MADISON, Wisconsin — Everywhere Johnny Davis turned in high school, he heard the knock against Wisconsin: Great college program, but not for elite players seeking the fast track to the NBA.
The skeptics surrounding Davis weren’t outsiders with limited Badgers intel. They were Wisconsin kids from La Crosse Central High School, one of the state’s top basketball prep powers, where Davis starred. He and his teammates had grown up during the most consistent stretch of Badgers basketball ever: six Sweet 16 appearances between 2011 and 2017, Final Fours in 2014 and 2015 and annual trips to the NCAA tournament. They had seen stars develop, such as Frank Kaminsky, the Wooden Award winner in 2015, and Sam Dekker. They had seen La Crosse send some of its best to Wisconsin, including Bronson Koenig and Kobe King.
But they remained steadfast that Wisconsin wasn’t the right spot for Davis.
“My friends were like, ‘Man, you’re going to go there and you’re not going to be able to make it to the NBA,'” Davis told ESPN. “I heard all the noise about how Wisconsin’s not a good place for athletes to go if they want to reach the next level.”
Noah Parcher, a longtime friend of Davis’ who played with him at Central High, added, “That’s all people talked about 24/7, how Wisconsin is not a good fit, the way he plays. For him to do what he’s doing, I think he’s the best player Wisconsin’s ever had.”
This season, Davis has put himself in the conversation.
The 6-foot-5 and 194-pound wing is a national player of the year candidate and a definite All-American, ranking 19th nationally in scoring average (20 PPG) and leading the Badgers in rebounding (8.1 RPG). Davis also has become the best big-game player in the sport, leading the nation in scoring against Top 25 opponents at 24.1 points per game. He’s on pace to become Wisconsin’s first 20 point-per-game scorer since Michael Finley in 1994-95. On Tuesday, Davis beat a competitive field to earn Big Ten Player of the Year honors.
The goal his buddies didn’t think could be achieved so quickly at Wisconsin also is coming into focus. Davis appears at No. 7 overall in ESPN’s latest mock NBA draft, a consensus lottery pick who has drawn droves of scouts to Wisconsin games. Although Wisconsin has produced five NBA draft picks since 2004, Davis would be the first sophomore drafted since Rashard Griffith, a second-round pick in 1995, and just the second in team history.
After celebrating his 20th birthday on Feb. 27 — alongside his twin, Jordan, a guard for Wisconsin — Davis is set to become the youngest NBA draft pick from Wisconsin in the first or second round. His rise from sixth man to superstar is rooted in a long-held belief that he would reach this level, a transformative summer with USA Basketball, a strong basketball pedigree, Wisconsin’s willingness to let him shine and a steely determination — “The assassin’s heart,” Badgers coach Greg Gard calls it — to be the best player on the court.
BEFORE A FILM session at the Kohl Center, Davis reflected on a season few forecasted for him or his team. The night before, Wisconsin had outlasted Minnesota for its 22nd victory, remaining in first place in the Big Ten. In the preseason, the Badgers were picked to finish 10th in the league.
“I never could have predicted this myself, to be playing this well, or for my team to be playing this well,” Davis said. “I don’t even think we got 20 wins at all last season [the Badgers went 18-13]. Also, being a projected lottery pick and potential national player of the year, it’s all just really crazy. But then at the same time, I’m not surprised that it’s happening, because every time you step on the floor, you should expect to win.
“Every time I step on the floor, I want to be the best player.”
Those who watched Davis develop in basketball say they knew he had this in him. There was a competitive drive, a willingness to take on contact and defend, and a burst to create and make shots in bunches.
Those closest to him say the only question was when he would break out.
Johnny Davis connects from beyond the arc for Wisconsin vs. Northwestern.
“I expected him to do this last year,” said Terrance Thompson, a close friend and high school teammate. “Now seeing him do it, it’s not really a surprise.”
Before the season, Parcher and Davis made a bet on Davis’ goals.
“Big Ten Player of the Year, national player of the year and for him to average 20 [points per game],” Parcher said. “I’m going to lose [the bet], but I’m super happy. I’m glad he took that personal.”
Davis spent his first college season like many Wisconsin players do, acclimating and developing. He had to navigate challenges on the court, namely a logjam of seniors occupying starting spots, as well as playing ball and starting college amid the coronavirus pandemic. His stat line seemed typical for a freshman reserve: 7 points per game with a high of 17, and 4.3 rebounds per game in 24.4 minutes per game.
