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The Remarkable Versatility of Johnny Davis
Few players had as much individual responsibility as Johnny Davis had this season. Don't make his evaluation more complicated than it needs to be.
After having a decent freshman season as a role player off the bench and an impressive FIBA campaign, Johnny Davis took the college basketball world by storm as he led the Wisconsin Badgers to a Big Ten regular season title. Davis’s meteoric rise up draft boards was one of the more surprising aspects of this season. After his unexpected leap into stardom, Davis now sits comfortably as a lottery prospect and one of the most promising guards in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Throughout his various levels of competition and roles, the main constant in Davis’s game has been his defense. Some questioned how versatile of a defender Davis would be in the NBA, but many of those concerns have been quelled after he measured in at 6’5.75” with a wingspan of 6’8.5” at the Draft Combine. While measurements are an important factor in a player’s defensive versatility, they aren’t the end-all, be-all determination. What matters most is what we actually see from the player on the court.
What Davis showed on the court was some of the most impressive defense in the country, especially when you consider the offensive load he took on, but we’ll get to that later. Davis’s positioning, work rate, and instincts suggest he could be one of the rare perimeter players who are a positive defender early in their career. There are a million nuanced things that go into great defense, but the easiest one for us to gauge is defensive playmaking.
Defensive playmaking isn’t always the proper measure of a good defender because much of it is a symptom of poor defense that just happens to work out. However, it is crucially important because it’s the most surefire way to end a possession. Either you get a steal, a block, or a defensive rebound (that last one isn’t typically included in defensive playmaking, but I think it should be). Players who rack up multiple assists per game are impactful but are those steals a result of quick hands and great instincts or constant gambling that occasionally pays off? In Davis’s case, it’s the former.
This season, Davis had a steal rate of 2.0, a block rate of 2.3, and a defensive rebound rate of 23.8. Davis is one of, if not the, best rebounding guard in this class because of his tremendous pursuit, strength, and work rate. Numbers on their own mean nothing, but when we set thresholds to compare them amongst his peers, we can see how effective Davis actually was at ending possessions. According to Barttorvik, Davis was one of 24 players (names include Jabari Smith, Oscar Tshiebwe, and Jaylin Williams) in the country to have a steal rate of at least 2, a block rate of at least 2, and a defensive rebound rate of at least 23. When you filter by players from true high major conferences, the pool of players drops to eight. From that original pool of 24, there are only three other players under 6’6” to reach those benchmarks, and Davis is the only player remaining when filtered by true high major programs.
In a vacuum, those numbers and queries mean nothing. It’s a convenient way to back up my views of Davis’s defense, but I promise I’m not using them as some sort of manipulation. Instead, it’s a fascinating way to see how he makes an impact on defense and how those numbers align with the tape.
Opponents who are lazy with the ball frequently get punished by Davis. He is rarely out of position, and when he is, he works his ass off to recover. Davis’s instincts and anticipation are generally brilliant, as he is always a threat to pick off a lazy pass and take it the other way.
Additionally, Davis has incredible hands and timing when digging off-ball or looking to rip the ball-handler.
He obviously won’t be an impactful rim protector in the NBA, but Davis is an impressive shot blocker. His size and length give credence to this being a legitimate tool in the toolbelt, as does his underrated leaping ability. Davis has good timing and can be disruptive on or off-ball.
The counting stats like steals, blocks, and rebounds are important, but they are only a small fraction of what comprises great defense. The rest of the recipe requires good footwork, high effort, quality screen navigation, discipline, and much more. Davis isn’t lacking in any of those categories.
Before I lose you and you think that I’m unabashedly shilling for Davis, I do have issues with his footwork. He too frequently crosses his feet and angles his hips in ways that could make him vulnerable to more adept ball-handlers. His foot speed, natural balance, and work rate often bail him out, but it is something he must improve. Other than that, there isn’t much to dislike. Davis slithers around screens, doesn’t take possessions off, plays exceptional ball denial, and can switch.
