Anthony Davis has set the bar incredibly high for former Kentucky players entering the NBA, but will he be the one to raise it again?
Davis, who spent his lone season of college roaming Lexington’s campus back in 2011-12, became the first John Calipari-era Kentucky player to win an NBA Title after his Los Angeles Lakers knocked out the Miami Heat in six games to win the 2020 Finals. He wasn’t honored with Finals MVP–that recognition unsurprisingly went to LeBron James–but what Davis did not only in the final series but throughout his entire 2019-20 campaign, has set himself up for even more success in the coming seasons.
Davis has already won an NCAA Championship and an Olympic Gold Medal to go along with his most recent addition, the Larry O’Brien trophy, not to mention his multitude of individual awards such as NCAA Player of the Year, Final Four Most Outstanding Player, seven NBA All-Stars nominations, and four All-NBA selections. The only thing his diamond- and gold-studded trophy case is missing at the young age of 27 is an NBA Most Valuable Player award; and it’s coming up next.
Despite its pedigree of success at the collegiate level, Kentucky has not yet produced an NBA MVP. In reality, they haven’t produced all that many NBA greats. One could argue that the last decade of NBA success by former Kentucky players is equal to, if not greater than, the total production of the previous 60 years. However, that shouldn’t sound too shocking; this is what the head coach was brought in to do. Calipari has preached Kentucky as a “player’s program” since the moment he stepped on campus, instilling lessons that they can take well-beyond their short time in Lexington. What Davis accomplished this past weekend was a culmination of the success behind that theory.
Davis winning the 2020 title with the Lakers was the official mark of Kentucky’s arrival in the NBA, and with dozens of former Wildcats waiting in line behind him, their impact will only continue to affect the league for at least another two decades. The longer Calipari remains the head coach of UK, the more prominent the BBNBA will become. The odds of Kentucky producing an MVP player is higher than any program in the country. But will it happen? The more interesting question is: who might it be?
The easiest and most likely option has to be Davis. If we want to get technical, he was the third “superstar” that Calipari added to his arsenal of one-and-done prospects–John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins being the first two–but Davis was the first to enter his NBA prime in great health. The primes of Wall and Cousins were soured by poorly-timed injuries and incompetent front offices. By the time they were good enough to contend for an MVP, their situation never matched up. For Davis, he had to force himself into the proper circumstance, but now he’s in a perfect position to take full advantage of his prime. Wall and Cousins never had that opportunity.
But actually winning MVP is a lot easier said than done. Playing alongside an aging LeBron James, Davis’ usage and productivity should only continue to increase, even if the Lakers do manage to add another third playmaker. Sliding in as the primary option on offense will boost Davis’ odds. Playing as the second-fiddle to LeBron a season ago, Davis still finished seventh in MVP voting, receiving five third-place votes. Since the 2016-17 season, Davis has been a top-10 MVP finalist on three separate occasions, finishing as high as third following the 2017-18 season as a member of the Pelicans. In that year, he posted averages of 28 points, 11 rebounds, and a league-leading 2.6 blocks per game while shooting over 53 percent from the field. During his first season with the Lakers, those numbers only slightly dipped. An increased role and the marketability of Los Angeles (plus an expected run at a repeat) should put him as one of the two or three favorites to win MVP in 2020-21.
Davis surely won’t be the last former Wildcat with a real shot to win MVP, but he’s absolutely the first. Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jamal Murray, Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox, and many more to come in the future will one day fight for votes, but for right now, Davis is the guy. His most likely challengers will be two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and young phenom Luka Doncic. Winning three in a row will be difficult for Antetokounmpo, considering only three players in history have accomplished that feat before and none since 1986 (Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird). There have been several back-to-back winners since then, including LeBron, Steph Curry, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson, but winning three-in-a-row has proved to be unlikely.
By the time next season rolls around, Davis will eventually turn 28, the same year that legends such as James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Dirk Nowitzki won their first and only MVP awards. Doncic will be right there with him, and there is no reason to believe that Anteokounmpo, Damian Lillard, James Harden, or even LeBron won’t be right back in the mix, but context does play a role in these awards. If Davis continues to expand his game and the Lakers land another No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference next season, his path to an MVP is clearer than anyone else’s.