PORTLAND, Maine — It’s late January and JD Davison, playing for the Maine Celtics, sets a pick at the top of the key.
He screens for the ballhandler, then opens his stance, faking as if he’s looking for a pass while taking a step back.
The tiny shift creates just enough of an opening for Davison to race down the left side of the lane, using an elbow screen from a big and taking off from the block for a forceful two-handed alley-oop.
It’s the kind of electrifying athletic play the lone rookie in the Celtics’ 2022 draft class routinely makes. A 6-foot-1-inch, 195-pound point guard, Davison is capable of rising up and catching lobs off of designed alley-oop plays.
An explosive first step, open-court speed, scoring ability, and an extensive list of highlight-reel dunks earned Davison a five-star recruiting ranking in high school when he was considered as one of the top-15 prospects in his class.
“The first thing is, he’s fast,” said Maine guard Kamar Baldwin. “First step, everything. Sees the floor really well. He doesn’t get sped up, he’s always attacking and getting everyone the ball.”
Since being selected with the No. 53 pick in last year’s NBA Draft, Davison has split time between Boston and G League affiliate Maine as he shapes his natural ability into a skill set that will allow him to thrive at the professional level.
For the 20-year-old who played one year of college basketball at Alabama, that means rounding out his game as a more efficient playmaker.
After leading the NBA Summer League in assists, Davison’s success has carried over into the regular season.
Leading the G League’s highest-rated offense
Davison leads all two-way players in assists per game with 8.8, more than twice as many as he averaged in college. With 145 total assists against 49 turnovers, his assist-to-turnover ratio is 2.96.
“I just think he’s doing a really good job getting into the paint,” Maine Celtics coach Alex Barlow said. “In high school and college, when you get into the paint it’s a little bit easier to score than it is at this level. He could just jump over dudes pretty easily at that level and finish. Here, guys are a step quicker, so as he’s getting into the paint someone is rotating over a step quicker than they were in college or high school, so someone else is open.”
Davison has always been able to read defenses and see the floor well, but one of the main pre-draft concerns was if he’d be able to put it together consistently so his game would translate to the NBA.
At the G League level, consistency hasn’t been much of an issue. Davison has the second-fewest turnovers per game (2.6) among the league’s top-five assist leaders. He’s helped lead Maine to a league-best offensive rating of 119.4. And he’s shooting 51.8 percent from the field.
“I think the game is slowing down for him,” Baldwin said. “When he first started he was doing well also, but once you get in the system playing in the G League, you learn the speed of the game and things start slowing down for you. I feel like he’s seeing things before they happen. He’s making the right reads and people are getting easy shots because of it.”
Barlow pointed out that Davison is getting hard-earned assists in the halfcourt offense instead of just in transition, a sign of his ability to run the offense and create open looks for others.
“There’s not many guys that can just blow by dudes like he does,” Barlow said. “As he continues to grow and get more reps and experience, he’s going to get really good at being like this is a kick, this is a finish, this is, ‘Oh, I’m in the paint nobody’s open, I’m going to keep dribbling it out and then I play.’ He’s made a lot of strides in that area.”
Always repping Lowndes County
Portland, Maine, is almost 1,400 miles away from Letohatchee, Ala., where Davison played high school basketball at The Calhoun School just two years ago.
He grew up in Lowndes County the same area as four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace.
Davison’s eyes light up when he speaks of home. It’s where he learned to dunk in the backyard by pulling a trampoline close to the basketball hoop.
“I’m always repping my hometown no matter where I’m at,” Davison said. “A lot of people don’t know what it is. A lot of people from my hometown will tell you they’re from Montgomery. I’m always telling people I’m from Lowndes County, because that’s where I was born, that’s where I was raised, that’s where my friends and family are.”
To say Davison has been a source of inspiration for the county of just more than 10,000 people would be an understatement.
The title of a 2020 Montgomery Advertiser profile on Davison reads: “God may have ‘forgot’ Lowndes County, but he blessed it with 4-star point guard JD Davison.”
The piece quotes Philip Alston, an expert on extreme poverty and human rights for the United Nations: “I traveled to a lot of places in the US where poverty jumps out from behind every corner,” he said, “but Lowndes County is one of the bleakest and most determinedly neglected counties once one gets out of the city area and into the rural parts.”
As Davison puts it, he’s from the “country, country” part of Alabama, where they ride four-wheelers and ATVs for fun. He remembers the food shop inside of a local Chevron gas station — he claims it has the “best pizza in the world.” He remembers running up hills in the summer heat with his older brothers as he trained.
His mom Katrina sends him daily words of encouragement and bible scriptures via text message. She said being in Boston to see Davison score his first NBA points in November was the coolest moment of her life.
She’s intensely proud of her son, and she said the best two words to sum him up would be “quiet and humble.”
“JD hardly goes anywhere,” his mother said. “After practice, if he’s not shooting, he’s in his room playing video games. He’s always been like that. We’re from a very small town. What you do is sports and home.”
As he continues to climb toward his NBA dream in New England, Davison hasn’t forgotten about that small town in rural Alabama.
“It’s small,” Davison said. “But the people in the town work for everything that they’ve got. That definitely translates to my game, because once you see everyone working hard to feed their family it’s just built in my genes to go hard.”