NEW YORK — “Usually people ask about people I don’t like, and I have to lie,” Evan Turner said. He was happy, then, to talk about his former Portland Trail Blazers teammate Ed Davis: “Really good dude. Wish he was back.” When Davis agreed to sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the early hours of July 1, Damian Lillard tweeted a broken heart emoji for one of his favorite teammates ever. For a moment after a shootaround at Madison Square Garden in November, Portland’s franchise player imagined Davis strolling in and announcing he was coming back, to a chorus of hell yeahs.
“Everybody loves Ed,” Lillard said. “I just think just having him around, it was different. I think we expected him to be around forever. We were like, there ain’t no way, there’s no way Ed’s going to ever be nowhere else. I still think about it.”
Turner and Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu talk with Davis daily on a group text. Lillard is in touch with the big man once or twice a week and hasn’t given up on bringing him back to Portland. Ask around, from Chapel Hill to Brooklyn, from coaches to PR people, and Lillard’s assertion is proven correct: Everybody does love Ed.
“I’m in love,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson confirmed.
Keep your eyes on Davis during a game, and you will not be blown away by his athleticism. You might catch a highlight block or putback dunk, but he makes his money out-rebounding larger players, setting quasi-legal screens and finishing in traffic.
Davis leads the NBA in offensive rebounding rate. The hustle stats page on the league’s official website functions as an advertisement for his game: Per-minute, Davis ranks first in box-outs and ninth in screen assists.
“I know Dame appreciates him because he’s setting screens,” Turner said. “He’s risking his body trying to get offensive rebounds. You can always count him to be there at the rim for you. If you get beat on the drive, he leaves his man and tries to come over and contest the high-flier. Most of the time, they ended up in blocks, but if they ended up in dunks, he didn’t care.”
Turner was shocked the Blazers didn’t re-sign Davis. “It was only $4 million,” he said, cheap for a “consummate pro” who was “really, really, really invaluable” to the locker room. Davis came off the bench for 202 of his 220 games in Portland, playoffs included, but his “impact on the team was if he was a starter and one of the captains,” Lillard said.
Lillard and Davis became close, however, for non-basketball reasons. There was “no B.S. to him,” Lillard said, describing him as humble, regular and real.
“If it was up to me, me and Ed would be teammates for my entire career,” Lillard said.
Davis is in Brooklyn partially because the front office believed he’d have a positive effect on its culture. The nine-year veteran can also credibly be called one of the best backup bigs in the league. These rave reviews, though, are rarely offered for role players. How, exactly, has Davis earned them?
“Being real,” Davis said. “That’s the main thing. Being professional. Working hard. Guys respect that. ‘Cause obviously I’m not the most skilled guy. I know I’m not a shooter. Nothing about my game is flashy. But I come to work every day, I play hard, I’m respectful to everybody. I speak to everybody, talk to everybody. I’m trying to win. I literally put team first. Some people say that, but I literally do that. I know my role. All that has a lot to do with it.”
Davis remembers the damn fruit flies. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, he did lawn care and construction, but nothing was worse than working for a fruit company called Lanasa Produce.
“I was working in a factory,” Davis said. “It was 100 degrees in the summertime, no A.C. You got, shit, all these fruit flies flying around. You got a bunch of people who are working and a lot of people there, they’re so scared of the boss, they’re just working fast, fast, fast, instead of working smart. So I’m trying to keep up with them.”
He knew people would assume he was spoiled because his father, Terry, played 10 seasons in the NBA. The truth is that Davis had the basics, but just one pair of shoes and a “couple outfits,” he said. Day after day, he went to the factory thinking that he couldn’t see himself doing hard labor for another 30 years.
Terry and Angela Jones, Ed’s mother, separated when he was in fifth grade. As a highly ranked junior high player, Davis received early-morning texts from his father citing the names ahead of him: Greg Monroe is working out. Samardo Samuels is working out. Terry loved to tell his son that you can’t make money in the bed.
