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UW MEN’S BASKETBALL

Jim Polzin: Why Johnny Davis made the right decision even if he's not completely ready for the NBA

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Johnny Davis isn’t ready for the NBA, or so I’ve been told dozens of times over the past six weeks.

If you’ve muttered that phrase, well, you’re right. But don’t go puffing out your chest because being right doesn’t mean it’s wrong for the former La Crosse Central standout to end his University of Wisconsin men’s basketball career after two seasons to follow his dream.

Davis made official on Thursday afternoon what’s seemed like a foregone conclusion for nearly three months, announcing on ESPN he’ll enter his name in the NBA draft.

This all feels a little bit surreal. At this time a year ago, Davis was coming off a freshman campaign in which he averaged 7.0 points in 31 games off the bench and was viewed as a player for the program to build around for at least a couple seasons.

That all changed with a series of signature performances during a 2021-22 season in which he averaged 19.7 points and 8.2 rebounds while being named the Big Ten Player of the Year and a consensus first-team All-American.

To steal a line from Ron Burgundy … boy, that escalated quickly.

Perhaps part of the reason why some fans are having a hard time accepting this decision and are being so judgmental towards Davis is because this feels so premature. How could he possibly be leaving when it seems like he just arrived?

As for the notion that Davis isn’t ready for the next level, the easiest counter to that is a challenge: Examine any mock draft and let me know which prospects are ready to step on the court for an NBA team and be immediate contributors. Gonzaga freshman Chet Holmgren is a likely top-three pick and that body isn’t NBA ready. Purdue sophomore Jaden Ivey likely will land in the top five — one mock draft has him going No. 1 overall — and he got schooled in what was the brightest of Davis’ shining moments this season, a 37-point effort in the Badgers’ 74-69 win over the host Boilermakers in early January.

Would returning to UW for his junior season improve Davis’ readiness for the NBA? Yes, almost certainly it would, but that’s not how this works. The NBA apparently thinks Davis is ready to be drafted — a lottery pick, mind you — because it sees a prospect who’s already made one big jump and could have another left in him.

Davis landed anywhere from No. 5 to No. 11 in a sample of nine 2022 NBA mock drafts from what I consider reputable sources. All but two had him at No. 8 or higher.

There are parts of Davis’ game that have to improve if he’s going to succeed at the next level. He lost focus on defense at times and his size — he’s listed at 6-foot-5 but likely measures slightly under that — limits his versatility on that end of the court against the bigger bodies he’ll be going up against in the NBA.

Davis also lost his cool at times and needs to do some maturing. He’s 20 and that likely will come with age.

And, of course, there’s the most visible flaw: perimeter shooting. Davis shot 30.6% from 3-point range this season, though he was at a respectable 34.9% until going 7 of 35 from beyond the arc over the final 10 games. It’s unclear how much of a role an ankle injury played in Davis going 11 of 33 overall and 4 of 22 from long distance in three postseason games, but it couldn’t have helped.

All three of those things — his shooting, defense and maturity — could improve with another full season of college. But consider the alternative: His stock drops and he costs himself a lot of money. Or, worse yet, Davis sustains a serious injury that ends his NBA ambitions altogether.

This decision can’t be all about setting himself up financially for the future, but it has to be a consideration for Davis. Consider: The No. 10 draft position in last year’s draft was worth nearly $11.5 million — all guaranteed — over three years.

Sure, there were some sentimental reasons to run it back at UW for one more season. It’d give Davis another year alongside his lifelong teammate — twin brother Jordan — and a chance to get rid of that sour taste left in his mouth from the Badgers’ early exit in the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

But Davis had to put emotions aside when making this decision. Leaving now, and not delaying that departure, made the most sense.

“What else does he have to prove in college?” Mark Davis said of his son’s move to the NBA. “He wanted to prove to everybody he’s one of the best college players in America. He’s done that. He wanted to show people that he can perform at a high level at Wisconsin, which no one thought was possible. He did that. He wanted to show people that he plays both ends of the floor at a high level. He’s done that.

“There’s nothing else for him to prove in college basketball — that’s my opinion — and it’s time for him to go on and play against the best.”

I’m a big believer in putting myself in other shoes when it comes to important decisions like the one Davis faced. If I’m in his shoes, I’m leaving for the NBA. If my son was in Davis’ shoes, I’d be encouraging him to leave for the NBA.

So, ready or not, there he goes. Rather than picking part his flaws or predicting that he fails, how about this for a sendoff? Thanks for the memories, Johnny, and good luck.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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