“A year where I just needed to gather myself,” Davis said.
He had come to Wisconsin with a plan and a clear goal of reaching the NBA. While he wasn’t behind schedule, he needed a sophomore surge. The first jolt wouldn’t come on Wisconsin’s campus but rather TCU’s, site of the USA Basketball U19 World Cup Team training camp.
Davis joined 26 other players vying for a spot on the 12-man World Cup team. The group included higher-profile players, including Purdue’s Jaden Ivey and Gonzaga-bound Chet Holmgren, the nation’s No. 1 incoming recruit.
TCU coach Jamie Dixon, who led the U19 team, remembers Davis as a quiet but physical player who rebounded and defended well, and never let his energy dip. Davis overcame subpar shooting with other strengths.
“His toughness and physicality stood out, and defense,” Dixon said. “Those are good starting points. And he cared.”
Davis made the team. Although he made the fewest shots for Team USA (9) during the seven-game tournament and had the second-lowest scoring average (4.1 PPG), the experience helped.
“I was able to prove myself,” he said. “It just helped me realize that I shouldn’t be this timid player anymore. I should come in, not being cocky about it, but thinking I’m the best player on the floor all the time.”
Johnny Davis rattles the rim on the finish!
The player Wisconsin had identified before other college programs as a potential star ready to launch.
“Not that he’s ever lacked confidence, but he had the swagger,” Gard said. “Not in an arrogant way, but, ‘When I walk on the floor, I’m the best player.’ You could tell that was his mindset. The first day back, it was like, ‘Whoa, OK.’
“He was at a little different level.”
But was Wisconsin the type of program that could allow Davis to keep climbing?
Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis splashes a 3-pointer in transition.
JOE KRABBENOFT FOLDS his 6-foot-7 frame into a chair in the front row of Wisconsin’s meeting room in the Kohl Center. Four days earlier, in the same building, the Badgers assistant coach had been the target of the most talked-about slap in sports.
“We used to be boring around here,” Krabbenhoft joked.
The truth is Wisconsin generated plenty of excitement before the postgame scuffle with Michigan, thanks mainly to Davis. But Krabbenhoft, a Wisconsin forward from 2005 to 2009, now in his second stint on the coaching staff, understands the program’s reputation, even the misunderstood parts of it.
Wisconsin’s success stems from player development and a team-centric culture. Methodical offense, punishing defense and a slower pace have been its hallmarks, from coaches Dick Bennett to Bo Ryan and now Gard. The Badgers’ Final Four teams in 2014 and 2015 ranked 286th and 345th nationally in adjusted tempo, according to Ken Pomeroy, but both also ranked in the top-4 for adjusted efficiency in Ryan’s famed swing offense.
The Wisconsin system works and has produced stars including Kaminsky, Dekker and Devin Harris. What the Badgers rarely have, though, is a pro prospect who has emerged as quickly as Davis.
“We’re such an all-about-the team program,” Krabbenhoft said. “That’s what has sustained Wisconsin basketball over the course of more than two decades, even dating back to Coach Bennett. That doesn’t mean you can’t come here and be a great individual player. It was a challenge for Johnny: ‘We’ll put you out there. We’ll give you the platform. We’ve got a pretty good recipe.’
“But the challenge is on you. We’ll put you in position.”
For Davis and his family, Krabbenhoft’s message would be all they needed to hear. Davis earned all-state honors as a high school sophomore, but didn’t generate widespread recruiting attention. He grew up a Kentucky fan — “Had the Kentucky bedsheet and everything,” Thompson recalled — but the Wildcats and other bluebloods largely stayed away.
Despite earning Mr. Basketball honors in Wisconsin in 2020 and making all-state three times, Davis wasn’t among ESPN’s top 100 recruits.
“Very underrated,” Davis said. “Nationally, I wasn’t really getting any attention. We played Jalen Suggs [ESPN’s No. 6 recruit] a few times, and he’s getting all this attention. It just motivated me to go out and prove to people why I should be labeled as good as him, if not better.”
Wisconsin, situated fewer than 150 miles from Davis’ home in La Crosse, noticed Davis before the rest. A scholarship offer came early in his sophomore year. Krabbenhoft, his lead recruiter, and Gard both loved the leadership and toughness implied by Davis’ background in football, where he earned all-state honors at quarterback. In basketball, they saw a slasher who dominated near the rim and could grow as a shooter.
“Athletically, physically, just the competitiveness, the drive, I knew he could get to this level,” Krabbenhoft said. “I didn’t know how fast it would happen.”
