KENTUCKY ASSISTANT KENNY PAYNE TOOK THE CALL every recruiter dreams of. A Chicago AAU coach was on the line with a tip: There's a 17-year-old kid out here, a 6' 2" guard who grew eight inches in a year. He's going to be a great player. No one knows about him yet. Payne's boss, John Calipari, recognized the type. Fifteen years earlier at Massachusetts he had coached a kid who fit that same description, a player who would change the trajectory of Calipari's career. "Marcus Camby went from 6' 2" to 6' 10" in high school," says Calipari, referring to the 2007 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, now with the Rockets. As a junior in 1995--96, Camby led UMass to the Final Four, earned national player of the year honors and was the second pick in the NBA draft. His biggest talent? Shot blocking. When Calipari saw the 6' 10" Chicago kid, Anthony Davis Jr., in person later that summer, he texted Camby, "I found another you ... but he can shoot."
Given his status as the presumed top pick in the June NBA draft, Davis's career at Kentucky likely ended when the Wildcats walked off with the 2012 NCAA title. After an early season of contorting his improbably long and elastic limbs (wingspan: 7' 4") into crazy angles to grab errant passes and wayward shots before flushing them through the net, Davis showed more of a conventional offensive repertoire in conference play—a midrange jumper here, a three-point shot there. His signature skill, though, has been blocking shots. Heading into the Final Four, Davis led the country with 4.6 stuffs per game, to go with his 14.3 points and 10.1 rebounds. It took him just 19 games to break Kentucky's single-season record of 83 blocks and 24 games to surpass Shaquille O'Neal's SEC freshman blocks mark of 115.
It's not just the quantity of rejections against high-quality opponents that has coaches like Florida's Billy Donovan—who calls Davis "one of the best of all time"—ushering the freshman into the pantheon of shot-blocking greats. It's also how, and where, he does his stuffing: all over the court. (In the regular season Davis blocked 11 of 146 shots beyond the perimeter.) He also brings little liability along with his gift. In trying to neutralize him, teams have been physical "to the point of bully ball," as Calipari says, but Davis, who averaged nearly 32 minutes a game, doesn't overreact. He had fouled out just once heading into the title game, against Old Dominion in the fourth game of the season. The only other times he had four fouls since then were in a 73--72 loss to Indiana on Dec. 10 and against Baylor in the NCAA tournament. He was whistled, on average, just 1.9 times a game.
"For a freshman, for a big player—for any player—he has great composure as a defender," says Georgia coach Mark Fox. "Most shot blockers, they go chase every ball. You can get them in foul trouble. But he knows when to go get one and how to do it without fouling." Adding to Davis's advantage, says Donovan, is that physically he seems unassuming, even at 6' 10" and 220 pounds. "He has an ability to become a lot longer than he appears," says Donovan, "and very quickly."
Adds former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who backed up Bill Russell on the Celtics for two years in the mid-1960s and later coached noted shot blockers Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning with the Hoyas, "His agility is the thing that impresses me. Not only does he have great timing and great footwork, he's elusive—he's very capable of getting around people and getting to the ball. He's exceptional."
Consider the final play of Kentucky's home game against North Carolina on Dec. 3. With the Tar Heels down 73--72 and seven seconds on the clock, UNC forward John Henson caught a pass near the right baseline and lofted a jumper from about 15 feet. Davis, who was deep in the paint when Henson caught the ball, took a giant hop and launched himself at Henson, his right hand meeting the path of the ball at the perfect moment to deflect it into his own hands. A photo freezes Davis with his arms extended at one and seven o'clock, making him look like a plane on a steep ascent. That image—if not the one onto which a fan Photoshopped Davis blocking Christian Laettner's buzzer-beating shot that gave Duke the win over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final—could become as iconic, in Kentucky at least, as the silhouette of Michael Jordan spread eagle on the way to a dunk.
Perhaps it's just coincidence that Davis's distinctive facial feature, the one that has inspired the blue FEAR THE BROW T-shirts seen at Kentucky games, looks like a bird in flight. Davis has two nicknames, however, which suggest other species: Calipari calls him Spider-Man; his teammates call him Ant. If the latter moniker doesn't quite capture his surreal athleticism, it does evoke one of his defining personality traits: Davis is a team player to the core.
FOR ALL OF HIS IMPACT, DAVIS AVERAGED UNDER 8.5 shots a game—more than four fewer than Kansas junior forward Thomas Robinson, his main rival for national player of the year honors, averaged. And a lot of Davis's shots are tip-ins or come off lob passes, which he regards as his "reward" from the guards for blocking all those shots. "We don't run a lot of plays for him, but he never complains about it," says Kentucky senior guard Darius Miller. "He never complains about anything. For a guy who's going to be a top pick in the draft, that's amazing."
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. "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.'"