Nelly's arc: How Johnell Davis became triply dangerous
Trevor Andershock is a respected basketball recruiting analyst based in Indiana. He has watched thousands of players in high school and AAU games and evaluated hundreds of prospects. In spring 2019, he wrote this in a junior-year assessment of a high school guard from Gary named Johnell Davis:
"He’s got a solid stroke from the outside but needs to refine it with reps."
Davis certainly has put in the reps at Florida Atlantic—taking shot after shot after shot, morning after morning after morning, for two solid years. “Out-of-season, an hour-30, but in season I try to cut it close to an hour,” Davis said. To say he has refined his form is to render the word refine forever useless.
The FAU junior has used those mornings in the gym to raise his ceiling from “good MAC-level player” in Andershock’s projection back then to All-America candidate. Since early in the 2021-22 season, he has dedicated himself to daily disciplined and targeted shooting work and has built out his range to an extent nobody—not Andershock, not even Dusty May—could have foreseen. He’s gone from a 27 percent career 3-point shooter in high school and 33 percent shooter early in his FAU career to a 48 percent shooter this season including a scorching 20-for-36 (55 percent) in conference games.
And adding that to his lightning first step, his creativity in corkscrewing to the rim for layups, his propensity for 9.5-on-the-judge’s-card dunks? Let’s just say it settled as fact that Nelly Davis is the best Nelly in college basketball, at least in the mind of basketball insider Rob Dauster. On one of his Field of 68 podcasts, Dauster jokingly asked Davis whether he ranks ahead of his famous rapper namesake in the “Overall Nelly Power Ratings.”
That interview was after the Owls’ nationally televised, 96-95 double-overtime upset of then-No. 4 Arizona two days before Christmas. In that game Davis played 49 of 50 minutes, hit 15 of 27 shots for 35 points, added nine rebounds, three assists and three steals, and generally, in the words of Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd, “was nails.” And in nine games since, he’s scored at least 20 points five times. His 34 at UTSA included three free throws at the end of regulation that forced overtime and saved the Owls from mortally damaging their NCAA at-large profile. And of course his 28 Sunday against North Texas included the game-winning 3 with less than a second left.
The overall per-game averages this season—18.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 steals—don’t begin to convey the impact Davis has had on May’s program. Honestly, it’s a degree of impact May never saw coming when he won a modest recruiting battle to lure Davis out of Gary 21st Century Charter School four years ago.
“We felt we signed someone who could help make FAU a better basketball team, but I don’t know that I envisioned someone growing into this,” May said. “But it’s well-deserved. His routine, his consistency, his growth in all facets are just amazing and impressive to all of us. Just proud of the direction he’s going. He’s staying humble. The success isn’t changing him at all. He’s not redefining himself. He’s not reinventing himself. He continues to simply add layers to the game that has made him successful.”
The foundation was there early. May and former FAU assistant Akeem Miskdeen saw it when they scouted him in high school and in the Nike EYBL league. Andershock, who also covers basketball and recruiting for a popular Indiana University fan site, saw it too, almost from the beginning.
Andershock saw four years of a gifted athlete defending, rebounding and going to the basket for his high school team as if every possession was the last. He saw natural growth in leadership and responsibility, accepting secondary status to a college-bound upperclassman his first two years before inheriting the main-man role his last two. He saw a confident veteran take that role and own it. But he also saw a kid with good shooting form from the foul line and the elbows ignore obvious limitations from longer range and bomb away anyway.
In four years at 21st Century, Davis’ per-game scoring averages improved from 12.9 to 15.5 to 25.0 to 31.4 according to his MaxPreps page. His free-throw percentages rose from 62 to 69 to 74 to 77. His 2-point field-goal percentage went from 48 to 56 to 62 to, despite almost 100 more attempts as a senior, a still-impressive 57. But his 3-point percentage bobbed at 28, 29, 26 and 27—and as a senior his 192 attempted 3s were 30 percent of his overall shots.
“In his junior and senior years he had the ball in his hands at all times and could shoot whenever he wanted and put up monster numbers—and he was definitely counted on to do everything for them,” Andershock said.
There was so much else to like about his overall game—with one notable exception, an 18-pound lighter version of what’s now on display around the American Athletic Conference.
“His main strengths were getting to the basket and driving in transition,” Andershock said. “He was always playing his hardest, especially at the defensive end—making steals, getting in transition, hitting the glass. Really leaning on his athleticism for most of his production.” His athleticism frequently left fans gasping.
Someone asked if high school-aged Victor Oladipo might have been a suitable age-appropriate player comparison.
“That’s a good one,” Andershock said. “When Oladipo was in high school at DeMatha (in Baltimore), he was doing a lot of the dirty work and doing a little bit of everything like Johnell did for (his AAU team) and 21st Century. At the time, I didn’t compare him to any player, but he’d get out on the fast break and make you go, ‘Wow!’ That happened once or twice a game, especially at the high school level where he took more of those opportunities. Those flashes of athleticism were off the charts.”
As for Davis’ shooting …
“He did have a pretty good mid-range shot, and I think that’s what his form is based out of. … His free throw percentage improved every year in high school, too, so you had something to point to that he was working on. He’s got the form you can see, so there is a chance he could develop it. I just never thought it would get to this level.”
