Imagine, if you will, Bob "Mr. Baseball" Uecker going from a lifetime .200 hitter to a .350 slugger with 50 homers and 150 RBI in one year. Unlikely? Improbable? Impossible? Not even in the steroids era, right?
Now imagine an 18-year-old kid from Chicago's South Side going from an obscure 6-foot-1 guard to a 6-foot-10 shot-blocking version of Bill Russell, a freshman star in one of the nation's premier college basketball programs and a virtual lock to be the No. 1 choice in the NBA draft--all within a period of about 18 months.
Anthony Davis has gone from being an unknown player at an unknown school on Chicago's South Side, Perspectives Charter School, to a high-profile, nationally recognized star at Kentucky, the nation's top-ranked team. And you can't get any more high-profile than that.
He was a 6-foot-1 guard in the summer of 2010, then grew nine inches in 10 months. He became a household name on the AAU circuit and, despite doubters who pointed out that Davis was playing against inferior competition in the Chicago Public League's lowly Blue Division, was ranked among the top 10 prospects in Illinois in the class of 2011. He averaged 32 points and 22 rebounds per game and earned McDonald's All-American recognition.
Kentucky coach John Calipari, who sent another famed Chicagoan (Derrick Rose) to the NBA, marvels at Davis' talent, comparing him to former Massachusetts star Marcus Camby. "Anthony is ahead of Marcus at this stage. Marcus was good but not like this as a freshman," Calipari said.
Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com, who has been evaluating high school players for more than 30 years, also marvels at Davis' skills. He said he never has seen another player develop as fast, from nowhere to stardom.
"The closest would be Shaquille O'Neal, who was an unknown 6-foot-7, 225-pound power forward between his sophomore and junior years who we saw at the BCI summer nationals. At the time, we rated him a Mid-Major prospect with potential talent.
"The next time we saw him he had grown to 6-foot-11 and 245-pounds and he was well on his way to becoming the Shaq we all know and was definitely a High-Major talent and a future No. 1 prospect and a McDonald's All-American. He showed what four inches and 20 pounds can do."
Coleman claims Davis, a 6-foot-2 wing guard who most thought was a Low-Major prospect, was even farther away from being a must-see on every college recruiter's travel agenda.
"He added eight inches to go with his perimeter skills to become the top prospect in his class," Coleman said. "For most of us, we didn't get to see him as a guard. So his rise was unprecedented in that he went from a virtual unknown to top 10 to top prospect."
Old-timers who have observed Chicago basketball since the 1950s have compared Davis to former Manley and Purdue star Russell Cross, another 6-foot-10 shot blocker who led his team to a state championship in 1980. Cross was a two-time All-Stater who put Manley on the map.
But Coleman said Davis' skill set reminds him more of former Farragut star and future NBA Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett. "He can face the basket and score from three or off the dribble from 15 feet or finish with a dunk at the rim. He isn't as polished on the blocks but his jump hook is coming," he said.
"Like Garnett at this stage, he is on the skinny side. But he should add 10 to 15 pounds over the next couple years to give him the stamina to compete at the NBA level. He, like Cross, is a superior shot blocker and that will allow him to be an effective defender down the road where he can play off bigs and not have to use his body to control opponents. But he will use his ability to change their shots with his length and quick bounce to affect their game. Plus his ability to score facing the basket, like Garnett, will make him a tough match-up at the NBA level."
Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye observed Davis as much or more than any coach or recruiting analyst during his senior year at Perspectives and they, too, marvel at how he has developed into one of the most outstanding players in college basketball--as a freshman. And they are just as surprised as anyone else.
"We don't think anyone can say that they saw this coming, at least not so fast," Roy Schmidt said. "We realized how good Davis really was the June before his senior season when he dominated top talent at the elite DePaul team camp. But did we realize he'd be that good that fast? Probably not. Easy for anyone to say after the fact that they did. But this kid completely came out of nowhere. We've never seen anything like it and may never see anything like it again. It is one of those once-in-a-generation stories."
But after watching Davis for the first time for only five minutes at the elite DePaul team camp, the Schmidt brothers immediately rated him as the No. 1 player in Illinois in his class. No one else was even in the discussion.
"We also felt that he was the top player in America, as we had seen nobody on the national circuit yet who could do all of the things that Davis could do," Roy Schmidt said.
"Nobody, and we mean nobody, knew of him in the summer of 2010 except Tai Streets and his Mean Streets people," Harv Schmidt said. "But unless they were told that Davis would grow nine inches in 10 months, we doubt if any of them saw it coming. And how many kids grow that fast without being awkward and clumsy?
"But if you are talking about from last spring to now, we are not surprised that Davis will be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft. When we first saw him, there was no doubt in our minds. At 6-foot-10, he could play point guard almost as good as Penny Hardaway. He was so fluid, got his shot off against everyone, handled the ball like an all-star guard, had unlimited range, but yet could also cause havoc inside with an unstoppable fadeaway post shot, run the floor and block shots like nobody we have seen since Kevin Garnett."
Today, watching him block shots and run the floor and intimidate opponents while playing for the nation's top-rated college team, it is easy for critics to acknowledge his enormous and still developing talent. But in the summer of 2010 and even during the 2010-11 season at Perspectives, playing against the likes of Juarez and Wells and Best Practice, few scouts believed a superstar was emerging on the horizon.
"Until you saw him for the first time, you had to wonder whether Davis was the product of vintage hype and Internet hyperbole," Roy Schmidt said. "Everyone is trying to discover the next phenom, the next Michael Jordan. Any scout with any credibility is at first naturally skeptical until you see for yourself.
"Plus, the 'big game' and 'big event' scouts have a tendency to exalt kids who shine at these events. Then there is nowhere to go but down. We've seen lots of kids get hurt by this and lots of recruiting mistakes made as a result. But when we first saw Davis play at the DePaul elite team camp, it took only five minutes to make up our minds. We both said: 'He is a future No. 1.' Not too many scouts miss a sure-fire No. 1."
Former Collinsville star and all-time Kentucky great Tom Parker, who still lives in Lexington and has four tickets to games in 23,500-seat Rupp Arena, also is very impressed by Davis' performance.
"He is an amazing young man," Parker said. "He is a great player and I love his demeanor on the floor. He's an amazing story with the growth spurt that he went through. What a great future he has in store. What a great attitude he has and what a great team player he is. He is one of a kind. It is neat that we can claim Anthony as one of our own."