Like most Toronto Raptors fans, Fred VanVleet had to do some research when the defending champs signed Ole Miss product Terence Davis over the summer.
How familiar was he with his newest teammate?
“I never heard of him,” VanVleet admitted. “I didn’t know who he was. I don’t watch a lot of college basketball anymore, so I hadn’t heard of him.”
VanVleet quickly realized they had a few things in common. They both had successful four-year college careers. They both entered the pre-draft process under the radar, fighting to prove themselves. They both turned down multiple opportunities to hear their names called on draft night and, in the end, they both went unselected.
VanVleet met Davis for the first time at a team workout in Los Angeles. It was late July, shortly after Toronto had officially signed the 22-year-old guard, and the veteran Raptor was intrigued.
“I just wanted to meet him,” VanVleet said. “We talked a bit. He had good energy and I saw he’s a pretty good player as well. He asked a lot of questions. He was like, ‘If there’s anything you could tell me or show me, please do.’ So we talked a little bit and then I invited him to dinner.”
VanVleet took him to Craig’s in West Hollywood. Dinner conversation included some basketball talk, but mostly they spoke about life.
“I tried to learn more about him, personally, and just build that friendship,” VanVleet said.
So Davis told him his story.
Growing up in Southaven, Miss., Davis started playing basketball at age six. When he turned 10 he picked up a football. He was a star wide receiver in high school. By the time he graduated he had a decision to make. He received 20 scholarship offers to go play football, but instead committed to Ole Miss for the sport he calls his “first love.”
In his freshman year he began to wonder if he had chosen the wrong path. He wasn’t playing much and was averaging just over a point per game for the Rebels. Had he made a mistake?
“I was already getting backlash for not deciding to play football from friends and colleagues,” Davis told TSN last week. “That’s when I really told myself that I can’t let these people be right. I really locked in on getting in the gym and getting better and putting the effort and the time into the game of basketball.”
“That was the first time he fully devoted himself to basketball so his skill set really improved,” said Andy Kennedy, the former Rebels coach, who was at Ole Miss for Davis’ first three college seasons. “His body changed. He was always a big, strong kid, but his body changed to more basketball-centric movements. As a result, he earned his way into the rotation and really exploded that sophomore year.”
In his second season, Davis averaged 14.9 points and 5.3 rebounds in just over 25 minutes a night. It reaffirmed to him that he was on that right track and that his childhood dream of getting drafted and making the NBA was attainable.
When he declared for the draft following his senior campaign he did so without much fanfare. Davis was slotted in the 80s on ESPN’s list of top-100 draft prospects.
Some teams wondered where he would fit as an NBA player, even in this positionless era. He’s not a natural point guard and, at 6-foot-4, is a bit undersized as a wing.
They looked at him and saw a jack-of-all-trades, someone who could do a bit of everything on the court, but questioned whether he’d be able to master any of those skills at the next level.
Before Davis could prove people wrong, he had to earn the right to get in front of the people that he needed to prove wrong.
His first shot to turn heads was at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament – a pre-draft camp restricted to college basketball seniors. He played well there but his best game came on the last day, after most pro scouts had left.
In May, 80 players were invited to the G League Elite Camp. Initially, Davis wasn’t one of them. He was a late addition after someone else got hurt but took advantage of the opportunity, standing out enough to earn his way into the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago.
Suddenly Davis’ stock was rising. In just a few weeks he went from a top-80 prospect to a top-40 prospect, with some teams telling him he had an outside shot to crack the first round. The feedback he was getting varied and even mock drafts were all over the map. The Ringer had him going as high as 27. CBS Sports had him at 38, SI.com at 47.
Draft night – June 20, 2019 – was one he’ll never forget, but not for the reasons he had imagined. Davis threw a viewing party back home in Southaven with 40 friends and family in attendance.
“It started off exciting,” he remembers. “Everything was good. Time was ticking, picks going by pick by pick.”
The first round came and went and the second round was already underway when he stepped outside to take a call from his agent, Adam Pensack. There were multiple teams interested in selecting Davis – including Minnesota, who had the 43rd pick, and Boston, who was drafting 51st – but they intended to offer him a two-way contract.
Two-way players split the year between the NBA, where they can spend up to 45 days, and the G League. Their salary tops out at just over $400,000 for the season.
This was a scenario Pensack had spoken to Davis about leading up to the draft. If he were to fall past pick No. 40 and the only offers available were two-way opportunities, would he opt for the certainty of being selected or choose to roll the dice, tell those interested teams ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ and enter the market as an undrafted free agent?
As Pensack says, the decision Davis made that evening was the “mature and smart” choice, but that didn’t make it any easier in the moment. He had dreamt of hearing his name called on draft night. Now, he had to get in front of his loved ones and explain that it wasn’t going to happen.
“Man, I wanted to cry,” Davis said, getting emotional just reliving the moment. “That’s when I really knew that I was becoming an adult, you know? You could just hear it in my voice when I was telling them. I didn’t shed a tear, although I wanted to. They believed in me so much and I felt like I let them down.”
Later that night, Davis tweeted a video of VanVleet doing the exact same thing back in 2016, taking the mic at his own draft party to quiet his cheering family and friends and tell them that he’ll have to find another way into the league.
“I guess the hardest part was I knew that they wouldn’t understand right away,” VanVleet recalls three years later. “I knew that they would cheer and they would be happy and they would hug me and tell me everything is great but they wouldn’t truly understand what it meant because they don’t know the ins and outs of how many different ways you can get into the NBA.”