When he puts it all together in one possession, it is a real thing of beauty like we see here. Davis is matched up on Michael Devoe (a 17.9 PPG scorer). Georgia Tech runs a few decoy actions before getting into their set that starts with a Devoe pick-and-roll. Davis gets skinny and slides over the top of the screen, keeping his body between the ball and the rim. Devoe makes an excellent read and live-dribble kick out to his teammate the second he sees that Davis easily navigates the screen. As the ball-handler attacks, Davis stays in the lane for an extra split second to stunt at the ball, allowing his teammate to recover. Now positioned between the ball and Devoe, Georgia Tech resorts to a lofted kick out to Devoe, who is near midcourt. Now, it’s simply who can win in isolation. As Devoe drives, Davis does get caught crossing his feet, but he has angled his body to initiate contact and keep Devoe out of the lane. From there, Davis stays disciplined, doesn’t foul, and stays vertical to force a tough shot.
Davis will provide some of the most versatile and impactful defense in this draft. While it helps make him a more well-rounded player, it isn’t what makes him a top-10 prospect. In a league where offense reigns supreme, players have to find ways to make an impact, and boy oh boy, does Davis do that.
Davis took the college basketball world by storm as he became one of the most versatile scorers in the country, averaging 19.7 points per game. Davis finished at the rim, in the mid-range, on cuts, and the occasional three. What is so perplexing about the discussion around Davis’s offense is that what everyone initially loved about his game quickly turned into what they ridiculed him for doing. Praises like “he has an old school, physical mid-range game” quickly turned into “eh, he has an old school, physical mid-range game.” I really hope you read that second one with that snotty, dismissive teenage condescension we all had at one point, or else that sentence would make zero sense. This inconsistency in evaluations is the crux of my frustrations with the reasoning from the Davis doubters.
The best place to start is with Davis’s scoring. Davis proved that he could score in a variety of ways, but most of his success came in the mid-range and at the rim. I know the mid-range game isn’t considered sexy anymore, but every year in the playoffs, we hear how desperately a team needs a guy who can get their own shot in the mid-range. I suppose that reasoning doesn’t apply to Davis, though, as he is frequently derided for his tough mid-range shot-making, despite scoring 0.922 PPP (84th percentile) on mid-range jumpers.
The way Davis gets to his spots in the mid-range resembles the tendencies of a seasoned veteran. Davis does a great job of maintaining his balance and using various techniques to create space in traffic. He is adept at changing pace, stopping on a dime, using his strength to shrug off defenders, and quickly elevating to throw off the defender’s timing. Davis gets into these shots out of isolation, the pick-and-roll, cuts, attacking closeouts, and dribble handoffs.
If Davis was a one-dimensional scorer who purely relied on the mid-range, then some of these criticisms would have a stronger foundation. However, Davis is also an extraordinary interior finisher with great touch. Davis scored 0.95 PPP (79th percentile) on runners, 1.201 PPP (66th percentile) around the basket in non-post-up situations, 0.852 PPP (55th percentile) on post-ups, and 1.259 PPP (85th percentile) when he attacked the rim out of the pick-and-roll.
Davis isn’t an overwhelming athlete, making his at-rim finishing even more impressive. Instead of relying on raw explosiveness, Davis utilizes his footwork, use of angles, and touch with both hands to consistently finish at the rim. Davis frequently snaked through traffic, split double teams, and finished with off-balance reverse layups with either hand. He stopped on a dime and knocked down tough floaters with either hand. He even showed the strength to initiate and finish through contact on a regular basis. Davis’s fearlessness, aggressiveness, and strength also led to him shooting 6.3 free throws a game.
Davis took a lot of tough shots this season (more on that in a bit), but his effectiveness inside the arc is evident. The bigger concern for most people is what Davis can do from three. On the season, Davis shot just 30.6% on 3.9 attempts per game from three and scored 0.845 PPP (30th percentile). Not ideal from your starting shooting guard. The outside shot is easily the biggest concern with Davis’s offense.
