- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2023

As Wes Unseld Jr. reviewed clips of Johnny Davis’ recent G-League performances, the Washington Wizards coach noticed the first-round rookie playing with more confidence. The 21-year-old was attacking the basket and making smart, decisive moves on the court. Unseld could see the improvement. 

So. with the Wizards already up big in the first quarter of Tuesday’s blowout win over the shorthanded, rebuilding Detroit Pistons, Unseld made a decision: It was time to see if Davis’ growth translated to the NBA level. 

“He looked great,” Unseld said. 

Davis’ 11-point, five-rebound performance marked just his 15th appearance in an NBA rookie season in which he’s bounced back and forth between Unseld’s bench and the team’s G-League affiliate.

Tuesday’s outing was, by far, his best on the big stage to date. And while that may be a low bar for someone who was picked 10th overall in the 2022 draft, the Wizards will more than take that considering how uneven, to put it kindly, Davis’ introduction to the NBA has been. 

The Wisconsin product played a career-high 19 minutes and went 5-of-11 from the field against Detroit. 

“It just showed how much I’ve been working,” Davis said, “and how much I’ve developed this season.”

Davis told reporters that he hopes the outing will lead to more consistent minutes and a spot in Washington’s rotation. But that might be too much of an ask, at least for the rest of this season. Unseld acknowledged that Kyle Kuzma’s knee soreness opened up a spot for Davis, a spot that likely won’t be there when the forward returns. Beyond that, the Wizards are in the midst of a competitive play-in race — which makes it tough to squeeze in meaningful minutes for a player who still has room to grow. 

That said, it was important for Washington to see at least some signs of progress. On draft night, Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard touted Davis as a prospect who could slide into the team’s rotation “pretty quickly” because of his versatility. But when Davis took the floor at Summer League just weeks after the draft, the Wizards realized that the rookie — who shot 29.6% in three games — had a long, long way to go. 

Once the season started, Davis got buried so deep on the depth chart that the Wizards sent him to play in the G-League — even when the team dealt with a rash of injuries at guard to Bradley Beal, Delon Wright and others. The situation led to scorn from national commentators like ESPN’s Zach Lowe, who jokingly asked if the rookie was a real person. “He could walk in front of my house right now and … I would have no idea who it was,” Lowe said on a podcast. 

Even after Tuesday, according to Basketball Reference, Davis has logged the 10th-fewest minutes among 47 draft picks that have taken the floor this season. And he’s the only player in that 10 to be a lottery pick. There are another 11 draft selections that haven’t played this season, but Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren — ruled out with a season-ending foot fracture in August — is the only first-rounder. 

Still, the Wizards didn’t give up on Davis as they watched him work on his game behind the scenes. Right after the All-Star break, Davis said, something finally clicked: The 21-year-old said he knew that he had to “give it my all” in the proverbial second half and push himself to earn an opportunity. He worked closely with Go-Go coach Mike Williams to focus on the mental side of the game, learning how to stay ready for anything. 

That shift in mentality included how Davis approached Tuesday’s game. He entered the locker room with “a little bit of an idea” that he could see action, but admitted he was surprised he played as much as he did. But Davis seemed ready. He had spoken with teammate Anthony Gill before the game about the importance of not putting too much pressure on yourself. 

When he checked in, Davis showed some of the improvements to his game that caught Unseld’s eye. 

“I’m super happy for him,” Beal said. “Whenever you get confidence and come back and showcase in the opportunity you’re given, there’s no better feeling than that. He’s on cloud nine and we all are. We’re happy for him.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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