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2022 NBA Draft Analysis: Johnny Davis

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Milwaukee - Colgate vs Wisconsin Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

With draft season officially in full swing, Mark and Caitlin are back with a fresh episode of “Stock up, Stock down.” Breaking down a different prospect each week, the idea is for the hosts to watch a player, identifying reasons to be both bearish and bullish, with frame of reference from a few specific games as well as for the Pacers. Then, in zooming out with a broader focus, an invited draft expert reacts to the findings.

This week, Asher Low from USA Today’s Badger Wire joins to talk Johnny Davis through the lens of Wisconsin’s game against Purdue, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Iowa State.

Stock Up

Caitlin’s pick — Preventing the need for and executing rotations

For as much as Johnny Davis, in serving as a touchstone for efficiency and what qualifies as athleticism, can exist in the eye of the beholder as a tough shot-maker; he can also be difficult to look away from, refusing to be screened in spite of his supersized offensive role, on the end of the floor where the Pacers are in most need.

Darting over the first screen and then surging out from under the second, look at how the ball never manages to touch the paint during the entirety of this possession, as Davis also slenderizes himself through the re-screen without surrendering a downhill advantage or space to shoot.

In that way, inducing passes out of ball-screens while blunting the need for the rotations required of drop coverage is sort of his jam and somewhat reminiscent of what Cory Joseph once provided at the point of attack, protecting even Al Jefferson from protecting the rim.

For point of reference, the Pacers were downright miserly that season when Joseph was on the floor with the regular starters (i.e. Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, and Myles Turner), limiting opponents to 99.3 points per 100 possessions compared to 110.9 with Darren Collison. Back then, however, the team was mainly deploying coverages that required chasing over on screens (albeit with less rigidity than what was the case under Nate Bjorkgren), whereas now they’ve shifted increasingly toward switching.

Moving forward, it remains to be seen what form(s) the defense will take once (if?) Myles Turner is back in the lineup, but that determination could be a key distinction for Davis, who despite navigating screens with the fluidity of running water can, at times, appear stuck in mud against quick rip-throughs when defending on an island.

Still, his defensive impact isn’t only limited to ball-screens; he’s also capable of negating some complex off-ball actions before they even begin. Just look at this possession against Jaden Ivey. Not only does Davis bust through the initial pindown, he denies the hand-off as well as the fade, forcing Trevion Williams to pivot to the next option.

Needless to say, it’s already tough just to tail up from the block at that angle, let alone when the intended recipient has Ivey’s combination of burst, change of direction, and footwork.

Plus, it begs pointing out that, in addition to preventing his teammates from defending in rotation, he actively participates in playing team defense as opposed to stealing rest away from the ball. Here, rather than conserving energy to maintain or avoid being drained by his high rate of usage (32%), he tags the roller and springs back out to contest, altering the shot once the ball gets swung back to his man.

Be warned. His closeouts are not always that clean, as he can occasionally surrender middle, overcompensating for his lack of outlier length and foot speed. Nevertheless, for a team long in need of reinforcements at the point of attack whose weak-side help too often appeared as though it was optional, there’s a case for what Davis adds in both warding off and executing rotations, even if everything about his offense doesn’t prove entirely translatable.

Mark’s pick — Functional Athleticism

While Davis isn’t going to get billed with the typical jump out the gym athleticism, he’s still quite a remarkable athlete. How does a player that isn’t bursty get to their spots with ease? Davis, a former football player, very much embodies football athleticism. Some may take that as a negative, but I mean it in the inverse!

No, Davis doesn’t get separation in the way that you expect out of a primary initiator (I don’t project that for him), but he still gets his shots off. Davis operated in a phone booth almost exclusively at Wisconsin, as the overall spacing and gravity outside of Davis was pretty lacking. Defenses were comfortable helping off the slot and the weak side corner, cheating in to crunch down on Davis’ drives.

While this look comes in transition, it’s such a great clip for understanding Johnny’s athleticism.

It’s like watching a running back hit the gap and dusting a linebacker with the quick cut. His lateral quickness, flexibility, and explosion is so impressive. It’s what allows him to play in tight areas. His base is so low to the ground and he has really fantastic balance.

Coming up to snag the ball, Jaden Ivey (best athlete in the class) overruns Davis to prevent the hand off. But, Davis hits him with the quick and controlled spin before getting downhill and stepping around the set defender for the drop-off.

Again, the balance, the control, and the non-stop movement stands out. He’s not the quickest/fastest, but the ability to change directions so fluidly the way he does is impressive. His angles are so sharp.

That carries over defensively. Even with well placed screens, Davis sheds them so well.

Davis is masterful with shoulder dips and damage control when covering ground on defense through screens.

Davis loves to reject screens. His anticipation and awareness are also something I’d consider part of his atypical athleticism.

He’s adept at noticing what’s happening in a coverage right in front of him and finding the way to attack it. Notice how as soon as his defender changes his stance to ICE the ball screen, he immediately hits the burst button. Again, he’s not bursty, but he has a suddenness. I’m not sure quite how else to explain it, but it’s a similar shade to Luka Doncic who beats defenders with his strength based game.

As PD Web has best coined it, advantage perception; how a player processes and notices/is capable of taking advantage of an advantage!

He won’t carry a 33% usage in the league, but again, that’s part of what makes him so interesting. Davis moves so well without the ball, flowing like a wide receiver and using his awareness of his screeners to set up defenders into pitfalls.

