It was late in the fourth quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder, 13.4 seconds remaining to be exact. Fred VanVleet had just missed a three-pointer that could have given the Raptors the lead, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came down with the rebound and the Raptors needed to foul.
But Terence Davis forgot.
Toronto trailed 98-97 and Davis lost track of the score. Thinking it was a tie game instead, he hounded Gilgeous-Alexander as he dribbled up the court and by the time the Canadian was able to get all the way to the other end and swing the ball around, nearly 10 seconds had passed by the time VanVleet fouled Chris Paul. Kyle Lowry was eager to express his displeasure, throwing his hands up as he stared down Davis with the typical “what are you doing?” reaction. The Thunder dribbled the clock out with the aid of a couple timeouts from there, the momentary lapse stealing away any chance the Raptors had of extending the game. That’s life as a rookie.
Now, some might be wondering why a rookie was even on the court in such a high leverage situation, but such has been the Raptors’ 2019-20 season that Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell were all injured for this late December tilt. To be fair to Terence, he was quite good and deserved to be on the floor in the moment. In 27 minutes, he racked up 11 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals. Sometimes, perhaps more so as a rookie, you just fly too close to the sun and get your wings clipped.
“Some of the things I learned, I learned in a game, which is kind of the best way to learn, if you get what I’m saying,” Davis said about his rookie season from his home in Southaven, Mississippi. “It’s like, you get experience during the game, you getting some lessons taught during the game, on the fly, the next game come along, you know what’s going on, you already learned that so you can move on to another lesson that might occur during a game or a significant time throughout the course of the season.”
After observing quarantine in Toronto with the accompaniment of a bike, a bench, and some donuts on the side, Davis headed to Florida with fellow rookie Dewan Hernandez. They continued to quarantine at a condo in Miami while also working out before moving on to his home in Mississippi, where he has access to a private gym and trainer while also being able to tend to his 10-month-old son and family.
“I want Fred, I want Kyle, I want these guys to be able to trust me when I get in the game in the playoffs—if I get in the game during the playoffs."
Davis had his child a few days before the 2019 NBA draft, where he went unselected. Staying off draft boards was by design, since after finding out that the only teams interested in selecting him were looking to do so in the second round and later put him on a two-way contract. He instead opted to showcase his talents at the Las Vegas Summer League, and after one game with the Denver Nuggets, the Raptors came calling and locked him to a one-year guaranteed deal with a team option for the second year. While there are hardly any similarities in their games on the court, the bet-on-yourself mentality that Davis shares with VanVleet is evident.
“I would say that the decision I made was definitely the right decision,” Davis said, having now had a chance to reflect during this hiatus. “No doubt about that, because look at how things turned out. I played in every single game this season, not knowing that I would play in every game this season. I thought that I would be in the G League for at least half of the season and come first game of the year I’m playing 15 minutes opening night. Man, it happened it so fast!”
No one expected Davis to come along this quickly. Even the role models whose footsteps he was looking to follow in needed more time to make an impact at the highest level. Pascal Siakam finished his rookie season in the G League while Fred VanVleet was virtually with the Raptors 905 the entire season. Most surprising of all has been Davis’ three-point stroke, something that was always going to be an X-Factor in terms of playing time. Averaging 17 minutes through 64 games, Davis has shot 39.6 percent from deep on the season. If anything, the soon-to-be 23-year-old has had to figure out the defensive side of the ball, an area where there has been much to learn not only about the schemes head coach Nick Nurse looks to run, but the little things like understanding time and score and late-game scenarios like the one against the Thunder.
Davis remembers not being able to get in position for any of Toronto’s defensive drills during training camp. He knew he needed time, and he knew that end of the floor was how he was going to butter his bread. He has constantly picked his teammate’s brains both on and off the court, and he cherishes their honesty because of where he’s trying to go. For all the three-pointers and highlight-reel dunks he can provide, Davis knows in the back of his mind that defence has been the main reason why he’s barely broken a sweat on certain nights.
“I know for certain, one thing that will keep me on the court, not just get me on the court but keep me on the court, if I’m really playing defence, locking in, making defensive plays, deflections, getting hands on certain balls, rebounding, that’ll keep me on the floor an extended amount of time,” Davis said. “So, that’s been a focus of mine.”
Many rookies would be happy with the type of playing time and shine Davis has seen on a team that stands tall as the defending champions. But Davis knows that, ultimately, a franchise that measures itself more on what happens in the playoffs than the regular season is constantly evaluating how his work will translate over to the highest of high-leverage situations.
Through four episodes of the The Last Dance, we’ve seen just how much it took for Michael Jordan to truly trust his teammates, and that earning that level of trust is what can take a team over the hump. The Raptors have proven they can get over it, and so the new faces have to prove to the old ones that they can fit in with their ethos.
“I want Fred, I want Kyle, I want these guys to be able to trust me when I get in the game in the playoffs—if I get in the game during the playoffs. So, that’s why I’m in the gym right now, that’s why I’ve been in the gym everyday at 12, getting weights in.
“I want to be in the best shape and I just want to be able to be trusted so I can show those guys that I’m ready to be part of you guys. So, there’s a lot that I’ve reflected on and that was, for sure, one of the things, though: being able to earn the trust of the older guys so when I get into the playoffs there wouldn’t be any animosity.”