Before games got underway at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament Friday, A.J. Davis stood on the court listening to advice from a former NBA player while several of his teammates warmed up.
Besides serving as a showcase event allowing 64 college seniors to play in front of professional scouts, the PIT — which began in 1953 — also gives the pros-to-be a chance to learn from former NBA players. For many prospects, they’re getting their first lessons on what it takes to make it to the next level.
But Davis, a 6-foot-9 combo forward from UCF, has received guidance from someone who has been where he wants to be ever since he can remember. Still, given the high stakes environment, Davis soaked up every last word his dad, once an NBA all-star, said to him as he prepared to play his second game in Portsmouth, Va.
“Listen, the one thing that can separate you right now is that you’re showing scouts that if they give you an opportunity, everyday they see you they’re going to know that you’re thankful for that opportunity,” Antonio Davis told his son. “Just play hard. No tippy toeing up and down the floor. Every time the ball goes up, if you need to switch, be commutative, speak out loud with authority. All those little things, people notice that. They’ll give you a shot because of that.”
The younger Davis listened: he made six of his seven shots to finish with 14 points and five rebounds in 23 minutes as his team, the Norfolk Sports Club, beat Roger Brown’s 114-102. Most of Davis’ points were due to hustle. He scored twice off offensive rebounds and twice in transition, showing off athleticism and ability to finish with authority as well. Afterwards, he said going through the pre-draft process has been a dream come true — again, heeding his father’s advice, although it was clear that his appreciation for the opportunity was as genuine as the effort he played with.
“I’ve been around the NBA for a long time with my dad playing in the NBA so to have a chance to even be in front of NBA scouts is an awesome feeling,” Davis said.
Few professional basketball hopefuls are as blessed to have a mentor like the elder Davis, a 13-year NBA veteran, former ESPN analyst and NBPA president who was recently tabbed by the NBA to lead a program intended to help players adjust to life after basketball. Davis, like his son, wasn’t a surefire NBA player after four years of college, even though he was drafted in the second round of the 1990 Draft. A high-flying college dunk champion out of UTEP still in search of an on-court identity, the (at the time) 6-foot-9, 245 pound big man spent the first few years of his career in Europe where he began establishing himself as the blue collar rebounder and defender that would go on to outlast almost all of the players in the NBA drafted before him. He retired in 2006 at 37 when A.J. and his twin sister Keala had just turned 11.
By then, A.J. already understood what the NBA was about.
“It’s a brotherhood,” he said. “The NBA is like one big family. Being around it early, and being around those guys — just seeing how hard they work and how much time they put into it — it’s just a blessing to be able to see all that stuff and then be able to go through this process. I’ve kind of already seen what it takes and what those guys go through everyday.”
Davis’ twin sister is already in the WNBA. She was drafted 10th overall by the Dallas Stars after helping South Carolina win the national championship as a junior, leaving school with one year of eligibility remaining. Her brother isn’t as highly-touted of a prospect, but he too has the eyes of top-level scouts, some of whom have known him since he was a kid.
A lot of the intrigue surrounding A.J. — as well as what’s allowed his sister to become so successful — revolves around versatility. The younger Davis has a lot of the same intangibles that allowed his dad play into his mid-30s, but he grew up playing guard and it shows in what he brings to the table. Antonio Davis said he wanted his son to able to grab rebounds and lead the break, initiate offense, shoot off screens and understand how to execute the pick-and-roll both as a ball handler and screener, which are all things he learned at a young age while playing in a league called Illinois Central Elite.
“We weren’t the biggest on our team, we always played up [an age group] so we were always just guards,” A.J. Davis said of he and his sister. “We could always shoot and dribble from a young age so that was just kind of the position we played. As we got taller, bigger and stronger, it just made our game more complete.”
Antonio Davis coached his son for about six years, up until high school. That’s when A.J. began growing closer to his father’s height. He earned a scholarship to Tennessee but ended up transferring to UCF after a coaching change. In three seasons with the Golden Knights, Davis played almost every position at one time or another. He earned all-AAC second-team honors as a senior, averaging 12.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.2 assist per game while helping to anchor (along with 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall) one of the nation’s ten best defenses.
One thing that held him back: shooting. Davis made only 47 threes and shot under 70 percent from the free throw line during his junior and senior seasons. Still, he proved proficient doing just about everything else offensively. According to Synergy Sports, Davis used 20 or more possessions in the following play types this past season: spot-ups (22.9 percent of the time), isolation (15.8), transition (13.6), cuts (8.3), pick-and-roll ball handler (7.8), post-ups (7.3), offensive rebounds (6.1) and pick-and-roll man (5.1). He excelled in isolation situations (85th percentile) as he often proved too strong for wings and too quick for big men and had success finishing cuts (88th percentile) and putbacks (93rd percentile) as well.
But his versatility on defense is likely Davis’ ticket into the NBA. At just under 6-foot-9 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, A.J., as his dad explains, “can legitimately stay in front of a point guard, bang with a [power forward], chase a [shooting guard] and guard the [small forward].”
That ability, in itself, is enough to open eyes. When combined with his pedigree, offensive versatility, motor, IQ, frame and understanding of how much work it takes to be successful at the next level, A.J. has everything needed to one day achieve his dreams and unlock the rest of his potential.
Right now, though, his shooting prevents him from being a projectable three-and-D player, which both he and his dad find ironic.
“It’s so funny because when he was younger he was a great shooter. And then he grew and he started dunking the basketball and all that crap,” Davis Sr. joked.
Said A.J.: “When I was younger, that’s all I used to do. If all people are saying is I need to shoot the ball better, then that’s not really a struggle for me. I’m not really worried about that because I know I’ve just got to put some time and focus into it and I’ll be able to knock down shots.”
For almost a month now, A.J. Davis has worked out in Vegas at the Impact Basketball Academy, fine-tuning his jumper. Among the other prospects working under the guidance of highly-respected trainer Joe Abunassar include projected first round pick Troy Brown, fellow 6’9 combo forward DJ Hogg, fellow PIT participant Kenrich Williams, and former Creighton guards Maurice Watson and Marcus Foster (who also participated in this year’s PIT).
The elder Davis believes it’s good for his son to learn about the game from others, especially when it comes to shooting (Davis shot 2-23 from three during his NBA career). He’s chosen to hang mostly in the background in recent years, providing advice at opportune times, like before his son plays in front of a bunch of NBA scouts. But even then, once the ball was tipped, Antonio Davis stretched out his still imposing figure across a couple rows of seats in the bleachers and quietly watched his son play.
“Even today I wouldn’t dare say I know what he needs from a technical standpoint with all the footwork and all that. It’s an advanced game now. The stuff that he has to do, I know what it is, but I don’t know if I can teach him how to do it,” he said.
Still, there’s a lot his son can and has learned from him. While they are different players on the court, Davis sees two traits in his son that helped himself last in the NBA: toughness and a high basketball IQ.
“We can talk about a lot of stuff,” Davis Sr. said. Whether they’re watching the Houston Rockets play the Golden State Warriors or the Sacramento Kings play the Orlando Magic, the two enjoy breaking down games, teams, players and coaches together. “We’ll connect — why are they good, why are they bad, what makes this player good or not good, what do you think it’ll be like playing for this coach or that coach, how do you see yourself on the floor with this team or that team. I love the fact that he’s that way. I’ve always prided myself in understanding the game.”