“To this day, we have a weird relationship just because of that competitive basketball thing,” Davis said. “But if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be who I am or where I’m at. He definitely paved the way and opened the door for me and I appreciate that.”
Davis traces his lack of entitlement and his work ethic to his father’s influence. It didn’t hurt that he had to bang under the boards with Ben Wallace from junior high onward, either.
Wallace and Terry both made the league undrafted out of Virginia Union, and they were briefly teammates with the Washington Wizards. Davis scrimmaged with Wallace every summer, and the legendary bruiser never went easy on him. Wallace made note of the fact Davis stayed late after their workouts when everybody felt “all worn out,” and that he went for runs in the morning with his father.
“I know the type of person that his father is,” Wallace said. “He never really gave him anything. He made him work for it. He made him earn it. And once you instil that into a kid at a young age, when he grows up to be a man, he remembers those lessons.”
Davis committed to North Carolina knowing that Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson could come back and keep their starting spots. He was a McDonald’s All American, but the Tar Heels’ goal was to win it all, so Davis had to accept averaging only 19 minutes. It paid off when they blew out Michigan State in the national title game.
“I knew I was going to have to fight and earn everything that I got,” Davis said. “I was just happy to be a part of a team that could win a championship.”
Scanning box scores like he does every night, North Carolina coach Roy Williams recently noticed Davis had grabbed 10 rebounds in 17 minutes. It reminded him of the days when Williams subbed Davis in, always expecting the team would get a lift.
“One of the greatest teammates I’ve ever coached, one of the greatest, quote, ‘role players’ I’ve ever coached,” Williams said. “Was exceedingly important to our team, exceptionally important to our team, and we don’t win a national championship and have that great year without Ed.”
On the day of the 2010 draft, thunderstorms kept Williams from being with Davis in New York. Just as he landed in Charleston, South Carolina for a long weekend, he took a call from then-Raptors assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo — Davis was unexpectedly available with the No. 13 pick. Williams advised him to tell general manager Bryan Colangelo that Toronto wouldn’t be disappointed and there was nothing negative to say about him. Davis had missed most of his sophomore season with a wrist injury, but had already made his mark.
“He was fine with that role and he dominated that role,” said Miami Heat guard Wayne Ellington, a member of that title team. “People forget. People forget to mention Ed Davis sometimes when they talk about our championship team, but he was a huge piece.”
Every time Ellington’s father, Wayne Sr., ran into a freshman Davis in Chapel Hill, he offered words of encouragement: Ed, you a beast, man! You’re going to the league, man. You about to get paid!
Ellington was a junior, and while he had a good relationship with Davis, they didn’t hang out that much. This changed when they both signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2014. Davis was one of the first people to congratulate Ellington, and they welcomed the chance to reconnect five years after the national title.
Two weeks into the season, Wayne Ellington Sr. was murdered, shot twice in the head behind the wheel of his car in Philadelphia. The Lakers hosted the Charlotte Hornets that night, and Ellington found out after the game, in a Staples Center hallway, from his then-fiancée. Davis will never forget that night, not only because of his personal relationship with Wayne Sr., but because he drove Ellington home from the arena.
Ellington said he already considered Davis a brother by that point, but tragedy brought them closer. The guard left the team for less than two weeks, and Davis was there for him when he returned.
“He made it so much easier for me just because we already had that bond,” Ellington said. “It’s tough, dealing with something like that. You look for family to be close to, or whatever the case may be. He was my family on the team.”
That season, Davis and Ellington spent time together on the road at each other’s homes in Los Angeles. They were only teammates for one year in the pros, but they talk on a daily basis, their wives are friends and their kids are the same age. Ellington is the reason Davis visits in Miami in the offseason.
In San Antonio, there is another shooting guard who considers Davis family. DeMar DeRozan and Davis met when they were both in 11th grade, and kept in contact when they went to college. DeRozan turned pro after one year at USC, and was one of the first people to text Davis when the Raptors made them teammates a year later.
“As soon as summer league, right away, we just clicked,” Davis said.
