harness the full spectrum of his abilities. But most likely the status quo will resume unabated.

From LeBron James to Westbrook to Embiid, many of the league’s foremost figures expand our thinking as to what a sports figure can represent in the cultural landscape. Davis’s significance is tethered to the court. He’s the player who showcases what the human body is capable of, and portends how the sport of basketball can be played.

All statistics are current as of Friday morning.