With zero picks in the 2019 draft, Rockets fans are surely taking some solace in the summer league signings of notable undrafted free agents Shamorie Ponds and Chris Clemons. However, while big names, the two high-scoring guards are far from Houston’s most intriguing prospects set to appear in Las Vegas. That title belongs to the recently acquired Deyonta Davis.
At 6’11”, 237 lbs, with a 7’2” wingspan and impressive athleticism, Davis profiles as a Clint Capela doppelganger. Unfortunately, to this point, “profiling” as an elite big man is the closest Davis has gotten to contributing anything of substance in the league for an extended stretch.
A projected top-10 pick in the 2016 draft, the Michigan State product saw one of the most surprising draft night falls of the modern era, dropping all the way to Memphis at pick 32 — and for good reason. Despite his elite physical profile, questions surrounding Davis’ lack of motor and basketball IQ were glaring, and his first two years in the league did little to shake that reputation.
Upon being traded to and subsequently waived by the Sacramento Kings last offseason, many believed Davis’ NBA career was over. Most scouts thought he didn’t even like basketball. But to much surprise, Davis latched on to Golden State’s G-League team, the Santa Cruz Warriors, in a last-chance scenario, and thrived.
His nightly averages of 9.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks on 59% from the floor and 83.3% from the free-throw line, while not eye-popping, showed a lot of promise. Davis projected as only a low-usage big anyways, so finally showing he could compete defensively on a regular basis, while contributing efficient offensively, was all he needed.
After 43 games in the minor leagues, the Atlanta Hawks took a flyer on Davis, signing him to two consecutive 10-day contracts before being impressed enough to ultimately sign him to a non-guaranteed multi-year contract days before the season ended to keep him under team control. Despite his solid play, Davis was unfortunately squeezed by the numbers game, as Atlanta waived him on July 12 to clear roster spots for their wealth of draft picks.
As the old saying goes: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And Houston reaped the benefits of Atlanta’s overabundance of draft picks, scooping up Davis days later on July 14. For a team with little to no upside remaining on the roster, this was a steal— especially based on Davis’ fit in Houston’s unique system.
Offensively, Davis is a big target in pick-and-rolls. Per Synergy Sports, this season with Santa Cruz, albeit against lesser competition, Davis finished in the 94th percentile for efficiency as a “roll man.” Even during his forgettable tenure in Memphis, Davis finished in the 72nd percentile for that same metric in his sophomore year. Additionally, since being drafted, Davis’ touch has progressed immensely, finishing in the 98th percentile in the G-League for efficiency around the basket on non-post up possessions (aka: push shots or “bunnies”), making him a threat outside of lobs and dump-offs. For a team that has big men almost exclusively roll to the rim in the half court, with two of the best pick-and-roll passers ever finding him, Davis has a chance to salvage his offensive upside in Houston if he makes the roster.
In addition to all that, Davis projects even better on the defensive end. During his short-lived Hawks tenure, Davis finished in the 93rd and 94th percentile for pick-and-roll defense and isolation defense, respectively. That may be small sample size theater, but it builds upon similar success he attained in those metrics in both Santa Cruz and Memphis. Considering Houston’s bigs have to defend guards in pick-and-rolls and switch onto the perimeter more than arguably any other team, Davis is a natural fit.
While one can hope that Davis’ convoluted path through the NBA landscape so far has decimated whatever ego he came into the league with, showing him that despite his gifts, he needs to work to succeed at this level, there is still is a sizeable possibility his fit with the Rockets doesn’t pan out, and he struggles in summer league.
In the event that happens, the Rockets have a way out, as Davis’ contract’s first guarantee date isn’t until July 31. So should Davis fall on his face in Vegas, the Rockets can just waive him before the calendar turns to August and feel no ill-effects. This really is a no-risk bet.
Still, that doesn’t seem likely. This is Davis’ third time through the LVSL song-and-dance, but the first where he knows his job truly is on the line. Expect his presence to be felt.
If things break right, the Rockets may have just netted a contributing piece out of thin air. Despite his tenure in the league, at 22, Davis is the same age as the seniors in this draft class. Who knows, maybe an excellent summer league turns him into an asset that plays a larger than expected role in a key trade this summer (à la De’Anthony Melton last year)?
At the very least, Davis brings some excitement to a fairly bleak summer league roster for Houston. Questions certainly remain about Davis’ motor and basketball IQ, but there’s no denying at this point that there’s something there. He’s worth the look.