The Toronto organization Davis joined was a far cry from what it is now. It won 22 games in his rookie year under coach Jay Triano, and its 23-43 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season under Dwane Casey was seen as a meaningful step forward. As Davis, DeRozan and the Raptors tried to establish themselves, the two teammates became inseparable, whether they were watching “The Wire” on DVD or working on their games.
Davis’ breakout came in his third year. In 23 games as a starter, he averaged 13 points and 7.7 rebounds. He was playing the best basketball of his life in January when, suddenly, Toronto traded him to the Memphis Grizzlies, away from his best friend, where he would not only be buried behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but left to compete for backup minutes with Darrell Arthur and Jon Leuer.
“I was just starting to come into my own,” Davis said. “Casey was calling plays for me. Everything was going just great. It was my third year, so I was coming up on an extension. Obviously, like, I’m talking to my agent. He’s like, ‘Man, you’re about to get a nice deal,’ and then boom. You get traded. That really opened up the business side of things to me. Like, man, Colangelo just told me two weeks ago that I wasn’t getting traded.”
The news broke with the Raptors on the bus to Philips Arena in Atlanta. Davis delivered it to DeRozan himself. Neither of them knew where their careers would go from there, but, five-and-a-half years later, DeRozan would also have to make peace with an unwanted trade from Toronto. Now, the 29-year-olds have both started families. DeRozan is the godfather of Davis’ twin boys, Easton and Eagan, and Davis is the godfather of DeRozan’s first-born daughter, Diar.
“Matter of fact, I talked to him last week,” Davis said. “We were on the phone for like an hour, just talking about life and how we’re starting to get older ‘and things like that. He’s going to be a close friend until I leave this Earth.”
Davis has a good relationship with every coach he has ever played for, he said, with one exception: Lionel Hollins.
“Honestly, it’s no secret,” Davis said. “I don’t like Lionel Hollins at all, as a person or anything. Just to put that out there.”
In the wake of the trade, which sent Rudy Gay to Toronto, Hollins blasted the Grizzlies front office, saying, “When you have champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget.” Hollins didn’t play Davis much in Memphis, but that was expected. His lack of communication was not.
“He woke me up to the NBA,” Davis said. “Because it’s just simple things, like, as a person, if I see my coach walking in a hotel, man, you can speak to me.”
Davis considered Triano and Casey “great human beings.” Making a transition to a bench role was always going to be an adjustment, but he figured he’d have some support from his coach.
“He [Hollins] didn’t try to help me out at all,” Davis said. “He made things difficult for me. So that just hurt me. I took a step back.”
Davis said he matured a lot, thanks to his tough times with the Grizzlies. And if you have spent any amount of time around him, it’s not hard to understand why he wouldn’t get along with a cursing, screaming, “old-school” coach.
“I call him Easy because he’s just an easy-going guy,” Ellington said.
“To me, basketball is not that serious,” Davis said, a reflection not of his dedication to his craft but his ability to put it in perspective. Regardless of what was happening on the court, he didn’t think Hollins needed to be so cold.
Memphis didn’t break Davis. More importantly, when mentoring players who weren’t getting the opportunities they wanted, it gave his words weight. Early last season, Zach Collins got DNPs and Davis could relate. “Trust me, I know how anxious you are,” Davis told him, continually reminding Collins that his time would come. On road trips, Davis made a point of stopping by the rookie’s hotel room to see how he was doing.
“He didn’t have to,” Collins said. “He took time out of his own stuff or whatever he had going on and went and checked on me. We loved having him here. I’ll never forget the lessons that we learned from him.”
Davis’ departure meant Collins’ role would be elevated, but the 21-year-old center said he was “bummed out” when he saw the news and still misses him. As a rookie trying to learn the NBA, it helped hearing Davis’ voice when they shared the floor.
“In one year, Ed had a profound effect on Zach and helped him become a better pro because of it,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.
