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‘He knows how to score’

Evaluators wondered about Amari Davis’ jumper and strength. Yet he had no trouble translating his mid-range game at Green Bay. A retooling Mizzou is banking on that holding true in Columbia.

It’s early August 2018, and Green Bay’s month-long search for talent has ended. Coach Linc Darner’s staff files into a meeting room to begin sifting intelligence gathered from watching games in side gyms. By the time they finish, prospects populating the program’s recruiting board will be sorted and prioritized. As their deliberations unfold, one name slowly gathered momentum: Amari Davis.

The 6-foot-3 combo guard’s lean 175-pound frame never cut an imposing figure in the layup line. And over that summer, the native of Trotwood, Ohio, a suburb just to the west of Dayton, hadn’t carved a destructive path through the Under Armor Association circuit. In 11 games for Ohio C2K Elite, Davis averaged a modest 6.7 points and posted an 86.8 offensive rating — metrics that kept his list of suitors confined to the Horizon League and Mid-American Conference.

None of that dissuaded Darner or Phoenix assistant coach Richard Davis, though, both of whom have extensive connections in the Buckeye State.

They knew Davis’ high school employed the same high-pressure tactics and up-tempo style that Darner prefers. Trotwood-Madison, which averaged 90-plus points per game, bludgeoned opponents so frequently that its prep conference booted the Rams. Within that system, Davis thrived in the mid-range with a potent pull-up game. And at the other end, his anticipating skills helped him spring traps and still recover in time as a help defender.

Sure, Green Bay knew the critiques of Davis’ game. He’d struggle to hold up defensively. His jumper was too unreliable. And college defenders would blot him out by sitting on his dominant left hand. For the Green Bay coaches, one counter argument rendered them moot.

“He knew how to put the ball in the hoop,” Darner said. “It’s that simple. He knows how to score, and he knows how to get his shot off.”

Foresight rewarded the Phoenix with a cornerstone — one who earned Horizon League Freshmen of the Year Honors — and whose loyalty kept him in the fold after a coaching change pushed Darner out and ushered a stylistic shift under Will Ryan. For Davis, a reset was in order. Fittingly, he found it at Missouri, a program led by Darner’s former teammate at Purdue. On March 25, a day after picking up an offer from coach Cuonzo Martin, Davis committed — a decision that helps the Tigers import scoring punch for an overhauled roster.

“You can’t teach a kid a lot of the things he’s able to do,” Darner said. “Scoring and finishing. It sounds simple, but those are natural skills you don’t find in a lot of kids.”

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 10 Green Bay at UCF Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rocky Rockhold knew Davis before he became an essential gear whirring in a buzzsaw. In 2011, he was just a Trotwood-Madison assistant coach and passed the time on bus rides chatting up the Rams’ introverted ball boy. Four years later, that fourth-grader had fine-tuned the ability to sweep from the wing to the elbow and bury a jumper spoke loudly.

“He’s always been kind of shy and quiet,” Rockhold said. “But his mid-range jumper has always been ridiculous. You knew that.”

That tool helped Davis carve out a niche.

When he joined the team, he was a skinny freshman who didn’t have enough bounce to finish at the rim or the consistency to space the floor as a spot-up threat. Since junior high school, his father and coaches harped on him. “I didn’t really jump on my jump shot,” Davis said. A pull-up jumper, though, represented a compromise.

Looking back, Davis doesn’t recall relying on any drills to hone the skill. He built strength doing push-ups and jumping rope. And in empty gyms, his father would rebound as he lofted up shots from various spots on the floor. “Eventually, I just became comfortable with it,” Davis added.

Under Rockhold, the Rams press relentlessly until the cumulative tool produces a backbreaking run. If they couldn’t feast in transition, the philosophy underpinning his half-court offense was equally assertive. “If you catch the ball on the wings, and it’s just you and your man, beat him,” he said. “Attack, attack, attack.”

Rather than drill intricate sets over and over, Rockhold’s offense relies on roughly 10 secondary breaks with primary options and quick “flips” into an offense based around dribble-drive motion. “We don’t have a shot clock,” he said. “But we play like there is one.”

Often, the Rams’ best call involved a drag screen for point guard Torrey Patton, who went on to play at Cleveland State, to attack the floor’s right side. On the weak side, another Rams guard sprinted off stagger screens ready to assault the rim after a kickout. Frenetic? Sure. But Rockhold trusts the system and cultivates players who instinctively read and react.

