Jeff Van Gundy can be prone to hyperbole. The witty, sarcastic, and mostly beloved ESPN color man is now known as much for his zany thoughts and wild ideas as his time coaching the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks.
Remember when he so confidently said that LeBron James’ first Miami Heat team would eclipse the 72-10 record of Michael Jordan and 1995-96 Chicago Bulls? That didn’t exactly come to fruition.
While Van Gundy is easily carried away as an analyst, that doesn’t mean his basketball mind has become any less lauded. There’s a reason the 53-year-old is rumored as a candidate for the best job openings every offseason… Van Gundy has shown he deserves to be considered for them.
After a report emerged indicating mutual interest between he and the New Orleans Pelicans, the team ultimately went a different direction by hiring Golden State Warriors lead assistant Alvin Gentry. Van Gundy, though, clearly doesn’t hold any ill-will towards the Pelicans.
On a conference call with reporters yesterday, he gushed openly about New Orleans superstar Anthony Davis.
Van Gundy knows what he’s talking about, too. This is a guy whose teams in New York and Houston were led by All-Stars Patrick Ewing and Yao Ming. There might be a coach more qualified to evaluate big men than Van Gundy, but certainly not many.
Of course, you don’t need the praise of analysts or former coaches to recognize just how good Davis is or how good he’ll eventually become. He was arguably the best player in basketball this season at the tender age of 22, an All-NBA First Team and All-Defense Second Team honoree who averaged 24.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game while leading the league in blocks and PER. And Davis was even better in his first postseason appearance despite facing the eventual Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors.
He’s a consensus top-three player already, and has only begun scratching the surface of his limitless potential. A guy like Davis really could thrive despite being “coached by someone off the street.” All-time greats don’t need a top-tier coach barking orders from the sidelines to play up to their estimable talent level.
Gentry, though, still seems uniquely suited to bring out the best in Davis, and Van Gundy agrees.
The Pelicans under Monty Williams were one of the league’s slowest teams. They ranked 27th in pace this season, 21st a year ago, and dead last during Davis’ rookie campaign. Assuming Gentry stays true to his well-established playing style in his fourth go-round as a head coach, that crawled tempo will be a thing of the past for New Orleans going forward, and Davis will reap immediate and sweeping benefits.
No big man in the world runs better than The Brow. At 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds, he moves like a player six inches shorter and tens of pounds lighter. He’ll get a fair share of easy buckets running the floor in transition with the Pelicans’ guards and skying for highlight-reel alley-oops.
But Davis will be similarly buoyed on offense in the halfcourt, too. He’ll play as a center in spread pick-and-roll lineups more often next season, making hay as a roller, popper, or simple isolation scorer with shooters spacing the floor around him. And even when Davis is playing alongside a traditional five, Gentry’s motion-based system will afford him easier scoring opportunities than Williams’ oft laboring one ever did.
It was always safe to assume that Davis would improve on his incredible numbers next season. With Gentry at the helm, however, anything less than a major uptick would be somewhat surprising for him come 2015-16.
Van Gundy’s right: Anyone could coach The Brow. But New Orleans just might have found the man best-suited to help its precocious franchise player realize his best-in-the-world ability sooner than anyone anticipated.
[Via John Reid]