Davis also encouraged Noah Vonleh when the two were ostensibly competing for minutes in Portland. The New York Knicks big man fondly recalled working out with Davis in the morning, talking trash during shooting games and going out for dinner at night. It is not an exaggeration to say Davis couldn’t be mean to a teammate if he tried. Early in his career, he actually did.
“Me and this guy, we’re in the same position fighting for time,” Davis said. “I’m like, I can’t like this guy. I’m coming to practice today, I’m not saying shit to him. It’s business, it’s all war. And I’m like, man, this is not me. Like, I’m just too cool of a guy to ignore someone or be fighting over minutes.”
Stotts described Davis as mature and grounded, and he liked that Davis was honest with all his teammates and talked to them about more than basketball. Aminu was more blunt: “He still can have love towards a person even though you gotta compete. It doesn’t have to be that in the middle of your sleep I’m going to put something in your food so you get sick. It don’t have to go to that level.”
At the Nets’ practice facility in late November, Atkinson made a prediction. “Let’s say we have a jump, an improvement,” he said. “I think [Davis] will probably not get enough credit.”
Sure enough, Brooklyn has won seven straight games, and its dynamic guards, Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell, are understandably attracting the lion’s share of the attention. The Nets, back in action on Friday against the Pacers (7:30 p.m. ET — watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), have outscored opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the court during the streak, the highest net rating on the team.
Davis has long been an analytics darling, but is beloved because of the stuff numbers can’t catch. Early in the season, the coach asked second-year big man Jarrett Allen about his improved offensive rebounding. “Shit, I watch Ed do it,” Allen told him — he had been looking at Davis’ swim moves and surreptitious pushes under the rim.
When Davis showed up in Brooklyn for voluntary workouts, he did most of his talking on the court, then quietly pitched in with his pointers. Allen, the shy type himself, took to his laid-back vibe. The 20-year-old also noticed that Davis always came in early to get his work done.
Atkinson has a theory: “If me and you went out and played 3-on-3 basketball, I can kind of tell what kind of guy you are by how hard you play, if you’re going to pass to the open guy, what your demeanor is.” In this way, he said Davis’ game matches his personality. He’s not a “big bad wolf” off the court like he is when battling for boards, but he is understated, unselfish and competitive.
“I wish I was like that,” Atkinson said. “I wish I had more Ed Davis in me, personality-wise. He’s a fantastic guy to be around. He’s really helped. I think he’s really helped our culture. And I don’t say that all the time.”
As long as he’s a Net, Davis wants to teach their young players about the mental part of the game and the business side of the league. He has seen plenty of players come and go, some way more talented than him. As a rookie in Toronto, he respected the professionalism and mindset of rugged rebounder Reggie Evans, then in his ninth year, like Davis now. He still pays attention to teammates’ habits and tries to learn from them.
“This is your job,” Davis said. “It’s not just basketball. It might be certain days when you don’t want to come in and do something, but you gotta do it. I don’t like to say ‘fake it till you make it,’ but with some guys, they have to because they wear their emotions on their sleeve.”
Davis has been around long enough for someone like Wallace, who used to stress to him the importance of mental toughness, to be proud of him for passing his knowledge on. He is still young enough, however, to back up his words every time he checks into a game.
“The positive effect of a guy like that has on your program is probably more than you’d even think,” Atkinson said. “And I think it works conversely, too: Like, if we had a negative influence in that position, it probably would hurt us more than we’d think. I can’t tell you how much [general manager] Sean [Marks] and I believe in that.”
Davis credited Marks for knowing how much solid veterans can matter. He also joked that he hopes Marks will still see his value on July 1 — after all, a year ago, he thought he’d definitely stay with the Blazers on a multi-year-deal. No matter the details when he next puts pen to paper, Davis will be thinking the same thing he thought when he signed his rookie contract: I want people to say I earned every dollar.
“I play this game for respect,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to go down as the best shooter, the best defensive player or the best of anything. But when my kids grow up and people ask, like, ‘How was your dad?’ I want all them to be like, ‘We respected him. He was well-respected. He’s a tough guy.’ That’s all I can ask for.”