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Exploring JD Davison’s growing game

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JD Davison is the latest player to join the Boston Celtics, having been selected with the 53rd overall pick. When you’re selecting this deep into the draft, you’re usually doing so with the future in mind, and in Davison’s case, he’s certainly a long term project.

Standing at six-foot-two, Davison has reasonable size for his position, but it’s his athleticism that really jumps out at you, pun intended. The Crimson Tide product is bouncy, explosive, and is no stranger to the occasional highlight play — usually of him catching a body around the rim. However, the NBA is littered with elite athletes. What is deemed as mesmerizing at the collegiate level is often par-for-the-course in the NBA. As such, the 19-year-old guard is going to need more than just raw physical talent if he wants to succeed at the next level, and that could take some time to develop.

Still, we do have a legitimate body of work to draw from, which can allow us to make reasonable conclusions about Davison’s potential upside, and what type of impact he could make over the next year or two. By now, we’ve all seen the highlight packages, and know that he can get up in transition, so we can skip that part, as, in reality, it’s only a small aspect of his game, and arguably, the only NBA-ready aspect. However, there is plenty more to explore, so let’s get to it.

On-Ball offense

Pick-and-roll scoring as ball handler

For an explosive ball handler like Davison, you would assume he’s adept at pressuring the rim. Unfortunately, throughout his final season with Alabama, this didn’t seem to be the case, as Davison struggled to finish through contact, and consistently found himself running head first into deep waters.

Decision-making is a core requirement for a pick-and-roll ball-handler, knowing when to drive, when to shoot, and when to defer is essential. At some junctures of the season, we saw flashes of improvements in Davison’s processing speed, but for the most part, plays like the one above were far too common. The 19-year-old struggles to attack the rim when there’s a defender in front of him, which causes him to become over-focused on getting downhill.

As you can see in the above clip, Davison uses a spin move to clear his defender before smoking his bunny, and to be honest, this isn’t an anomaly, as he regularly utilizes spins to break away from his defender, but seldom reads the help defense before doing so, leading to difficult shots and pilfers.

Another way Davison likes to try and attack when he has a defender in front of him is by dragging his dribble away from the basket, as he looks to create pockets of space to get his shot off. The downside here is that you’re essentially allowing the defense to dictate where and when you get your offense, which in turn slows the possession down and ensures there’s no offensive advantage at play.

Check out this possession above. You can see how Davison drags out the pick-and-roll on the perimeter before driving, stopping, and changing directions, allowing him to get his defender on his hips. However, the defense has reset, and the young guard finds himself driving diagonally, taking him slightly away from the rim. Suddenly, he finds himself off-balance, attacking at an unflattering angle, and smothered by both the on-ball defender and rim-protector — all because he didn’t commit to the drive, and tried to finesse his way into a shooting pocket.

It’s not all bad, though!

When Davison is able to get his man on his hip early and create a clear driving lane, his athleticism allows him some solid finishes around the rim. There is certainly an upside to using the rookie in scenarios that allow him to attack mismatches, as his unique blend of size, strength, and athleticism ensures that if he beats you on the first step, it’s going to be hard for most defenders to recover and contest the shot.

One primary thing to note is that the above possession depicts a rare occurrence for Davison, in that he attacked left, in a straight line. And that brings us to the biggest offensive flaw in his game right now, and it affects far more than just pick-and-roll offense.

Severely one-sided

You may have noticed that in the first two clips, Davison did everything possible to get back to the right side of the court, and that isn’t a rarity in his game. In fact, his shot chart for last season paints a picture of a thousand words.

JD Davison Shot Chart

JD Davison Shot Chart
https://basketball.instatscout.com/players/637906/playtypes

As you can see, Davison heavily favors the right side of the floor, and will usually sacrifice a dominant position in order to get back to where he feels comfortable.

When Davison gets inside of the perimeter on this possession, his only task is to attack the big man and pressure the rim. Instead, he opts to get back to his favored side of the floor and release a poor floater, which misses badly. Such a stringent tendency can be detrimental to a team’s offensive flow, and his own ability to be more impactful during half-court scenarios.

Watch any game of Davison’s from last season, and his one-sided offense will stick out like a sore thumb, but if you’re pressed for time, here’s another example of him bailing out of his offense to get towards his preferred side of the floor.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at a translatable aspect of Davison’s game, that fit’s perfectly with how Boston looks to generate their offense during pick-and-roll possessions: the drive and kick.

Pick-and-roll playmaking

Irrespective of Davison’s limitations when attacking a set defense, teams still have to respect his athletic ability, and how easily he can dislodge defenders on bully drives (more on that later) which allows him to engage defenses before kicking the rock out to an open shooter on the perimeter.

It’s playmaking flashes like these that can give you some hope that Davison can figure out other aspects of his game and potentially earn himself some minutes within the Celtics rotation. When you watch the above possession, it’s clearly in line with how Boston likes to generate their open perimeter looks, and while it’s certainly a rudimentary aspect of the game, it’s still rare to find a guard that is capable of drawing the type of defensive collapses needed to create those types of passing lanes — that’s why the league has shifted towards wings being more incorporated withing their playmaking systems, as they hold far more gravity within the restricted area.

Beyond his drive-and-kick game, Davison is also highly trusting of his big men and will utilize their vertical spacing whenever possible, something that could lead to a good two-man game with future rim-runners.

Davison is also a willing passer with dump-offs, wrap-around, and pocket passes, and has proven reliable at taking what the defense gives him.

Bully Drives

As an isolation player, Davison leans into his physicality, bullying his way to the rim, or at least, towards his favored shooting spots. Throughout this past season, we saw the young guard utilize his NBA-ready body courtesy of bully drives, continually dislodging his defender and getting to his preferred spots.

Sometimes this type of drive can look like you’re running into a post-up, and in essence, you kind of are. But, it’s a highly effective brand of on-ball basketball for physically dominant players with a limited jump shot.

The downside to Davison favoring this hulking style of isolation offense is that his ball-handling skills are still a work in progress, which is why he registered 11 turnovers in 50 isolation possessions last season.

Off-ball offense

Catch-and-shoot

At Alabama, Davison split his time between being a ball-handler and operating as an off-ball threat, which infairness, allowed him to develop his game as a slasher, and spot-up shooter. In fact, according to Instat’s tracking data, 16.5% of the young guard’s offense came courtesy of catch-and-shoot opportunities, with him averaging a 44.6% conversion rate.

Playing off-ball has clearly had a positive impact on the Alabama native, as he’s shown some impressive moments in regards to relocating, spacing the floor, and manipulating a defense’s coverage.

Take this possession for example. Davison start’s off by driving the gap, forcing the defense to collapse onto him before kicking out to a shooter in the slot. As the shooter curls to drive, Davison replaces him in the slot, allowing Alabama’s spacing to remain intact while also carving out a wide-open shooting opportunity for himself.

Unfortunately, that’s where his jump shot becomes slightly exposed. Because while Davison is capable of draining threes, his mechanics are still a work in progress, and he needs to continue improving his shooting ability before he can become a reliable floor spacer at the NBA level.

Transition & catch-and-drive

I’m coupling these two areas together, and yes, I’m well aware that Davison also operates as an on-ball threat in transition due to his explosiveness at the rim. However, when you’re as bullish, athletic, and strong as the Celtics’ newest recruit, it’s hard not to envision your primary role at the next level as being a play-finisher, at least to begin with.

As such, I like the upside here, as when Davison is heading downhill, it’s incredibly difficult to contain him, especially around the rim. Although, he would certainly be better served by utilizing his athleticism more in these situations rather than settling for contested layups because when you have the ability to finish through a defender, you should lean into that far more often than he currently does.

I like this possession, as it shows the young guard’s ability to run the floor at pace and attack by driving off the catch, two skills that really blend well together when you have the natural skills that he does.

Granted, the nature of this possession means that there’s little resistance at the rim, and that makes for an easy bucket, but that doesn’t take away from the upside he possesses in these situations.

Of course, when you’re a highlight-reel dunker, transition basketball is you’re best friend and can lead to possessions like this one.

Don’t get it twisted though, Davison is also capable of being a play finisher in half-court settings, and has shown the ability to cover ground quickly and powerfully, without needing to throw down a thunderous dunk in the process. If the 2021 McDonald’s All-American guard is going to get any run with the Celtics this season, his role projects to be as an off-ball threat, and due to his upside here, he may have a chance at registering a few buckets if given the opportunity.

Defense

Reaction over anticipation

My biggest knock on Davison’s defense right now is that he’s a reactive defender rather than an anticipatory one. For example, recently I have been focusing on how team’s ‘cancel’ screens on defense, which involves a high level of anticipation and communication from multiple players, and it’s got me viewing defense more holistically as a result.

