There’s a certain process that happens with lottery prospects who can’t really score.
First of all, they hardly ever work out for the team that drafted them. There’s too much invested, too high of expectations. Opportunities are blown, and fans get upset. Eventually, the team moves on, giving the player up in a trade or in free agency.
But then the next team gets an opportunity to play that player, and see him for something closer to what he is, learn about what it is he actually can bring to the NBA. Sometimes that means he sticks with that team. Sometimes, it takes a third team, or a fourth team, or even a fifth.
That’s where we are in the career of Ed Davis. The Utah Jazz considered picking Davis — the No. 13 pick of the 2010 NBA draft — instead of Gordon Hayward back then. Given a chance to play a lot of minutes and even start in Toronto, he found himself getting benched in crunch time, then was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies as part of the Rudy Gay deal.
Then, the Grizzlies let him go for nothing, and he signed with the Lakers on a one-year deal for the minimum. He played OK there, enough to earn a $7 million-per-year deal with the Blazers. But once again, Portland was comfortable moving on, and he went to Brooklyn on a one-year deal last year. Now, Davis has been forced out of Brooklyn’s cap situation to make room for Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and DeAndre Jordan, and he has signed with the Jazz.
But somewhere in those last few years, he became one of the most highly regarded backup centers in the league. Instead of focusing on what Ed Davis can’t do — score — we focus on what he can do — pretty much all of the other backup center things.
Let’s start with his defense, where he earned the second-highest number in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus last year, behind only Rudy Gobert. Some of that was because of his lineup situation, but Davis is legitimately an excellent rim protector. Teams shot 3.8% fewer shots at the rim when he was in the game (Gobert’s defense led to 5.4% fewer shots at the rim, in comparison) and 3.9% more mid-range shots (Gobert’s equivalent: 4.1% more).
It’s not that he actually blocks a lot of shots, he just scares people out of taking them. He moves across the paint quickly and early, and he’s still tall and athletic. He’s not quite as long as Derrick Favors, let alone Rudy Gobert, but the effect is similar.
Then we get to his rebounding, which is superb. Last season, he was one of the top-five rebounding bigs in the NBA on both ends of the floor: third in the NBA in defensive rebounds and fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounds. The Richmond Free Press called him one of the “NBA’s lords of the boards," which is a great turn of phrase to describe it. He’s just kind of a bully down there. He will throw his shoulders against bigger and smaller guys alike to open up or keep space for himself, and then aggressively go with two hands to corral the ball. If he can’t get two hands on it, he’ll do a wild swat with one hand to tap it back to the perimeter, hoping it goes to one of his teammates.
The aggressiveness does come out in some bad ways, though. He’s active with his hands down low, which does lead to some steals, but also leads to a lot of fouls: 5.6 per 36 minutes last season. I expect Jazz coaches to work with him on this, but at 30 years old, Davis may not be up for changing some of his worst habits.
The highest percentage of his offense comes from putbacks. He’s not an effective roller at the rim; you should not expect a lot of Joe Ingles/Ed Davis pick and roll. Nor is he really a guy who can pass; he averaged 0.8 assists per game last season, and a whole lot of them were just when he was the guy who caught and immediately gave up the ball on dribble hand-off plays. He’ll hang out in the dunker spot during other offensive actions, or act as an off-ball screener. You should not expect any semblance of a jump shot; he is very inefficient anywhere outside of the immediate vicinity of the rim.
And that’s all OK. He isn’t what the NBA expected out of a lottery pick, but he is contributing. When he was on the floor last year, the Nets were 5.5 points per 100 possessions better. That’s going to be difficult to duplicate while backing up Gobert on a team that figures to have a very strong starting lineup, but it might lessen the drop-off between the two. At the room mid-level exception, less than $5 million per season, that’s a good deal.