While Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Paul George were hitting threes and dunking all over the place in the Rising Stars Challenge in Orlando last night, Ed Davis was chilling in Toronto. Heading into his sophomore season, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Davis earned lofty expectations with the way he finished his rookie campaign, averaging 13 points, nine rebounds, and 58 percent shooting in 34 minutes a game in April. This year, under coach Dwane Casey, he’s down to six and six on 49 percent shooting in under 23 minutes. These numbers mean Davis can’t act surprised that the league’s assistant coaches deemed 21 others more deserving. “I take it as motivation, “ he said. “With the shortened season and the new coach, it’s been somewhat of a tougher transition than some of the other guys or whatever, but I’m learning from it.”
Davis learned his earliest basketball lessons from his father, Terry, who spent over a decade in the NBA with the Heat, Mavericks, Wizards and Nuggets. These days, Terry still talks to his son every couple of days, but he’s at a distance, letting him be his own man. “I know a couple of guys whose dads want to be so controlling, want to live with them and control their money,” he said. “My dad, he just let me live and if I ever have a question he’s always there.” Terry’s role wasn’t always played in the background, however.
Suiting up against the Pistons this past Wednesday, Davis encountered more than a familiar face — he found himself looking into the eyes of a man he’s looked up to since he was five years old. To say that Ben Wallace is close to Davis’ family isn’t strong enough for Wallace. “We are family,” Wallace firmly proclaimed. “Me and his father was like brothers.” Not only were Wallace and Terry Wizards teammates, they were both undrafted out of Virginia Union and live nearby in Richmond, VA. “He’s like my nephew,” Wallace said of Davis. “I’ve been knowing him almost all his life and been around him for so long, so I consider him family.” Wallace first envisioned Davis as a pro when he was in high school. “I’d seen how close he started to hang out with his daddy,” he said. “They used to work out together, get up in the morning and go run a couple of miles. For a high school kid, that’s huge to be able to have that type of discipline where you’re going to get up in the morning and go run.”
Davis gets runs in with Wallace, as well. “Every summer, the last 10 years, we’ve been in the gym together 30-40 times,” Davis said. “He has a gym back home in Richmond, played in his summer league, always at a gym working out.” Davis was in junior high the first time he played against the man he considers an uncle. Wallace took the tough love approach with him. “I take it easy on nobody,” he said. “I beat him up, beat him up. His daddy wouldn’t let me take it easy on him.”
Nowadays the tough love comes from his coach. Casey compares the UNC alum’s on-court demeanor to a fellow lefty Tar Heel, Sam Perkins, whose first coach as a pro once called him a sleepy-eyed sucker. While Casey coached “Sleepy Sam” or “Big Smooth” as a veteran in Seattle, his treatment of Davis is more in line with the way Perkins was disciplined as a youngster. When I remark about how easily the game comes to Davis at times, Casey responds, “It’s too easy!” He sees Davis as a special athlete, but he won’t rave about his season so far. “I think it’s been solid. Not great, but solid,” Casey said. “He’s just got to do it at a high rate every time when he’s on the floor. That’s what we’re shooting for, that’s what we’re looking for from Ed.”
“He wants the best out of you, so he’s going to be tough on you,” Davis said of his coach, who called him in for a one-on-one sit-down after a particularly poor road trip in January. “He don’t want nothing to be handed to you, you gotta earn everything… He’s really going to be tough on the guys that he cares about, you know? It’s like a family, so he’s tough on me. He’ll admit that, I’ll admit that, but it only makes me more hungry and makes me better.”
Speak with Casey and it’s rapidly apparent how much he cares. “I love Ed — beautiful young man, great kid. He’s what the NBA is about,” he said.
“He’s a very intelligent young man,” Casey continued. “He’s very worldly. He’s well-raised, his mom and dad did a heck of a job of raising him. But at the same time, I told his mom and his dad that I’m going to be hard on him because I see all the potential. Believe me, it’s nothing personal and I tell Ed all the time I love him. But I’m going to get on him when he screws up. And I want to push him. He’s a guy that, if he didn’t have it, I wouldn’t waste my time or waste his time. But he has so much potential within him that I’m going to continue to push him and to help him get where he wants to go in this league.”
To get where he wants to go, Davis needs to improve his jumper. He’s shooting a ridiculous 77 percent at the rim and a dismal 27 percent away from it. As a rookie, he worked most closely with Alex English. This season, his primary teacher is shooting coach John Townsend. At Casey’s urging, Davis is going to start over with his form this summer. In the meantime, all his coach expects from him is to run the floor, play aggressive defense and keep focused possession by possession. Davis echoes Casey when describing his areas of improvement. “Just trying to run the floor hard every possession, just be more demanding in the post. Just little things like that.”
In his last game before the All-Star break, Davis contributed six points early in the fourth quarter as part of a 15-6 run. He put the Pistons down by 23 when he hit an impossible-looking shot as he fell down on the baseline. But there were some more important moments earlier. When Wallace stripped the ball from Leandro Barbosa on the perimeter in the second quarter, Ben Gordon headed the other way for what he thought was an easy layup. Davis sprinted to catch up and swatted it. At the beginning of the fourth, Gordon turned it over on an ill-advised pass. Immediately, Davis ran full speed the other way to receive a pass on the break. When he was fouled, Casey clapped enthusiastically on the sideline.
Postgame, it wasn’t the efficient 10 points in 22 minutes that impressed Casey. “Eddie did a good job,” he said. “I liked his paint presence. I was concerned about him against [Greg] Monroe, he did a heck of a job against him… he had some big rebounds for us. I was really happy to see him battle in the paint.”
Battling in the paint isn’t necessarily what defines All-Star big men, but it worked for Wallace. Despite missing out on running with the rookies and sophomores, Wallace thinks his “nephew” can eventually surpass many of them and play in All-Star Weekend’s main attraction. After saying he planned to hang out by himself this weekend, Davis shared the sentiment. “I’ll be fine, I’m just going to keep working and try to make the real All-Star game one day.”
Reaching your potential isn’t just about being at the right place at the right time. It isn’t about milestones, mentors or mottos. It’s work. Davis ran with his NBA dad before high school classes, endured Roy Williams practices in college and had breakfast with Charles Oakley last summer. He has every reason not to be the cliche “he was too talented for his own good” guy. Let’s check in on him a year from now and focus not just on the jumper. Let’s see if he’s doing the little things.