You've got to hand it to New Orleans Hornets head coach Monty Williams. His unsung young squad returns to NOLA tonight looking for its third straight win, no small accomplishment for a team that has been missing its two marquee players for most of its two victories.
That last win was particularly impressive, as New Orleans out-physicaled the rugged Bulls on Saturday and beat Chicago despite the absences of Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon. We don't know when Gordon will be able to return from his knee injury, but at least he made the trip. He was wandering around the bowels of the United Center on Saturday and spent time with the current players from his alma matter -- the top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers turned out en masse to watch the game.
Davis wasn't as fortunate after getting elbowed in the head by fellow Hornets rookie Austin Rivers the night before. Davis was diagnosed with a concussion and hasn't played since. Since the league doesn't allow concussed players to travel, Davis had to miss the only trip that New Orleans will make to his hometown this season. (Unless the Hornets meet the Bulls in the Finals, of course.) Davis has been undergoing league-mandated testing and it's unclear if he'll be able to return for New Orleans' game on Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Talk about killing your team's bottom line: Not only has Rivers posted a barely-detectable 2.6 PER in three games and made just 5 of 25 from the floor, but he knocked out his star teammate.
"I feel bad, because we both closed out at the same time," Rivers said before the game. "I don't know how -- he's 6'9". I don't know how his face hit my elbow, but we both closed out at the same time."
Williams of course was none too pleased with the NBA's anti-concussion policy, saying that the league "treats everybody like they're wearing white gloves and pink drawers" and drawing a $25K fine in the process. However, the disappointment didn't carry over to the floor. The Hornets have played exceptional interior defense with and without Davis, and through Tuesday rank seventh in the league in defensive efficiency. They've done so against three high-caliber opponents.
The sample sizes are tiny, but New Orleans' early success opens up a lot of intriguing possibilities for when Davis does return. The 1 1/2 games in which Davis has played have been impressive, to say the least. His outrageous 35.1 PER is the best in the NBA among players that have logged at least 40 minutes, per Basketball-Reference.com.
When you go to the video of Davis' regular season performance, you immediately see that he's been used primarily on the weak side on offense, working the baseline for lobs and flairing out when the lane is overloaded. He shows a nice stroke out to 20 feet, not with a quick release but with the kind of length that will ensure good looks. He's smooth and patient when floating out to the perimeter, but really revs it up when attacking the offensive glass or diving on pick-and-rolls.
His play has been something of a revelation even to Williams.
"I'm still getting used to who he is as a player," Williams said. "He shoots the ball better than I thought. He has really good footwork. He can handle the ball, he can pass. He can make passes out of a situation that most big men can't make a pass out of."
These are the observations you hear about Davis time and again. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said, "He's a basketball player. He does everything. He can shoot, he can put it on the floor, he can pass, play great defense, great timing on shot blocks, great quickness. He's going to be a great pro."
So far in the regular season, Davis hasn't done much dribbling or passing -- he has zero assists. Hornets haven't run a lot of offense for him and what he's gotten has been scraps and lobs. At this point, it doesn't seem like Williams trusts him to make plays with the ball in his hands. However, that's not because he's unaware of what Davis can do.
"Conditioning and strength are going to be big for him," Williams said. "The stronger he gets, the less he has to think about being tired and not being as strong as the guys he's going against. Then I think we'll see more of his game."
Recently, Henry Abbott floated the idea of playing Davis at three in order to enhance his skills development, and Brett Koremenos at HoopSpeak wrote an involved treatment of the subject. The idea has plenty of merit. Abbott mentioned one benefit being that doing so would serve as a form of unintentional tanking for the rebuilding Hornets. However, as well as New Orleans has played so far, it's not clear that a healthy version of its 2012-13 roster is going to lose big, regardless of how Davis is deployed.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for playing Davis at three is this: Someone has to. Not only do the Hornets have Davis in hand for the next four years under his rookie contract, but center Robin Lopez in working under a team-friendly contract that could run through 2014-15 if general manager Dell Demps picks up the last two non-guaranteed years of his contract. Ryan Anderson is locked up for the next four years.
Meanwhile, current starting three Al-Farouq Aminu is more of a combo player because of his lack of a perimeter game, shaky playmaking skills and ability to defend both forward positions. He's also a player whose team option for 2013-14 was not picked up, which suggests that Demps does not view Aminu as a core piece. So it seems like the combination of Davis, Lopez and Anderson is going to see a lot of time together over the next few years.
With his yet-untapped ability to make plays with the ball, Davis is the obvious choice to play the wing, at least on offense. It's not like he's developed an elite post-up game anyway. He'll eventually have to improve his range to accommodate the NBA 3-pointer, but that's down the line. His stroke is smooth enough that you can easily see him developing a little bit of Kevin Durant in his catch-and-shoot game.
"He can dribble, but he doesn't dribble unnecessarily," Williams said "He'll do the things that he needs to do to make a play. That what I like about him -- he's efficient. He had a (preseason) game against Miami when he went full court and laid it up. Then there are times when he'll take one or two dribbles and make the right play."
All of this focuses on Davis' offense, but of course it's his defense that everyone views as his NBA calling card. Coming out of Kentucky, Davis was often tagged with a label that read something like "elite rim protector" and there is no question he can be that, with his combination of athleticism, reach and instincts. However, that's not to say that his place will be muscling with stronger bigs on the low block. That's Lopez's job.
Davis has more versatility at that end, with exciting potential as a pick-and-roll defender and weak-side help defender. Right now, he lacks lower body strength, which is a problem against the more stout post players. In New Orleans' opener, Duncan cleared him away with a small push when Davis tried to front him. Later, Boris Diaw just whirled around him on the baseline by using his body as a shield. But Davis learned. When Diaw went to the exact same move a little later, Davis crowded him and forced him to step on the baseline.
Eventually, Davis will be able to guard all three frontcourt positions depending on the matchup. He probably can already. Anderson is right around average as a defender and you can hide him against a lot of threes. After all, some teams don't ask players at that position to do much more than stand in the corner. With Lopez and Davis around, Anderson can always be matched against the weakest frontcourt scorer. And when the matchups become untenable, Aminu or something like him can always be summoned off the bench. In any configuration, you're not going to want Davis straying too far from the lane on the defensive end.
With all that in mind, this is the season to play Davis on the wing. Expectations are low for New Orleans and he's already in full-on development mode. According to SCHOENE, three of Davis' four most-comparable players are Greg Oden, Brandan Wright and Chris Bosh. Wright is a talented player who has emerged as an excellent energy big man, but that would be a disappointing outcome for Davis. However, a combination of Bosh on offense and Oden on defense would be deadly, and that's the kind of player Davis can become.
Those SCHOENE projections are based on Davis' spectacular season at Kentucky, where in service of the worthy goal of a national championship, Davis was not really allowed to develop his full range of skills. It's not really what John Calipari does. As Bulls rookie and Davis' Wildcats teammate Marquis Teague said on Saturday, "He just did what Coach Cal asked him to do." And that's fine, but Davis is just 19 and you don't want him typecast at this point in his development.
Thankfully, even though Williams is allowing Davis a period of acclimation, he recognizes the full arsenal of skills that Davis could eventually ride into MVP contention.
"He's still learning," Williams said. "I've talked to him about exploring his game so that when the game does slow down for him, his handle will be an asset to his game. Right now, he's just using it to get out of certain situations."
Check out our Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13 homepage for more details and to order our annual guide to the NBA, available now in both PDF and paperback format.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.