The results from three weren’t good this season, and he often looked uncomfortable and lacking confidence from outside. For Davis to fully optimize his offensive production, he must show more reliability and consistency from outside. Even though the results were lacking, there are signs for optimism.
Some of the more reliable indicators for outside shooting progression are free throw percentage, willingness to shoot, standstill shooting, and touch on floaters. First, Davis’s free throw percentage of 79.1% is fine. It isn’t perfect, but it also isn’t indicative of someone who will shoot 30% from three for his career. Second, Davis’s willingness to shoot wasn’t as eager as you’d like. He would pass up open threes, hesitate, or look to attack instead. He wasn’t completely opposed to shooting, but he wasn’t exactly thrilled about the opportunity either. Still, 3.9 attempts per game and 121 on the season is a healthy volume. Third, Davis’s open catch and shoot possessions were highly efficient as he scored 1.429 PPP (86th percentile) and had a 47.6 FG%. Finally, Davis has exceptional touch on his floaters, as we previously covered, suggesting that that same touch could translate to his outside jumper.
Davis isn’t going to be Klay Thompson or one of the Curry brothers, but the idea that he won’t improve as at least a standstill shooter feels shortsighted. With the abundance of shooting knowledge, coaching, and improvement throughout the league, how is improving as an off-ball shooter viewed as such a monumental task?
The other two major gripes with Davis’s offense are his lack of playmaking and shot selection. Both are highly dependent on context, which so frequently gets ignored. Let’s start with the playmaking. For starters, Davis isn’t a point guard or a primary initiator. Once we accept that, the playmaking looks much more impressive.
When we look at the raw numbers, though, the concerns are understandable. Davis averaged only 2.1 assists per game, had a 0.93 AST/TO ratio, and an assist percentage of 14.8. These aren’t the indicators of someone who takes care of the ball and projects as a good passer.
To generate an assist, though, the other person has to make the shot. The rest of the Badgers as a team shot 42% from the floor and 31% from three. There were only two other Badgers who made more than 30 threes; the rest of the team combined for 263 shots off the dribble (Brad Davison and Chucky Hepburn were responsible for 208 of those attempts) compared to Davis’s 195 attempts, and they shot 31.9% off the dribble, and 29.8% off the catch. When we talk about environments that are conducive to playmaking, this Badger’s team was not that.
To reiterate, Davis should not be used as a primary creator. As a secondary or tertiary creator, though, Davis provides immense value. That ambidexterity that we saw with his finishing arises with his passing too. He can make live dribble skip passes with either hand, makes the extra pass on the perimeter, and uses his scoring gravity to create for others.
Another reason that we didn’t see Davis generate more assists is that he took a lot of shots. According to Barttorvik, Davis had the sixth-highest usage rate in the country among players from true high major programs at 31.6. This is an astronomically high number. It also isn’t indicative of who Davis will, or at least should, be in the NBA. Davis’s usage and shot selection were what they were because they had to be. For Wisconsin to reach the heights they did, Davis had to take on an unsustainable role on both ends of the court. He was the only player capable of regularly generating his own shot. Projecting Davis to play a similar role in the NBA is disingenuous.
Throughout his career, Davis has played whatever role his team has needed from him. His freshman year, the Badgers needed energy, defense, and competence off the bench. So, he provided that. During FIBA, his team needed a low-usage connector who could play quality defense. So, he provided that. This season, the Badgers needed someone who could singlehandedly carry the offense. So, he provided that along with stellar defense.
Davis likely won’t come close to sniffing a 30-usage rate throughout his NBA career. That’s not the type of role he’s meant to have. Instead, he’ll be a quality secondary option who can cut, post-up, run a second side pick-and-roll, and create out of isolation. He’ll make the extra pass and fill whatever role his team needs him to fill.
Johnny Davis is one of the most versatile and malleable guards in the 2022 NBA Draft. He defends at a high level, has a mature scoring game inside the arc, and will willingly fill a variety of roles. The outside shot must improve, but given the shooting indicators, it would be surprising if he was one of the few players who never improved as an off-ball shooter. Don’t overthink it with Johnny Davis because it’s not that complicated.