Davis has embraced both his role as his team's eraser and the attitude such a job requires. "You have to have the mind-set of Anything that comes in here I'm going to block or at least alter the shot," says Davis, who adds that swatting shots is now his favorite thing to do on the court. "Before every game I tell my team, 'Make sure y'all play as hard as you can, and if y'all do break down off the dribble, I'm right here for you.'"
Even today, when every aspect of the game is parsed, quantified and analyzed, there is no way to measure the psychological impact of a great shot blocker on either his teammates or his opponents. "Guys like Anthony don't impact just with the shots they block," says Thompson. "We don't know how many times a guy who could beat his defender on the perimeter looked in there but wouldn't go because Anthony was in the back. Or took a shot and missed because he was afraid Anthony was coming. You can't put statistics on that."
There is more statistical value in a block that gives your team a possession than there is with one that flies into the concession stands, but Calipari doesn't mind the latter. "I'm different with that," he says. "I want it to be in play, to knock it softly so we can run down [in transition], but if you knock that thing into row 8, the dude's embarrassed, he ain't coming in there anymore, and now they are all shooting jump shots." (According to Cat Scratches blogger Guy Ramsey, in 31 regular-season games the Wildcats gained possession on 60.3% of Davis's blocks and scored 78 points on the ensuing possessions.)
However you add it up, Davis's presence in the paint is a big reason Kentucky is holding opponents to 36.7% shooting, the best in the nation and the best for a Kentucky team since 1959--60. Davis also allows the Wildcats to take more risks on the perimeter. "They're able to really smother you with their athleticism and length because they know it's going to force you to dribble the ball right to Anthony Davis," says Fox. "If they didn't have him, they'd have to play differently. He's a big part of what they do."
Davis can't explain his talent for swatting—"It just came naturally; I just had great timing," he says—but Calipari, having coached another guard turned big man in Camby, has a thought. "The real shot blockers let the guy release it and then go after the ball," he says, adding that blocking a ball before it's released often results in a foul. "It's hard because that means you can't jump early. You have to be nimble; you can't be a plodder." Davis, he adds, "has guard quickness, guard instincts. There's no slow twitch to him."
Davis doesn't purposely study other sultans of swat, but because Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant is his favorite NBA player, he also watches a lot of the Thunder's 6'10" Serge Ibaka, who leads the NBA with 3.2 blocks a game. "He's blocking guys who know how to avoid getting their shots blocked," says Davis. "I watch him to see how he does it."
While he can't explain his method, Davis has no problem pinpointing his motivation. In his previous life as a guard, he says, "I always had my shot blocked—off the backboard, to the stands, to the fifth row. I think that's what really made me want to block shots; I was tired of getting my own shot blocked. It was time for some revenge."
During the 2008--09 season Davis was a 6'2" sophomore guard and honor roll student playing for a small high school (210 students) on Chicago's South Side, Perspectives Charter, which didn't have a gym and, a few years earlier, hadn't had a team. He was a three-point specialist who had only recently started venturing into the lane because ... well, you heard what the kid had to say about all those shots of his ending up in the fifth row. He may have beaten his big sister, Iesha, one-on-one for the first time by then, but he's not sure. Dunking was mostly a fantasy. "My cousins could all dunk, but I would do a layup and smack the backboard, and that was it," he says. His family nickname, given to him when he was born weighing eight pounds, one ounce, was Phat Man. (His twin sister, Antoinette, was six pounds, three ounces.)
He had a cousin who was 6'8", but no one in his immediate family was notably tall. His dad, Anthony Sr., is just under 6'3"; his mom, Erainer, is 5'9". Antoinette, now a freshman at Kentucky, topped out at 5'7", and Iesha, 21, whom he credits in part with teaching him the game, is 5'10". When he hit 6'2" as a sophomore, says Davis, "I thought I was done." He seemed destined to be one of hundreds of good guards who struggle to get noticed.
But by the spring of his junior year Davis had sprouted to 6'8". "He never lost his coordination with his growth spurt," says Perspectives coach Cortez Hale. "He was still the same Anthony. He could still do everything—pass, shoot, dribble—he did before. He was just a lot taller."