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  • Writer's pictureNathan Fogg

Scouting Johnny Davis: Musings on Self-creation

Johnny Davis is jumping up draft boards and it’s no surprise as to why. Despite a tough schedule, he’s one of the top scorers in college and has dragged his Wisconsin team to a 13-2 record, which includes a recent win over Purdue, where Davis outperformed top prospect Jaden Ivey. Projecting a high usage scorer onto an NBA team where he wont get nearly the same leash is not a new exercise, but it’s always a tricky one. If you’re a guard touted as a top 10 pick, top 5 on some boards, a certain confidence in your on-ball creation is surely needed. So here we’ll look at the self-creation aspect of Davis’s game, to see where it stands halfway through the season.

Early on in the year Davis was being asked to create from stand-still positions a lot, whether it was from a cross court pass or an out-of-bounds, we got to see plenty of examples of his acceleration and how quickly he can get from 0 to 100. While sometimes it got him to where he needed to go, I don’t think the physical tools will blow anyone away. Even when he was able to get by his man, that first step doesn’t exactly stand out. It’s fine, if not spectacular. There are definitely a couple of clips where it looks faster here, so maybe it’s a question more of consistency than an overall inability, but the dribble also looks a little heavy to me, pushed out wide and just a little laboured.

There’s also his decision making on drives, which is pretty poor. When he’s under pressure and not simply going north-south, he often runs into traffic, whether into the help defender at the nail or his own teammate.

When he’s in a straight up isolation situation, he’s rarely able to get by his man – either with speed or with craft. Even when he’s had a big man in front of him, the simple crossover move hasn’t gotten him anywhere. What he settles for instead, is trying to drive into his man and bump him back, then use a quick stepback with the separation. He shows good footwork, but he’s not really strong enough to move even a retreating defender further back, and he’s not a good enough pullup shooter for this to be reliable offense.

The pullup midrange is the biggest problem I see with Davis’s game and the way it might translate to the NBA. Just 21% of his shots come at the rim (<4 feet). 29% are coming from 2pt jump shots outside the paint. There’s certainly pressure on him as the guy Wisconsin needs to get buckets, and it doesn’t mean this is going to be his shot profile in the NBA. Last year for Arizona State, Josh Christopher was mostly taking midrange jumpers, but in a Rockets uniform he’s scrapped those shots from his game in lieu of more drives at the rim and 3pt attempts. However, we still have to question the decision-making Davis shows. Whether it’s off a screen against a drop big, 1v1 in iso, or curling around a handoff, it was incredibly rare to see him attack the rim. Instead, we see awful, off-balance, early in the shot clock pullups like these.

There’s definitely some foul-baiting going on here, and Davis is averaging 5.9 free throw attempts a game, a highly impressive number considering most come from jump shot fouls. If he feels any sort of contact, he’s rising up and trying to get the shooting foul. However, this doesn’t make his shotchart an efficient one. Davis simply isn’t a good enough shooter to pull this type of game off. In his junior year he shot 33.7% on all 2pt jump shots. This year as a sophomore, he’s hitting 40.2%. That’s certainly improved, and from anywhere on the court he can hit really tough, contested shots, but it’s still nowhere near a level where you want him to play like this once he reaches the big league.

Some of this is mentality, but Davis has also at times exhibited a real lack of craft when it comes to getting downhill – at least without a screen. The one move he can reliably pull off is the John Wall quick reversal, and it does get him by his defender more often than not. This kind of move can get easily scouted in the NBA, although a role player would probably find more success with it by flying under the radar.

It’s a shame that Davis doesn’t get more penetration into the paint, because when he does you see the decision making come to life. He’s a good passer when he wants to be, and can easily hit the help-off man, a bullet pass to the opposite corner while in the air, or wrap around passes to the center. These are the flashes which will tantalise NBA scouts and front offices.

However, too often he’s only looking at the rim, and ignoring his teammates around him.

All of this is probably a lot more negative than one might expect given the recent hype about his game, so where has all that come from? Well, as well as heavy scoring nights, Davis has shown a great improvement in his driving which starts to pull you in on his potential. Look at this play for example, where he uses his favoured change of direction and pace and then manoeuvres around a contest at the rim for the tricky layup.

There’s also these plays where he uses hopsteps to get to the rim, leaping through traffic where earlier in the year he may have risen up for a shot.

Unfortunately we’re still not seeing much skill with the handle, which is why I still place a fairly hard ceiling on his on-ball projection. He only averages 2.1 turnovers a game, but from what I have seen these are mostly live dribble turnovers, rather than errant passes. Using his handle to get separation is just not something he can reliably do right now (which does makes some of his shot making even more impressive).

So where does that leave Davis as a prospect? Well for starters, he’s playing fantastic defense right now and has been for a while. But we’re focusing on offense for the purposes of this blog post, and to me the claims of him being the best guard in the draft are way off. Without reliable downhill burst and separation skills at the college level, there’s little to point to that suggests he will enjoy anywhere near the usage he is currently getting for Wisconsin when he gets to the NBA. A 3+D role is more likely, and while he’s only shooting 33.3% from deep, the open looks he gets are really clean. Those prospects tend to fall lower in the first round, but what Davis does show is the potential to be a secondary creator. He can curl around screens and balance in the air to get a nice look at the rim, and when he’s attacking at an angle off a handoff or downhill with space off a screen, he shows just enough athleticism to make you believe in him.

If Davis’s name gets called out early on draft night, it’s probably because a team wants to tap the well as far as they can and see if he can be the scorer he has been in college, but I think they will eventually realise a more limited role is where he will thrive. How he accepts that will be a big part of his future. For now, he’s going out and getting buckets on a nightly basis and continuing to pick up big wins for his Wisconsin team. As the season progresses, I’ll be looking out to see his continued improvements, and whether those flickers of self-creation can boom.

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