“If this guy is trailing the screen, I have to curl,” he said. “If he goes over the top, I have to know to fade him.”

Trotwood-Madison’s results speak for themselves. In Davis’ four seasons, the Rams reached the Division II final four three times, breaking through for a state title his senior season. And each campaign was steadily more productive, from 15.3 points per game as a sophomore to 30.1 as a senior—a season where he was the division’s player of the year.

For as long as Davis can recall, opponents struggled to keep him from driving left. Catching and ripping through came naturally. Finishing at the rim, though, took time. Early on, Davis started possessions in the short corner on the right side of the floor and run through an elevator screen for a clean catch in the slot. With a defender in a trail position, he had little trouble creating one-dribble pull-ups.

“Our system takes no credit for that,” Rockhold said of the jumper.

He can lay some claim to Davis’ diverse array of release points and finishing moves around the rim. As his high school career progressed, college scouts dinged Davis as overly reliant on mid-range jumpers. Yet early on, Davis knew he needed to get out of his comfort zone.

“I wanted to focus on scoring through contact and not worry about drawing the foul,” he said. “I knew when I got to college, I’d be playing against bigger and stronger guys. So, I thought a floater or a runner wouldn’t be a bad thing to have.”

Breaking down the first defender wasn’t a problem, so sessions often centered around decision-making once help rotated over. In drills, Davis faced two defenders – one sliding over to take a charge and another sent “to slap the crap out of him,” Rockhold said.

“We talked a lot about what’s your next move going to be,” he added. “You beat the first guy. Great. He’s on your hip. What’s the second move with the second dribble going to be? We wanted him comfortable maneuvering the ball.”

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 29 Green Bay at Cleveland State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Davis’ frame might be slight, but he does not lack length or dexterity. Watch film from his first two seasons at Green Bay. You’ll quickly spot how he wraps his body around defenders, extends his left arm and casually flips the ball off the glass. Isolated on the right wing, he’s adept at driving left, elevating, and using his right hip to bump a defender off to create air space.

Davis says he’s always had the preternatural ability to read angles and adjust in the air. “I do it enough in games now to where I don’t even think about how I’m going to get the ball to the rim,” he said. “It just sort of happens.”

As Davis matured, Rockhold relocated his starting point in the offense to the right corner, where the guard could still sprint in ball-screens and turn to his dominant left hand. That dominance, however, raised questions among recruiters: What was Davis capable of using his right hand?

Even now, Davis and Rockhold admit that it’s a facet that needs polishing. However, Davis could still slice into gaps, force a defender to step over, and create an opening to drop the ball off to an undersized big in Miles Belyeu, who played at Saginaw Valley State.

“You’ve also got to find a way to stopping him from going left first,” Rockhold said.

That dominance also meant Davis rarely lofted up shots behind the arc. In his first three seasons at Trotwood-Madison, he only launched 18 3-pointers. Yet as a senior, that tally almost tripled, and he finished that season at a 44.7 percent clip. Retooling Davis’ shot from the waist up is unnecessary. Any mechanical fixes need to come before he loads up to shoot.

“How quickly can he get the ball from the floor, especially off the dribble, into the shooting pocket,” Rockhold said.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 09 Horizon League Tournament - Green Bay vs Northern Kentucky Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When it came to Davis’ recruitment, high-major staffs poked around the edges. In-state powers Ohio State, Xavier, and Cincinnati occasionally checked in, but Samari Curtis, who hailed from the other side of the Dayton metro area in Xenia, drew more interest. Under alum Anthony Grant, Dayton began setting its sights on top-150 talents.

Most of the state’s mid-majors, however, were less prone to nitpick. By his senior season, Davis held offers from Miami (Ohio), Cleveland State, and Toledo. Except one.

Theoretically, Wright State’s proximity gave it a leg up. Just 25 minutes away, its campus was a familiar setting for Davis and Trotwood, who often played marquee games at the Nutter Center. And under Scott Nagy, the Raiders had become a serial contender in the Horizon League.

No, Nagy’s staff never gave Davis the cold shoulder. They invited him to elite camps in the summer. He attended games. And assistant coaches rang him up. Yet Rockhold knew they harbored doubts about the reliability of Davis’ jumper and nitpicked his strength.