So when, how and why did a lifetime 27 percent shooter almost double that figure in four years?
Early insight into the whatever-it-takes attitude manifest later in mornings drilling 3s at FAU might actually could be drawn from the summer he practically took off from shooting them. Coming off a junior high school year in which he was an ascendant scorer, he played for the stacked IndyHeat U17 AAU team and re-subordinated himself, as if he were a sophomore in high school again playing Robin while his older teammate, a decent future collegian named DeAndre Gholston, was Batman.
The IndyHeat had a badder version of Batman in Jaden Ivey, now in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons. But it also had multiple Robins—Nijel Pack (now Miami), Caleb Furst (Purdue) and Dre Davis (no relation, Seton Hall). None are flourishing this year like Davis, but at the time all were sure-fire Power 5 recruits and Davis was not.
“'One of the (coaches) said he needed me to be the glue guy,” Davis said. "That’s how I got on the floor a lot.”
So if there already were too many Robins, what kind of role did Davis play? Imagine Alfred the butler with hops. He passed and rebounded. He scored in transition and other ways without monopolizing the basketball. He always drew the toughest defensive assignment—including current NBA guys Scottie Barnes and Jalen Green (“The list goes on,” Davis said.)
Before growing into a leading role with the Owls last season, he basically reprised his U17 role his first two years at FAU. He said that AAU season eased his adjustment to college. “You’re not going to be ‘the man’ when you step on campus,” he said.
The combination of humility and coachability he displayed in AAU gave off a vibe that people picked up on.
“I think that was just huge for (changing) his mindset of what he would do for a team,” Andershock said. “That he would put himself second and do whatever it took to win games. That opened my eyes.”
May was sold.
“Coach Akeem and I watched him. He loved to play the game, he was a competitor, he got every loose ball, and he was a hooper. That’s why we signed Nelly,” he said.
“The shooting—he always had a nice stroke, he had a beautiful free throw, he had a nice mid-range. He didn’t shoot any 3s (in AAU), but we thought with his release and his mechanics that he could be a good shooter.
“He struggled shooting the ball until he made a commitment to working on his game obsessively.”
Davis and May remember the specific moment that happened, and FAU fans owe a big ol’ thank you to the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks.
In an otherwise inconsequential game in November 2021, the Owls defeated the badly overmatched Hawks 98-79. Davis started and played 14 minutes. He scored nine points on 3-of-10 shooting, 1-for-5 from the arc.
All the 3s were open looks. North Dakota never guarded him beyond the free-throw line. Davis didn’t like that—and how it made him feel.
“I had to consider myself a non-shooter,” he said.
“After that day, I just went to the gym and worked on my jumper.”
“I came in that night and got on the shooting machine.”
Davis said May further emboldened him one day by showing him an article on Ochai Agbaji, the 2022 Final Four Most Outstanding Player for the Kansas Jayhawks who now plays for the Utah Jazz. “It was an article on how he worked to be an All-American player,” Davis said. Of particular relevance, Agbaji went from 30.7 percent behind the arc as a freshman to 40.7 as a senior.
The incentive to follow that path, all the way to the NBA, is fresh with Davis every morning, day after day. First he hits the locker room to pick out the shoes he wants to wear. (“Nine times out of 10, they’re on the floor, the shoes I wore the day before,” he grinned.) Then—important!—he picks his music for the day and heads to the floor. There he’s usually joined by FAU staffers Kasey Hill, Jake Perry, Cam Stinson and Vitor Tavares, his regular rebounders (“I try to be consistent,” he said.)
He starts out with basic form shooting. Then he works inside out, practicing various shots from underneath to beyond the 3-point line. When the scouting report for the next opponent is available, he’ll work specifically with his position coach, assistant Kyle Church, on shots and attacking shooting spaces he can expect to find in the game.
The year-by-year improvements in Davis' shooting numbers have mostly mirrored high school. His per-game scoring averages: 3.2, 6.8, 13.8, 18.6. His free-throw percentages: 76.9, 80.4, 85.5, 85.4. His overall field-goal percentages: 47.5, 46.3, 48.6, 50.6.
And now they also include his 3-point percentages: 23.1, 33.3, 35.7, 48.3.
“I never would have imagined him turning into this kind of shooter, even later in his college career,” recruiting analyst Andershock said. “I just did not think that was going to be a part of his game that he could lean on and make him a great player.”
But it is. And he is. And while he obviously now feels the confidence of an alpha he experienced as a high school senior, he’s never forgotten the lessons of deference to team learned in U17 ball. So for Johnell Davis, answering the question whether he’s more aggressive this year isn’t easy.
“I just try to pick my spots when to attack,” he said. “I’d have to say no because it’s the same team but yes, because I’m making more shots.”
He’s earned the right to pick those spots.
“You don’t put in this type of time for a week or two, or a month, and have the gratification he’s having,” May said. "This has been years of showing up every single morning and perfecting his craft, perfecting his routine, and just staying the course whether he was 0-for-5 or 6-for-9.”
The benefits from those long, locked-in mornings are shared among everyone who cares for FAU in moments like Sunday’s last-second, game-winning 3 against North Texas.
But the elbow grease?
“The elbow grease,” May said, “is all his.”