Ed Davis and when past lottery picks become role players

Ed Davis signed a 2 year, $2 million contract with the Lakers on Wednesday night. It was something of a surprise, given his tremendous pedigree and relative youth. If guys like nearly-27-year-old Trevor Booker are getting mid-level exception-type deals and 29-year-old Anthony Tolliver can get a two year, $6 million deal, where was the money for a well-regarded, younger player like Davis?

It’s always been difficult to tell what to make of Davis. After leaving college before he was ready to play in the NBA, his developmental progress has been arduous. Davis was a lottery pick (13th overall in 2010) out North Carolina who averaged nearly a double-double with a 61% true-shooting percentage and a massive 24% defensive-rebounding rate at 20-years-old. However, he left college at a weight slightly higher than what Nerlens Noel played at with Kentucky. He also had an extremely limited offensive game in college, which means there was going to be a high adjustment curve to the NBA.

Toronto was in an interesting position when they selected him. It was the summer that Chris Bosh was a free agent, meaning Davis was seen as an insurance policy in case of his departure. In fact, in a post-draft interview, Davis even mentioned that Bosh was his favorite player in the NBA. His offensive game wasn’t nearly ready to help the Raptors, but through the minimalist qualities that he showed at North Carolina — rebounding, good hands, put-backs, and good touch around the rim — they were hopeful he could at least make a small mark immediately. Then from there, he would hopefully continue to develop his offensive arsenal to include a midrange game in order to get the best out of his interior skills.

And remarkably, he did make that immediate impact, playing 24 minutes per game and averaging nearly eight points and seven rebounds per contest. As shown by this shot chart (created by Austin Clemens on our sister site Nylon Calculus), Davis was an efficient scorer around the rim and from the left block, where he was able to comfortably utilize his left handed mini-hook. His game complemented future star (okay, given how things worked out I can’t type this name without laughing, but seriously, he averaged 21 per game that year) Andrea Bargnani perfectly, and they (along with Amir Johnson) were seen as the Raptors’ front court of the future.

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In his second season, Davis was poised to develop into a starter, but that didn’t happen. The all-too-common “sophomore slump” struck, and his scoring efficiency plummeted as a result despite playing just as many minutes and having a similar usage rate. This was a lost year for Davis.

However, that lost year didn’t seem stunt his growth. Like most players in their third NBA season, there seemed to be a leap from Davis. He took more shots, improved upon his sophomore efficiency (with a 57% true-shooting percentage) and saw a massive uptick in his usage from 13.8 to 18.3 percent. His defensive rebounding rate had stuck around that 23% mark, and he had become so comfortable within the Raptors offense that his assist rate had more than doubled from 3.8 his rookie season to 8.8 this year. This led to per-36 averages of 14.5/9.9/1.8, which are rather strong and seemingly translatable to a future starting role. His midrange game had also slightly expanded, as shown in this NBA.com shot chart:


But then, midway through that season his development was stunted. He was dealt to the Grizzlies in the Rudy Gay trade. With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph already in the mix, Davis’s playing time dried up to 15 minutes per contest. Seemingly feeling the need to prove himself again in a new setting, Davis reverted back to his minimalistic offensive game instead of the expanded one that he showed late in the 2012 calendar year.

Since the deal, Davis has a 54% true-shooting percentage, a slightly declining rebounding rate, a complete reversion in his passing, and an unfortunately simplistic offensive game compared to what it was. Look at how many shots he took at the rim this season in comparison to the midrange in 2013 (and also how his patented left-handed hook from the left block evaded him):

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So where does Davis go from here? There have been flashes in the past of a starting-quality player, but last season he was more of a fourth big. The rebounding will always be there, but when does one decide to give up on Davis ever developing a competent offensive game outside of eight feet? It’s somewhat telling to me that his best years came when he was the nominal center on the floor (in his final season and a half in Toronto, Davis played center 51% and 68% of the time), and his worst season came last season when he was forced to defend power forwards. Davis has always been a mechanical athlete that doesn’t quite possess the fluidity to defend 4s in space, but also just isn’t quite long enough to be a starting center.

Because of these problems, it’s probably time to forget about Davis ever developing beyond an ancillary role player. With nearly 6000 minutes under his belt, the development of his supporting perimeter offensive skills just hasn’t happened. Plus, in three of his four seasons opposing offenses have been better with Davis on the floor than when he’s on the bench. It’s not the worst thing in the world, as he’s at least shown enough rebounding acumen to stick in the NBA, but there just haven’t been enough extended periods of solid play beyond that. The market priced Davis this offseason as a bench forward worth the minimum, and after delving deep into what he’s actually done at his age, that seems to be what he’s actually worth despite the reputation.

As with anyone that has this sort of pedigree, there remains the slight possibility that he can figure it out in a new situation. Maybe he will play more center this season, as Carlos Boozer and Julius Randle also enter the fold for the Lakers. But due to the trade that stunted his development right as it began to percolate, we shouldn’t expect him figuring it out.

Potential eventually goes one way or another, and unfortunately with Davis it looks like another situation of a lottery pick settling in as a journeyman role player.

Sam Vecenie

Sam Vecenie is the editor-in-chief of Upside & Motor, as well as an editor at Hardwood Paroxysm. He likes to spend endless hours watching random NCAA game film, and scouring the internet for international basketball. You can find his other work at SBNation's college basketball platform.