Green Bay v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

“I don’t want to burn any bridges,” Rockhold said. “But I’m blown away by Wright State. They’d barely sniffed him for four years.”

On the grassroots circuit, a breakout summer playing alongside Curtis and Andre Gordon, who wound up at Texas A&M, might have juiced his stock. Instead, Davis only logged 40 percent of available minutes in seven games, playing time that featured relatively modest usage (19.1 percent) and a lone 3-point attempt, per OpenLook tracking data. While Davis shot 50 percent inside the arc, the body of work wasn’t enough to move the needle.

And when Davis tried to commit to a program, one he wouldn’t name, he was told another prospect had already cashed in the offer. “At that point, I don’t think anyone wanted me,” he said.

Green Bay, however, spied a perfect fit. “We didn’t get caught up in that he didn’t shoot 3s all that much,” Darner recalled. “We looked at how efficient he was scoring.”

Not only would Davis be comfortable playing at a breakneck pace offensively, but he possessed a critical trait in a defensive scheme that wanted to deny easy ball reversals and shoot gaps. Rockhold’s system relied on him to double an opponent’s best threat and still recover after the ball is skipped over his head. Davis knew the best angle to take and cut off a driver at the front of the rim with the ball in flight.

“He had great anticipation skills,” Darner said. “Any time a kid comes in from high school, strength is going to be an issue all the time on the defensive end. But that’s what you work on in the summer. When you watched Amari, you never thought, ‘This kid can’t defend.’”

Once Darner extended an offer, the process moved swiftly. After swinging through Trotwood-Madison, Davis quickly lined up an official visit for mid-September 2018. Several days later, he called Darner up to commit. Even if the schematic parallels are obvious, the overlap wasn’t a conscious factor for Davis.

“I ended up going to a school like that,” he said. “But I was at a point where I wanted to go to a place that was going to give me a chance to help them out.”

Green Bay v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

You feel for Michael Diggins. It’s now January 2020, and the UIC forward droops his head and slumps his shoulders, trying to process what happened along the Resch Center baseline. Seconds earlier, Diggins hung in the air with Davis, who had trailed a cutter, taken a handoff at the top of the split two defenders, and reached the restricted area. Met by Diggins, Davis shows off his finishing panache, stretching his left hand under Diggins’ arm to scoop the ball off the glass — and drawing the foul.

Call up a highlight package from Davis’ debut campaign and see how smoothly the acclimation process unfolded.

Davis is taking an outlet pass at half-court, lengthening his stride at the free-throw line to slide by Milwaukee’s Harrison Henderson, and floating the ball over his head for a runner. Or back-cutting Xavier, taking a bump in the air from Zach Freemantle on the left block and banking the ball home as he descends to the floor. Take your pick of cut-ups where Davis turns the corner out of a ball screen and maneuvers for a pull-up.

It unfolded in a system that looks nothing like what you might expect from a Gene Keady disciple. In Darner’s five seasons on the job, Green Bay never ranked lower than 23rd in adjusted tempo, and four seasons ended with the Phoenix among the top-10 in transition possessions, according to Hoop Math.

Too often, Darner said, coaches focus on mechanics and lose sight of the end goal: generating quality shots. “How many times does a team come down, run a bunch of action, and still take a horrible shot?” Darner asked. “Our emphasis is always getting a good shot. Playing faster than what people expect can make that happen,” he explained.

The long-running debate over the utility of mid-range scoring is irrelevant to Darner. A good shot is one a player is comfortable shooting and knocks down with regularity. Analytics devotees might cringe at the fact Davis only attempted eight 3-pointers as a freshman. Still, Davis averaged 15.9 points — scoring 25 or more four times — and shot 51.4 percent from the floor. According to Synergy tracking data, when it came to efficiency on deep 2-pointers, he ranked in the 71st percentile nationally.

Amari Davis | Performance vs. KenPom Top 100

2020 25.7 15.3 3.7 2.4 0.7 56.6 0 52 54 1.08
2021 33.2 16.2 3.6 0.6 1 41.5 25 70.8 40.9 0.83
Career 28.8 15.7 3.7 1.7 0.8 50 18.8 53.3 47.9 0.96

So, sure, Davis could have run him off staggers for 3-pointers. But it would have wasted what made Davis alluring in the first place. “We’d stick him in the right corner of our five-man motion, and we’d just keep going to him,” Darner said. “We’d cut one guy through, and he’d follow behind and attack right off him.”

