What JD Davison brings to the Boston Celtics: 'There's a ton of natural upside'

What JD Davison brings to the Boston Celtics: ‘There’s a ton of natural upside’

Nate Oats could see the kid struggling. No one needed to talk about it. The adjustment was obvious to everyone involved. That didn’t make it any easier.

A truly gifted athlete — maybe the best vertical athlete in the entire 2022 NBA Draft — Davison had arrived for his freshman season in Tuscaloosa from Letohatchee, Ala., population 1,300, give or take. The competitive level of high school basketball in his home area was rarely, if ever, enough to push Davison out of his comfort zone. As a junior, I have averaged 30.4 points, 12 rebounds and five assists per game. As a senior, he went for 32.4, 10 and 4.7. He dominated, and he mostly did so on autopilot.

This is not how things work in the SEC, or in college basketball more broadly, and if most young players face a large immediate adjustment in competitive quality and intensity when they first arrive on campus, Davison stepped into a chasm. “He could go at 50 percent and dominate the majority of his high school games,” Oats, Alabama’s head coach, said. “This was the first time in his life that he actually had to really practice hard and bring it every day.” It’s an adjustment that Davison struggled with for much of the season, though not enough to discourage him from staying in the draft after a just-OK freshman year — and not enough to discourage him. the Boston Celtics from selecting him with the 53rd pick.

It will be little mystery as to why he was picked, despite one relatively shaky college season under his belt: athleticism. At 6-foot-2, Davison is an electric mover and leaper, responsible for as many jaw-dropping one-off highlights as any player in college basketball last season. As a pure rim attacker, a downhill dribbler with a head of steam, there were few players more frightening for defenders. You can see this size being unleashed slightly more effectively with NBA spacing — Alabama spreads the floor as much as any high-profile college team, but no college group shoots it as well as many NBA teams do to restrain the impact of interior defensive help. When he’s running at the rim, Davison is an explosive force.

But the adjustment from small-town high school hoops to an elite competitive level showed up in almost every other facet of Davison’s game. He struggled with ballhandling and decision-making. “He’s probably more of a combo guard than a point guard,” Oats said. “He’s a good passer, but he had some issues with smaller guards getting up under him.” Which is how you post a 29 percent assist rate, which is great, but also a 29 percent turnover rate, which is not so great. He also struggled shooting, particularly from the perimeter; he was serviceable on catch-and-shoot opportunities, but off the dribble, if he wasn’t dunking, good things usually weren’t happening.

“The handle’s got to get tighter, because he can really pass,” Oats said. “But his handle’s not tight enough to where he can deal with the guy in front of him and be able to make the passes anyway. And he’s worked hard on his shot of it. He’s shot it well in workouts. Now he’s got to prove he can shoot consistently in game.”

These are big things for an ostensible point guard (or combo guard or whatever) to have to develop at the start of his professional career. The good news is that Davison is a worker. He’s quiet and unassuming — he’s not an obvious “he got that dog in him” candidate necessarily — and he’s also a teenager, and teenagers tend to need more time. (Defensively, Davison often looks like a teenager. He can block anybody’s shot, but his lateral defending can be messy.) Still, Oats saw a player that, when confronted with the different requirements of a higher level and no small amount of pressure to succeed, quietly decided to work harder than he had in the past.

It’s a promising attribute for a player who played well against the best teams on Alabama’s schedule last season, and who drew early NBA interest for good reason, but also one whose flaws prevented an otherwise can’t-miss athletic prospect from being more than a second-round flyer. “He’s willing to work, and there’s a ton of natural upside,” Oats said. “He’s got a lot of natural basketball ability.” The biggest adjustment of all is yet to come.

(Photo: Marvin Gentry/USA Today)

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