Wisconsin had recruited players from La Crosse, including Koenig and King, who also attended Central High (King left Wisconsin midway through his third season, a controversial exit borne out of built-up frustration with Gard). But Davis repeatedly heard why he should play elsewhere.
“I don’t think any of the really high recruits from Wisconsin have gone there, for example, Tyler Herro [Kentucky] and Jalen Johnson [Duke],” Thompson said. “They didn’t go there because they wanted to make the jump to the NBA. But Johnny, I guess he wanted to be different.
“It’s really amazing seeing how Wisconsin changed their whole offense around just for a guy like Johnny.”
Johnny Davis splashes the bucket to even the score
Gard, who came to Wisconsin in 2001 as an assistant for Ryan and replaced him 14 years later, knows the whispers some observers have about star power there. But he has helped accommodate players such as Harris, who might be the closest Wisconsin comparison to Davis. Harris’ breakout season came as a junior, when he scored 19.5 points per game, won Big Ten Player of the Year and was a second-team All-America selection. He went No. 5 overall in the 2004 NBA draft, Wisconsin’s highest selection since 1950.
Davis and Harris are similar in that they both “slither through people,” Gard said, to find scoring opportunities.
“He’s got a lot of freedom and that’s earned, too, it’s not just given out carte blanche,” Gard said of Davis. “He understands that taking care of the ball is important, that the defensive end is important. And if you’re good enough, we’re going to find ways. I’ve been able to tweak how we run different things to be able to showcase people.
“Obviously, he’s done a great job to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Davis’ father, Mark, saw the change almost immediately. In Wisconsin’s fifth game, Johnny scored 30 points against Houston, a 2021 Final Four participant, in a 65-63 Badgers win on Nov. 23. Johnny showed ballhandling skills Mark didn’t know he had.
“They’ve got some of the best athletes in the country, and my son was the best player on the floor,” Mark said. “I’m like, ‘OK, this is gonna be a special year right here.'”
Johnny Davis goes off for 30 points on 10-of-18 shooting from the field as Wisconsin takes down Houston to advance to the championship game of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.
MARK DAVIS ALWAYS has the loudest voice in the gym.
Whether he was coaching Johnny and Jordan in grade school, or watching them play at Central High or Wisconsin, the elder Davis could always be seen and heard by his sons and their teammates.
“My senior year, in the sectional final, I missed a free throw and I just hear Mark yell across the whole crowd, ‘Make your damn free throws!” recalled King, who played with the Davis twins toward the end of his career at Central High. “I just started cracking up and we were laughing about it after the game. He makes his presence felt.”
Told of his reputation, Mark laughed and said, “All of them know who I am, that’s right. I’m a very vocal fan and vocal father.”
He’s also not the typical basketball dad. Mark played professionally for 14 years, making NBA stops with the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, as well as in Europe, Japan and the CBA.
A fourth-round pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1985 draft, Mark played only 33 NBA games, all during the 1988-89 season. A 6-foot-6 forward out of Old Dominion, he was MVP of the Spanish Cup in 1990 with CB Zaragoza, and had three stints with the CBA’s La Crosse Catbirds. He stayed in town after his retirement in 1999 and met his future wife, Sarah.
Johnny and Jordan were born in 2002. For most of his childhood, Johnny was called Jonathan. Then, he became an avid watcher of “Johnny Test” on Cartoon Network.
“My aunt Connie was like, ‘Johnny, that’s kind of catchy,'” he said. “Everybody started calling me that.”
Mark introduced his sons to basketball early on. He often had them play against older kids.
“The first thing he ever told me was that he played against Michael Jordan,” said Johnny, who considers his father and Jordan as his primary basketball influences. “He would show film of [himself] playing overseas. One time, he was in Spain and he put up like 60 points. It was cool to be able to watch my dad do that and think someday, I could be in the same position.”
In third grade, Mark began coaching Johnny and Jordan, and continued until they reached high school.
“By the time they got to the eighth grade, they no longer wanted to hear my voice any more,” he said. “I always wanted them to play the game the right way, and I always used to yell at them because I didn’t want them to worry about statistics. You just worry about playing hard and winning the game. I instilled that in them, and by the time they became freshmen in high school, they never looked at a stat sheet.”
They just filled them instead. Jordan was the better athlete before enduring several injuries. Johnny developed faster in high school, while Jordan, who is 6-foot-4, emerged into a gifted all-around player. As freshmen in 2017, they helped Central to its first state title since 1925.