The Phoenix started slowly, dropping eight of its first 11 games. Yet they rebounded in conference play, finishing third in the Horizon League and 17-16 overall. As for Davis, he eclipsed the program’s freshman scoring record, and while the roster was due to churn, it at least had a cornerstone.

Yet Darner’s bosses abruptly course-corrected, dismissing him in May 2020 — well after the market for coaching hires had moved on. Green Bay installed Will Ryan, the son of legendary Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, two weeks later. He arrived with just one season of head coaching experience, a lone season at Wheeling University, a Division II program in West Virginia.

Back in Dayton, Rockhold’s voicemail and inbox filled up quickly with suitors probing whether Davis would put his name in the transfer portal. However, shortly after Darner’s dismissal, Davis and teammate PJ Pipes sat down to talk through whether to stay or go. When it was over, they agreed: stick it out.

“We can stay. We can play, and maybe we win,” Davis recalled. “When everybody’s looking back, they’d see we stuck with the program and stayed true. At the end of the day, I want to give my all to whoever gets the job. I feel like I did that.”

Without a doubt, the stylistic shift proved stark.

The Phoenix throttled down, finishing 285th last season in adjusted tempo. Under Darner’s watch, Davis could rip down a rebound, weave through backpedaling defenders and finish at the rim. Instead of stressing defenses early in the shot clock, Green Bay installed the Ryan family’s patented Swing offense, a continuity-based scheme that passes up good shots for the best shot.

Possessions not only dragged on but involved “way more passing and cutting,” Davis said. On some trips, he might not touch the ball at all. “I just had to sit back and accept that,” he said. The late hire prevented a roster overhaul, and an offseason disrupted by COVID protocols made a for a stilted transition.

The results bore that out. Green Bay started 0-9, the worst mark in program history, which included routs at the hands of Wisconsin (40 points), Minnesota (30 points), and Marquette (14 points) before Horizon League play. In a homecoming game against Wright State, Davis ripped off a career-high 35 points — in a 13-point defeat.

Watching the Badgers trounce Green Bay, Rockhold knew his phone would ring later that night. Davis told him he understood what Ryan asked of him, and he wanted to be a good teammate. And yet, it was all foreign to him. “He just felt so stagnant,” Rockhold added.

Even a breakthrough against Oakland, where Davis sank two free throws to sew up an overtime win, was short-lived. The Phoenix rallied to a 5-7 finish, but it overlapped a seven-game stretch where Davis shot just 36 percent from the floor.

Questions about whether he’d explore the transfer portal crept up again, too. “Any other team that comes at me, I’m not thinking about that right now,” he told the Green Bay Press-Gazette in mid-January. Six weeks later, he began the process of finding a new home.

NCAA Basketball: Green Bay at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Once Davis hit the transfer market, the local suitors who passed on him two years earlier didn’t have the same hesitancy. In quick succession, Xavier, Cincinnati, and Dayton pinged Rockhold.

“He came into the process totally wide open,” Rockhold said. “As opposed to some guys who go into it and say, ‘I want to end up at these three places.”

Ultimately, though, mutual ties trumped geographic proximity. The connection between Darner and Martin is well-known. When Martin ran the traps, the endorsement from Darner was unequivocal. “He’s a joy to coach,” Darner said of Davis. “He never gives you problems. He’s really going to do the work.”

Meanwhile, MU assistant coach Cornell Mann also passed through southwest Ohio, spending three seasons on Brian Gregory’s staff at Dayton. While at UD, he coached Chris Wright, a Trotwood native and three-time All-Atlantic 10 pick. “I found out we had all these connections, and we just kind of went from there,” Davis added.

After a productive Zoom call with MU’s staff, which ended in a scholarship offer, Davis carried out cursory research on the program and campus. When he sat down with his parents, Davis kept returning to how easily connected with the staff and how familiar the style of play felt. They could have preached patience. Instead, they reminded their son what happened the last time he took too long to deliberate.

“If you have a good thing,” Davis said, “don’t wait on it.”

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