Again, that ability to consistently change direction multiple times and use his quick twitch hips to flow into openings is so impressive. It makes me extremely enticed about his potential fit with Tyrese Haliburton when considering how he could look playing off of him and in a three guard lineup predicated on motion and creativity.

Just look at the way Davis sells and jets into this 45 cut.

While the lack of burst and some of his other limitations that we’ll get into do hinder some of his ability as an on-ball creator, the other areas where excels athletically set him apart from his contemporaries.

I won’t have a stock down simply because Caitlin and I had roughly the same idea here and she absolutely knocked the write-up out of the park.

Stock Down

Caitlin’s pick — Ball-stopping

Like Caris LeVert, who the Pacers traded midseason to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Davis is a herky-jerky mover, who can be disorienting for defenses with his combination of smoothness paired with abrupt rejection of screens, use of angles, and unpredictable changes of direction. Also like Caris LeVert, however, he can be prone to extended isolations, producing fickle, short mid-range twos while appearing to wear blinders.

Generally speaking, that style of play — not so much for the shot profile as the lack of ball movement — didn’t always seem to mesh with what the Pacers were trying to accomplish.

To be fair, LeVert effectively hijacked that possession, going away from the intended offense to hunt his own shot. Davis, by comparison, is more separatist in that he has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long, spinning his tires while grappling to create the initial advantage that LeVert would occasionally gain and then squander in the form of truncated drives.

What happened, here, against Michigan State effectively summarizes all of the different dynamics at play. First, notice how the screener late pivots on the ball screen, running across and changing angles from one side of the on-ball defender to the other. In theory, with the screener’s defender then forced to recover with the ball moving away, Davis should have a slight head start as he uses the screen.

Instead, he gets leveled off behind the 3-point line, with his man ducking under.

That’s the first screen. On the re-screen, he gets greeted at the level and effectively curls back around a third screen into the defense, as his handle labors to withstand the twists and turns of pressure. All the while, the ball never touches the paint, nor leaves his hands — except when he ultimately loses it.

Ahh, memories.

And yet, on top of managing a nagging ankle injury, consider the surrounding context. Not only does the screener wait too long to get out of the pick and relieve congestion, but the corner man’s defender essentially remains anchored to the block in spite of Ben Carlson’s subtle gravity cut, replacing himself in the same spot he left so as to open driving space. Granted, Davis still holds the blame for being loose with the ball before he ever even reached the crowd. And, not unlike LeVert, he could certainly stand to be a more willing passer, but he also was responsible for carrying most of the weight in a cramped Wisconsin offense that ranked in the eighth percentile of spot-up efficiency, per Synergy.

In that regard, it’s worth questioning if his ability to get to the rim in the half-court, where he sourced fewer of his shots (134) than he attempted as mid-range jumpers (148), would improve in a reduced role with better spacing. After all, while perhaps not “athletic” in the sense of traditional buzzwords like burst, explosiveness, and blow-by speed, he can be spry in his lateral movements (like on defense) and impressive in his manipulation of functional strength, staying low and cupping the ball like a running back grinding through tackles on the drive. Alongside Tyrese Haliburton, with a decrease in offensive volume and less pressure to attack against set defenses, there might be a roadmap for extracting more of his best qualities while masking and gently workshopping some of his worst.

Take this chin wide-pin set, for example. The Pacers ran that same action a few times this past season, as did the Mavericks a year ago when Rick Carlisle was still at the helm.

Superimposed together, imagine Haliburton as the primary ball-handler with Isaiah Jackson available to veer into a potential lob. In that set-up, as opposed to holding the ball and boxing himself into creating space with contact, Davis would be curling into a quick decision off-the-catch, either turning the corner with his shoulder burrowed underneath his defender or making a simple read to the screener without any back-side help. Moreover, when he operates as the player who comes off the chin screen in that action, he’s capable of stopping on a dime to seal into a post-up on the cut, when defenders tend to relax.

That could be translatable in other settings, too. Remember, as was the case when the Pacers struggled to get to the rim against Cleveland’s switches and strategically pivoted to a post-up with Duarte, being able to isolate the big away from the action, inverting the offense with Davis as more of a threat to establish deep possession and rise over the smaller defender while also potentially facilitating with clear sight lines, might come in handy as a wrinkle when teams bottle up Haliburton with length.

Of course, Davis will need to be less erratic from deep when teams duck under that same aforementioned chin play, daring him to shoot in an effort to beat him to his spot; but again, he was arguably overtaxed adjusting to a larger role last season and he still managed to convert 38 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, according to InStat.

All of which is to say that, while some of the 20-year-old’s flaws as a scorer already proved cumbersome for the Pacers by proxy of LeVert last season, his attributes — from defending at the point of attack to drawing fouls and leveraging his size, whether on the glass or in the post — also weren’t readily available to them, perhaps allowing for some degree of margin for error in what may prove clarifying for Davis in a different play context.

Other topics:

  • Wisconsin team context; potential injury impact late in the season
  • Shooting projection
  • Rebounding as an underrated trait for a poor rebounding team
  • Functional athleticism and multi-sport impact
  • Parsing passing vision versus passing reluctance
  • Would the mid-post factor in Carlisle’s offense?
  • Davis/Mathurin and addressing weaknesses versus augmenting strengths
  • Haliburton/Duarte/Davis as a trio

Enjoy the pod and continue looking forward to more of these episodes as the draft approaches. Also, if you haven’t already, please be sure to Rate and Review the Indy Cornrows Podcast on Apple Podcasts and subscribe anywhere else you can listen.