The Davis boys didn’t grow up Wisconsin fans. While Johnny loved Kentucky, Jordan rooted for North Carolina. Mark respected Wisconsin’s program and enjoyed watching the Kaminsky and Dekker teams. But it wasn’t until Koenig picked the Badgers, and King followed, that Wisconsin’s stock rose in the Davis home. Then came the offer for Johnny and, a year and a half later, one for Jordan.
Johnny Davis picks off the pass then flies towards the rim for the one-handed dunk.
King, a four-star recruit like Johnny Davis, had heard some of the same chatter about Wisconsin’s ceiling for stars.
“I wanted to play for my home state, and Johnny had that similar attitude, ‘No matter where I end up, I’m going to get the goal that I want,'” said King, who finished his college career at Valparaiso. “He’s breaking the stereotype right now. I don’t think there’s a better person to do that than Johnny.”
During Johnny’s recruitment, Gard told Mark that Wisconsin would adjust to feature a player like his son. Whether it meant increasing offensive tempo at times or letting Johnny create shots, Wisconsin wouldn’t limit him.
Gard and Krabbenhoft’s pitch boiled down to this: If Johnny delivered, the NBA would find him.
“It was true,” Mark said. “I’ve been through the process. I went to Old Dominion and I went to the NBA. If you’re good enough, you’re going to go. Did I think he would go out after his sophomore year? No, I did not. I thought probably after his junior year. But this kid, his drive and perseverance, is unmatched. He will do whatever it takes.
“That’s what’s going to translate over to the NBA.”
Wisconsin’s bench goes wild after Johnny Davis nails a clutch 3-pointer.
JOHNNY DAVIS IS exceeding everyone’s expectations this season, but he’s not acting like it. His face rarely changes, whether he’s scoring 37 points on the road at Purdue, fouling out against Minnesota or getting pinballed by every opponent’s best defender.
“He’s always that Tim Duncan-type, expressionless,” King said. “He’s in his own zone, no matter how it’s going.”
Davis’ stolid demeanor initially bothered Gard. The coach didn’t know whether Davis absorbed his instructions, or what buttons to push with the young player. One day, Davis eased Gard’s concerns, saying, “Coach, I’m like this all the time.”
Mark joked that Johnny “never changed his expression since third grade.” But there was that time in fourth grade where Johnny and Jordan’s team led a team of fifth graders by so many points that they could no longer use press defense. Johnny got a steal and drew a whistle, and then slammed the ball in disgust, earning a technical foul. He began crying and screaming at Mark, who kicked Johnny off the court and benched him for the first half of the next game.
“It was really bad when I was younger,” Johnny said. “But my dad and my mom did a really good job of helping me control my emotions.”
These days, there are lighter moments when Johnny shows his personality.
“We’ll play ‘Fortnite,’ and he’ll be screaming in the mic once he gets killed,” Thompson said. “He still jokes around a lot. He’s really just a normal guy.”
Mark thinks Johnny’s steady approach will serve him in the NBA, especially going through a season where defenders have targeted him. Last month, Mark sat courtside at Rutgers and watched Caleb McConnell smother Johnny, who never showed signs of frustration and overcame a tough shooting night to score 19 points in the five-point Badgers win.
Johnny Davis drills 3-pointer for Wisconsin
“He has that mindset that it’s not just basketball, it’s a job,” Mark said. “No one believes me, but Johnny’s going to be an All-Star in five years in the NBA. Mark it down.”
Davis’ NBA decision seems like a forgone conclusion. He said based on his current draft projection, he would “definitely leave,” but remains focused on leading Wisconsin to a deep NCAA tournament run. Despite aggravating an ankle injury on a scary-looking play Sunday against Nebraska, which resulted in the ejection of Huskers guard Trey McGowens, Davis expects to return Friday for a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal in Indianapolis.
Whenever his name is called June 23 in Brooklyn, it will resonate not only for Davis, but the program he picked.
“He’s done wonders to end that narrative that, I guess, is out there,” Krabbenhoft said. “I’ve been in this program for 20 years, but we all hear it, the rumblings, and we laugh at it, to be honest, because we know it’s not true…. You can accomplish anything here at Wisconsin. Johnny’s proven that to the nation.”
Davis hopes that squashing the stigma will be his legacy with the Badgers.
“I hope it sets a path to change the view on this university,” he said. “Stars can come here and achieve their dreams.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism