Terence Davis, who entered NBA on his own terms, already putting stamp on Raptors

Terence Davis
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Terence Davis was miserable.

He had just addressed 40-50 family members and friends on draft night 2019. Holding back tears, he explained he wouldn’t get picked. His mind raced. He thought about providing for his son, who was born six days earlier.

“I really became a man that night,” Davis said.

Davis also put himself in position to become a successful NBA player that night.

***

The NBA G League Elite Camp offers an opportunity for less-heralded draft prospects to work out for both NBA and minor-league teams. The top performers even get promoted to the NBA combine. Forty draft-eligible players got invited to last year’s NBA G League Elite Camp.

Davis didn’t make the cut. Snubbed from an event for players not good enough for the main event.

His agent eventually campaigned him in. When Davis arrived, his jersey didn’t even have his name on the back.

He made a name for himself, anyway. Davis played well, earned an invitation to the NBA combine then continued to team workouts. By draft night, he was 80% sure he’d get picked.

“I was supposed to be selected late first round, early second,” Davis said. “That’s what I was hearing from different teams, and my agent was hearing that as well.”

But the draft went deeper and deeper without Davis’ name being called. He said a few teams offered to draft him if he’d accept a two-way contract – the Timberwolves, Celtics and another team he couldn’t recall.

“I really washed them teams from my memory, honestly,” Davis said.

He doesn’t want to prove to those teams they should have valued him more?

“I want to prove to the league that I should have been selected,” Davis said.

“I’m always out to prove. That’s just how I am, how I’m wired. I’ve been underrated my whole life, the underdog.”

Born and raised in Mississippi, Davis became a high school football star. He surprised many by choosing to play basketball in college. Davis spent four years University of Mississippi, breaking out as a sophomore then growing into an All-SEC second-teamer as a senior.

So, Davis is willing to carve his own path.

That’s why he rejected getting drafted and signing a two-way deal. Davis didn’t want to give away his exclusive negotiating rights just to get paid a relatively low salary and spend time in the NBA’s minor league. He was better off as an undrafted free agent.

It’s a path more players should take. But it’s also difficult to break from the pack when every norm says players should celebrate getting drafted.

“I’m a different breed, man,” Davis said. “Honestly. I mean that in the humblest way ever. I really look at myself as a different breed.”

Still, Davis was uncertain after the draft. Even if he had more freedom as a free agent, teams just indicated their collective disinterest by not drafting him.

Soon enough, though, Nuggets president Tim Connelly called. Davis liked the Nuggets because they had no minor-league affiliate to stash him on. And Denver, Connelly said, liked Davis. Rejuvenated by Connelly’s faith in him, Davis perked up. He agreed to play for the Nuggets in summer league.

Davis quickly impressed during scrimmages in Denver. The Nuggets went to Las Vegas, and Davis led them with 22 points in their summer-league opening win over the Magic.

After the game, Davis – still wearing Denver gear – sat in the stands when his agent informed him the Raptors would sign him to an NBA contract with a fully guaranteed salary. Davis kept asking, “Is this real?”

Later that night, Davis called Nuggets summer-league coach Jordi Fernandez to express his appreciation. After he hung up, Fernandez called his wife and said, “If this job is worth it, it’s for moments like this.”

“It’s been one of the best moments in my probably NBA career,” said Fernandez, a Denver assistant. “Because I know you may think the big stories. Yeah, a big story is when a super-high draft pick or whatever, right? But to me, this is a big story, a kid that had to go in a different route. And he was all about the right things. And he makes it. Again, it makes our lives as coaches, that’s what makes it special.”

***

After finishing summer league with the Raptors, Davis joined Toronto players to work out in Los Angeles. According to Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, Davis was quite brash during pickup games. On one hand, VanVleet found it a little naïve and tried to put the youngster in his place. On the other hand, VanVleet – whose path to the NBA as undrafted player was similar to Davis’ – appreciated the confidence.

Now, VanVleet just watches and laughs when his teammate gets going.

“He’s talking to refs, and he’s talking trash to other players,” VanVleet said. “You would think he’s been around 15 years.”

Davis just looks like he belongs.

He’s already a rotation player on one of the NBA’s top teams. His 7.7 points per game are modest, but his contributions are often more subtle. Davis leads all rookies in real plus-minus (+4.32).

Here are the rookie leaders in real plus-minus (minimum: 100 minutes):

Davis isn’t as good as, say, Ja Morant. But this shows how well Davis fills his role.

At 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, Davis has the athleticism for practically any matchup. He’s a dogged defender and confident shooter. He’s making 42% of his 3-pointers on a high enough volume to spread the floor.

Davis could join a rare group of undrafted All-Rookie teamers: Yogi Ferrell, Langston Galloway, Gary Neal, Jamario Moon, Walter Herrmann, Jorge Garbajosa, Marquis Daniels, Udonis Haslem, J.R. Bremer, Chucky Atkins, Matt Maloney and Larry Stewart. Only Ferrell, Galloway, Daniels, Bremer, Stewart did it in their first professional season.

Yet, Davis got bypassed for Rising Stars.

Davis didn’t make a big stink. He brushed it off as just “another time that I don’t get selected for something.” Then, he scored 31 points in Toronto’s win over the Bulls yesterday.

What if Davis were producing like this but had the stature that comes with getting drafted?

“I would be in that Rising Stars game, no doubt,” Davis said. “No doubt. ”

He’s happy with his path, though.

A big advantage: Davis can hit free agency sooner. His contract includes an unguaranteed second season, but he’s headed toward free agency (likely restricted free agency) in 2021.

Of the 30 second-round picks last year:

  • Four rejected the required tender. Without getting paid a dime, they allow their team to retain their exclusive NBA negotiating rights.
  • Eight signed a two-way contract. They got their foot in the door to the NBA, but their salaries are relatively meager.
  • Seventeen signed a three- or four-year deal. Most of those contracts include a year or two or even three of unguaranteed minimum salary on the back end. So, if the player is performing well, his team will keep him for cheap. If he’s not performing well, he’ll get cut with no severance pay.

Only Talen Horton-Tucker, the No. 46 pick who went to the Lakers, signed a standard NBA contract for fewer than three seasons.

Horton-Tucker and Davis are earning just the rookie minimum ($898,310) this season. Seven second-rounders got between $1 million and $1.5 million. But they’re all locked up at least three seasons.

It’s easy to envision Davis earning about $5 million in his third season. The second-rounders who signed for that long will receive just $1,782,621.

Of course, that’s well down the road.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse was recently looking ahead, though not that quite far ahead. Nurse believes Davis missed Rising Stars because the guard is playing too little (16.8 minutes per game) to post eye-catching numbers. It’s the consequence of joining a good team.

“Maybe next year,” Nurse said. “Can he still do it next year?”

Of course. Rising Stars is for rookies and sophomores.

But considering how much he has already done to put himself on the map, it’s easy to forget Davis is in only his first season.