As such, Davison being a reactionary defender instantly stood out to me, because when you’re allowing actions to unfold, you’re allowing the offense to be one step ahead, which means you’re operating at a disadvantage. Sure, there’s a fine line to walk, because you can over-anticipate, and that often leads to mistakes, but that’s a lesson Davison needs to learn.

Take this play for instance. On the one hand, you could argue that Davison is tagging the roll man before recovering to the shooter that has lifted out of the corner, but on the other, Alabama is playing drop defense, their big is in front of the roller, and the on-ball defender is trailing. As such, Davison is probably better served to react to the shooter’s re-location, closing him down early and taking away the passing lane.

It’s that type of reaction over anticipation that could make him an easy target when running misdirection plays on the weak side.

Switching and rotating

Davison is primarily tasked with operating as an off-ball defender, and as such, finds himself guarding opposing shooters most of the time. That means he needs to be adept at switching, rotating, and reading plays as they unfold on the perimeter. For the most part, Davison struggles to do each of those things consistently and usually finds himself on an island looking lost.

We’ve seen this type of defense before, most recently from Aaron Nesmith’s early days in the league, and he quickly learned how to execute his close-outs and rotations, so there is more than enough time for Davison to follow suit. However, the above possession does give you some concern — you can quickly see how he focuses on his man and overlooks the open shooter on the perimeter, missing the fact that his teammates have rotated and his man is now the guy closest to him. Learning to communicate more effectively will be huge for his rotational defense in this regard.

Sometimes it feels as though Davison has tunnel vision on both sides of the floor, and due to that he can be guilty of missing switches and being overzealous in his coverages, as shown in the possession above.

If you want to play for Ime Udoka, you have to be defensively sound, and it all starts with being able to execute a simple switch at pace, which is something Davison doesn’t yet seem capable of doing. Here’s another example of Davison being overfocused on the ball-handler, rather than sticking to the defensive script.

Defensive upside

Let’s be fair. Davison’s defense isn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, there is some encouraging upside there, too. Due to his size and athleticism, the young guard is exceptionally gifted when defending teams in transition, and is often the first player back down the court, allowing his team to build out to the ball at pace.

That same athleticism allows Davison to recover to his man after getting beat off the dribble, and to apply pressure when guarding in the rear-view, primarily due to his shot-blocking abilities – both of which provide him with an interesting upside as a perimeter shot deterrent off drives and pull-ups.

During the postseason, we saw Derrick White excel as a trail defender, registering multiple blocks by staying close to his man after they got by him, and given Davison’s explosiveness, he could develop into a fearsome rear-view defender down the line. If you want some examples of his recovery and trail defense, you can find them below.

Turnovers

I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Right now, Davison is a turnover machine, and given Boston’s current issues with taking care of the ball, that aspect of his game is concerning.

JD Davison Turnovers By Playtype

Playtype Possessions Turnovers Turnover Percentage
Playtype Possessions Turnovers Turnover Percentage
PnR Ball Handler 68 9 13.23%
Isolation 50 11 22%
Catch & Shoot 47 1 2.12%
Transition 42 11 26.10%
Catch & Drive 25 7 28%
Cuts 17 11 64.70%

JD Davison Turnovers By Playtype

Instat Basketball

A point guard who can’t take care of the ball is always a conundrum. Sure, Davison’s athleticism and size could see him play as more of an off-ball two guard who attacks off the rip-through, but given his turnover rate on cuts and drives off the catch, even that seems to be a non-starter. If the 53rd pick in this year’s draft is going to work on anything this summer, you have to hope it’s his ball-handling skills, both in the open court and in traffic.

Final thoughts

Davison certainly has a tremendous amount of upside to his game, but right now, he’s an incredibly raw prospect that is a significant distance away from being NBA-ready. It’s highly unlikely we see much of the Alabama product this season, as he continues to develop his game in the G-League. Sure, we’re bound to get some highlight plays, and he might trend on social media every now and then, but just like social media, highlights are a snapshot in time and often fail to show the entire story or struggle.

Heading into the new season, I have Davison as a mid-rotation level G-League player, with all the physical tools to continue improving his game — the skills and mechanics are all there, but the bolts need tightening and some areas need to be re-designed, but with the 53rd pick in the draft, Boston has got themselves a high-upside young prospect. Now, the ball is well and truly in Davison’s court, and the next few years of his career are down to how hard he wants to work to improve his all-around game.



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