How Terence Davis’ football background is fuelling his Raptors breakout

NBA insider Michael Grange joins Nikki Reyes to discuss yet another great find for the organization, in undrafted rookie Terence Davis, who continues to lead the way for Raptors "Bench Mob 2.0."

TORONTO — When Terence Davis II was a high school senior, he had a difficult decision to make. Either accept a scholarship from one of the more than 20 NCAA Division I programs that were recruiting him to play football, or choose from the shallow pool of only five schools that were offering him the opportunity to play college basketball and chase his dream.

Practically everyone who saw him play either sport as a teenager thought football was the obvious choice. It came so easily to him. One of the few people who felt differently was Davis himself.

So off he went to Ole Miss, where there was little guarantee of playing time on a veteran Rebels roster and no clear path to a professional career. All Davis had was an opportunity to learn, improve, and throw it back in the face of everyone who said pursuing basketball was a mistake. Now playing 20 minutes a night for the defending NBA champions, it seems Davis has made his point. But he reckons he isn’t done yet.

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“I’m always out to prove. That’s just how I’m wired,” Davis says, standing to the side of the Toronto Raptors practice court Friday afternoon. “The doubters and people like that, they really motivate guys like me — to prove them wrong, honestly. When I committed to college, when I was in high school, I chose basketball. I wanted to prove everyone who thought that I chose the wrong sport wrong. So far, I’ve been doing that. My whole career playing basketball, I’m still out to continue to do that.”

Raptors fans will be familiar with Davis’ recent history by now. Passed over in June’s NBA draft after playing four seasons at Ole Miss, Davis signed a two-year deal with the Raptors during an impressive showing at NBA Summer League, turned heads with a series of strong pre-season performances, earned immediate regular season playing time in head coach Nick Nurse’s rotation, and now holds the second-best net rating (15.6) among the 40 NBA rookies who have appeared in at least six games this season.

With each profound performance, like Wednesday night’s 19-point, eight-rebound, plus-22 barn burner against the Orlando Magic, it gets harder and harder to imagine how Davis ever went undrafted. Among those 40 NBA rookies seeing regular run, Davis ranks top-10 in true shooting, effective field goal percentage, assist rate, and assist-to-turnover ratio.

“I’m just comfortable, man — it’s just getting more comfortable,” he says. “That’s all it is, man. Just confidence and getting comfortable.”

Davis will tell you that if he’d made a different decision five years ago he’d be playing in the NFL today. And, who knows, maybe he would be. He starred as a wide receiver and kick returner at Southaven High School in Mississippi, putting up a 1,000-yard season as a senior. Playing in the 2014 Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game, a heavily scouted showcase featuring several future NFLers, Davis hauled in a 23-yard touchdown as part of a seven-catch, 104-yard day. Just watch his highlight tape. Davis is playing the game at a different speed:

But it wasn’t the game he loved. Davis adored basketball growing up, it just didn’t come as easily to him. He was an odd fit. He didn’t handle the ball well or create enough to be an offence-running point guard. He didn’t have a reliable enough jump shot to be an off-ball shooting guard. And he wasn’t big enough to play in the front court.

Thick and powerful, Davis could hustle his tail off, play above the rim, and cause all kinds of disruption and chaos with his speed and athleticism. But he lacked refinement and consistent shot-making, relying on his energy and doggedness to overcome an underdeveloped skillset. He played like, well, a football player.

Fred VanVleet could see it the first time he watched Davis hoop. On the practice court, Davis was aggressively battling for rebounds, throwing his body around in the paint, and bringing a combative combination of explosiveness and fearlessness to everything he did. There was no hesitation to put himself in positions that invited hard contact. VanVleet says you can always pick out the football players.

“It’s just a physicality. The fear of somebody hitting your chest or getting hit in the ribs, the fear of that is a lot worse than the actual hit that you take. And you don’t really learn that unless you played football or you’re just a rough basketball player,” VanVleet says. “You can tell he’s been hit before — like, hard. For real.”

Those tendencies also help explain why Davis has committed some over-aggressive turnovers and found himself in foul trouble a couple times this season, which are among the few aspects of his performance you can knock. He’s working on it, trying to be a bit more under control on offence, a bit less handsy on defence. Much of it comes with experience, which Davis is obviously lacking. And work ethic, which there has never been a shortage of.

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That’s how he made strides with his playmaking, learning how to channel his physicality to get to his spot on the floor more efficiently while not compromising the space of his teammates. It’s how he reworked his jump shot to correct issues with his elbow and feet, turning himself into a legitimate threat who has hit 16 of his first 33 three-point attempts in the NBA. It’s how he’s continuing to develop defensively, figuring out how to use his athleticism to keep ball-handlers in front of him and contest without fouling.

“I really focus on the task at hand. Coming here and just getting better every single day. Even on off days. If it’s getting treatment, getting shots up, just doing something, just staying ahead,” Davis says. “I got here by one thing and that’s the grace of God. And just putting in a lot of work, man. And trusting the process.”

As long as Kyle Lowry remains sidelined, there will be plenty of opportunity for Davis to continue his growth. He’s currently serving as Toronto’s second point guard behind VanVleet when he isn’t playing alongside the fellow undrafted success story. And even when Lowry returns and bumps VanVleet back into a shooting guard role, it’s hard to imagine Davis not remaining in Nurse’s rotation.

His minutes will inevitably decrease when that happens, which will only create a new challenge for Davis — trying to find a way to be as impactful with less run. VanVleet went through it himself earlier in his career, trying to build on his positive performances and maintain confidence and rhythm while his minutes fluctuated for reasons not entirely within his control.

“That’s the hard part. Right now, it’s easy. Just playing and playing freely,” VanVleet says. “But the worst part about not playing is that you just start to question everything. Like, ‘Damn, why am I not playing?’ Sometimes it’s nothing that you’re doing wrong or right. It’s just that’s the situation.”

But if there’s one thing Davis has learned how to combat it’s self-doubt. There was plenty of reason to question his decision to choose basketball over football in high school, and plenty of people who let him know about it. That noise didn’t exactly dissipate when he barely saw the floor as a freshman at Ole Miss. Or when he went undrafted. Or when he went to Summer League without a deal. But Davis backed himself through it all.

Now he’s here — an NBA regular on a 10-4 team. But like he says, he’s never through proving himself. Friday, as Davis was reflecting on his football days and what could have been, VanVleet listened in and facetiously questioned his teammates credentials.

“You know, I’ve never seen him play football,” VanVleet chided. “I don’t know — I’ve got to check the tape,”

“Oh, I was nice,” Davis responded, assuredly. “I’d be in the league right now — for real.”

“Yeah, everybody says that,” VanVleet laughed. “I was nice, too. In eighth grade.”

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