Several players have taken a similar risk in recent years and there are a few examples of it paying off, including New Orleans Pelicans forward Kenrich Williams – another Pensack client. Still, the blueprint for all undrafted players and the absolute best-case scenario is VanVleet. Just a few weeks before he would become a teammate, mentor and friend, VanVleet was already Davis’ inspiration.
Davis worked out for 12 NBA teams before the draft – he was scheduled to visit 13 clubs but flew home for the birth of his son the morning of his Clippers workout – but the Raptors weren’t one of them.
They liked what they saw from Davis throughout the process and assistant general manager Dan Tolzman even got a chance to meet him briefly in the hotel lobby after the combine, but neither team nor player thought he’d be in play at 59 – Toronto’s lone selection and the second-to-last pick of the draft. They passed on him to take centre Dewan Hernandez, who they felt they knew more about at the time, but earmarked Davis as somebody to keep an eye on throughout the summer.
“When he went undrafted, a lot of people were interested in Terence but we were pretty particular about what we wanted,” Pensack said. “You don’t turn down a draft pick two-way situation to then take a two-way [contract], so we intentionally went into Summer League with no deal. I mean there were teams offering contracts, different kinds of contracts, but we ultimately said let’s just go to Summer League, we’ll try to get as many minutes as we can and showcase ourselves.”
Davis agreed to play for Denver in Las Vegas. In his first and only game with the Nuggets’ Summer League team, he scored 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting, hitting five of his seven three-point attempts. The Raptors had almost their entire front office there, specifically to watch Davis.
“It took all of one half to see him against NBA players,” Tolzman said. “The speed, athleticism, his physicality, his rhythm of the game in that setting – it was kind of like, okay, this guy looks like an official NBA player. And we moved on him.”
They weren’t alone. Even before the final buzzer, multiple teams were offering guaranteed NBA money.
After the game he went out for dinner with Kermit Davis, who coached him during his final season at Ole Miss. Pensack met up with them to deliver the good news in person.
“We were having a little something to eat and his agent came over,” Coach Davis said. “He kind of whispered something to him. And I didn’t know at that time. I said, ‘TD, look, you call me tomorrow, you guys take care of it.’ I thought it was something but I didn’t know it was Raptors. So I left and TD called me the next day. He goes, ‘Coach, it was a deal with Toronto.’ He was so excited. Just to know what he’s been through, great mom and dad, that was one of the most satisfying phone calls, to hear the news that he was going to sign with Toronto.”
Instead of the (roughly) $400,000 two-way deals he turned down on draft night, Davis agreed to a two-year deal with the Raptors worth almost $2.5 million, including a fully guaranteed $900,000 this coming season.
Why go with Toronto? For starters he and Pensack recognized the opportunity there, with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green leaving in free agency the day prior. But mostly, they looked at the Raptors’ well-earned reputation for finding and developing young, overlooked talent.
The Raptors turned Pascal Siakam from the 27th-overall pick into the NBA’s Most Improved Player and a budding star on the cusp of earning a max deal. They turned Norman Powell from a second-rounder into a rotation player on a $42 million contract.
Then there’s VanVleet. Toronto signed the former Wichita State Shocker to a partially guaranteed two-year deal back in the summer of 2016. He made less than $550,000 in the first year and had to earn his way onto the team in training camp.
Since then, he’s been a Sixth Man of the Year finalist, signed a two-year $18 million contract, and played a crucial role in the Raptors’ championship run.
“We’ve had such success with those types of guys that are wired like such competitors and always out to prove something,” Tolzman said. “Some of the early conversations I had with Terence and his agent, they were already mentioning those guys as inspirations to his approach. The way that those guys blossomed with us, I think they saw that he could be the next one in that line of player.”
Davis is off to a promising start. He was a standout in the Raptors’ open scrimmage in Quebec City last week. He also looked good in his preseason debut against the Rockets in Japan on Tuesday morning, recording eight points, five rebounds and five assists in 19 minutes off the bench.
Most of all, head coach Nick Nurse and Davis’ Raptors teammates have been impressed with his effort and energy. Reminiscent of a rookie VanVleet, he’s not backing down from any challenge. He says he’s ready and willing to fill any role Nurse gives him, but he’ll always work to expand it.
“If you look at drafts even going back three, four or five years, there’s a lot of first-round picks that are no longer in the NBA,” Pensack pointed out. “So it really is a different path for everybody and it really comes down to work ethic. To me, work ethic is the number one determining factor, more so than talent. And in Terence’s case, his work ethic is truly amongst the best I’ve seen and I think the Raptors would agree.”
In that regard, he doesn’t just share an NBA origin story with VanVleet; they have the same hunger and drive. VanVleet has taken Davis under his wing, like Kyle Lowry did for him a few years back. He’s showing him the ropes and, also like Lowry’s mentorship, giving him tough love when he needs it – telling him where he’s making mistakes defensively or when he needs to be more aggressive offensively.
“He’s definitely like a big brother to me,” Davis said.
There’s one more similarity between the two guards. Like VanVleet, who wears his slogan “Bet on Yourself” across his chest, Davis also has a mantra, although it hasn’t made its way onto a T-shirt yet.
“My saying is ‘Make ‘em Believe,’” the Raptors’ undrafted rookie said proudly. “And Toronto believed in me.”