Johnny Davis grew up playing basketball against his twin brother on the court that his parents built in the backyard of their Wisconsin home. In those days, Davis discovered just how competitive he can truly be. He found the fire — the edge — that fueled his way to the NBA, that blew away the Wizards’ front office in the lead-up to taking him 10th overall in Thursday’s draft.
He has his family — specifically his brother — to thank.
“You can really only understand if you have a twin brother or a twin sister,” Davis said, “just wanting to be better than the other.”
Davis’ desire to consistently improve paid off in a huge way this past season when the 20-year-old guard took a gigantic leap from his freshman to sophomore year en route to becoming the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year.
As a freshman, Davis averaged only seven points per game and started exactly zero games. A year later? Davis’ scoring average exploded to 19.7 per game as he started in every contest for the Badgers.
The surge is why the Wizards’ brass is hopeful that Davis will continue to rapidly develop at the next level. Over the course of the scouting process, general manager Tommy Sheppard and coach Wes Unseld Jr. said they found a player more than willing to put in the work.
At a pre-draft workout, the Wizards put the 6-foot-5 wing through a grueling conditioning test — only for Davis to fight through it.
A player’s work ethic will only take them so far. But with Davis’ versatile scoring and willingness to defend, Sheppard said he expects the rookie to carve out a meaningful role quickly.
“The stories that you hear just him and his twin brother growing up and the competitions that they would have, spent a lot of time downloading with a lot of different coaches and they would tell you about this kid and his ability to go out and take somebody off the court in terms of his defense,” Sheppard said. “If you challenge him, he’s going to come at you, and he’s going to come at you hard.”
Davis played mostly small forward at the University of Wisconsin, but the Wizards see him fitting in the backcourt — either next to, or in place of, Bradley Beal. Washington did not rule out the possibility of Davis even spending some time at point guard because of his basketball IQ and ability to handle the ball.
But that will be one of the many adjustments that Davis —whose father, Mark, played 13 seasons in the NBA — will now have to make. Despite his talent as a scorer in college, the All-American thrived primarily in the mid-range. The NBA often requires elite-level scorers to shoot efficiently from 3-point range, where Davis shot only 30% last season.
Unseld said he’s also eager to see how Davis adapts to defending in the NBA. Because of the 20-year-old’s length, Washington will likely task Davis to guard premier, perimeter scorers.
But Davis is up for the challenge, the coach said.
“He seems like a very good kid, very well-read but there’s a level of toughness, he’s got a little bit of an edge,” Unseld said. “To have both of those things is important.”
The Wizards saw that edge when watching Davis in college. Sheppard pointed to the guard’s 37-point, 14-rebound outburst against then No.3-ranked Purdue in January as an example. A few months earlier, Davis also scored 30 points as helped the Badgers upset then-ranked No. 12 Houston.
When the Wizards interviewed Davis at the NBA’s scouting combine, Sheppard saw Davis interact with Purdue’s Jaden Ivey — a top prospect who was drafted fifth overall to the Detroit Pistons. Watching the two guards from a distance in a hallway, Sheppard said he noticed Davis giving “a little crap” to Ivey over the earlier matchup.
Even in a down moment, Davis’ competitiveness was on full display.
“He’s got a champion’s heart,” Sheppard said, “so we’re excited for that.”