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Ed Davis: An Appreciation

The hardworking, team-first, perpetually underrated big man deserves more credit than he gets

NBA: New York Knicks at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, in Game 1 of the first-round of the playoffs between Philly and Brooklyn, Ed Davis outrebounded Joel Embiid, 16-15. If that sentence surprises you, you aren’t alone...but you haven’t been paying attention. And who can blame you? In sports, especially basketball, the hardworking low-drama types don’t get much shine. And there are few in the NBA as hardworking or as low drama as Ed Davis. But to anyone who has followed Ed’s career from Chapel Hill to Brooklyn, that the former Tar Heel had a monster night on the glass against a superstar comes as no shock.

The son of former NBA player Terry Davis, Ed first came to Chapel Hill as a highly touted McDonald’s All-American out of Virginia. He had committed to the Tar Heels knowing there was a strong possibility of Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson staying in school for the 08-09 season and keeping their starting spots. Ed was just fine with that. So were the Tar Heels and all who loved them: With Davis coming off the bench, the Tar Heels had the best frontline in the country and, quite possibly, in Carolina history.

Davis flourished in his limited role off the bench: He averaged 6.7 ppg on 52% shooting and ripped down 6.6 rpg, in just 19 minutes per game. In an interview last December, teammate Wayne Ellington remembered how Davis “dominated” in his supporting role and Roy Williams insisted that there was no way the Tar Heels would have won the 2009 title without Davis spelling Hansbrough and Thompson off the bench.

The following year, it looked like Davis was on his way to becoming the next great Tar Heel big man, with dominant performances early in the year, particularly in the hyped rematch against Michigan State:

But a wrist injury derailed his 2009-10 campaign, part of a rash of injuries that plagued the Tar Heels that season. Despite it, Davis was selected #13 in the 2010 draft by the Toronto Raptors, a team that was a loooong way from the perennial contender that they are now.

The first couple of seasons were up and down for Davis; he was in and out of the starting lineup and his minutes fluctuated. But by the 2013 season, he was beginning to blossom into a regular starter and a more consistent player, averaging 14 points and 9 rebounds while starting. Not only that, he seemed to be on track for a solid contract in the offseason. Then, he was abruptly traded to the Grizzlies.

Memphis was a strong team that season; they would reach the Western Conference Finals, but they also had two star big men in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, as well as several big men on the bench. In addition, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins had little use for Davis upon arrival, saying “When you have champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget.” Davis was little used in 2013, even less so during the postseason run, and in the offseason Hollins attempted to have Davis play in the Summer League, though Hollins’ offseason firing would render this moot.

Davis’ struggle to find playing time in Memphis would influence his later role as a mentor to young players. His next stop would be Los Angeles, on the 2015 Lakers. He would find extended minutes there, albeit on a dreadful 21-61 squad bogged down by Kobe Bryant’s nightmare contract and a dearth of supporting players. He was, however, reunited with Wayne Ellington and was a close friend and confidante to his teammate when he tragically lost his father that year.

The next stop for Davis was Portland and here it all seemed to fall into place: The Blazers were a consistent playoff team, they had a strong core backcourt in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and they had a need for a board-crashing, blue collar big man. In short, they needed an Ed Davis. Davis’ minutes were up and his defensive and rebounding efficiency were invaluable to a Portland team that favored an outside-in approach.

On top of that, Davis had grown to become a veteran voice for his younger teammates. Teammates like Zach Collins who, like Davis in Memphis, struggled to get into the rotation at times. Ed’s experience made him the perfect mentor for Collins, who spoke throughout the 2018 season about how important that guidance had been to his development.

But with his contract up following the season-ending loss to the Pelicans, Davis was not re-signed by GM Neil Olshey. Proof of just how good and beloved a teammate he was came from the reactions from Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and the Blazer fanbase as a whole:

Ed would sign with Brooklyn for $4.4 million, a price many in Portland felt the Blazers could’ve matched. It has been a bargain for the Nets, because Davishas been exactly what he was in Portland: a tenacious rebounder and banger in the paint, and a terrific mentor for his younger teammates, especially Jarrett Allen. Even better, his rebounding numbers are better than ever; he averages 8.6 rebounds per game in just 17.9 minutes. That is, if you haven’t done the math, ridiculous efficiency.

The Nets were (and still are) one of the surprise stories of the NBA season in 2019 and that is due in no small part to Davis’ contributions. That he went toe-to-toe with Embiid on the glass may be a surprise to those who value tweets and highlights above all else, but it’s par for the course for a professional warrior like Ed Davis. As head coach Kenny Atkinson put it in the December piece, “If we make a big jump this season, Ed probably won’t get enough credit.” Well they have made the jump and, here at least, we’re giving Ed the credit he deserves.