SMU's Davis: Dynamic and Driven
DALLAS - By one simple, common measurement, Kendric Davis is above average.
His 59 inches of height puts him two above an ordinary male in the United States. While his 5-foot-11 stature puts him above eye level with most, it has him looking up to see his next step.
The SMU senior point guard accepts that he might not stand out in a crowd. He says he’s been battling the tape measure – literally and figuratively – for most of his 22 years. He’s big enough to carry around a large chip. Davis counts himself on the long list of athletes who have been motivated and fueled by the doubts of others.
When he first fell in love with basketball at the age of 12, he dreamed the familiar dream of playing in the NBA. Davis grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward, one of the city’s poorest and most rundown neighborhoods. His escape route was ball. His fantasy is tempered by the reality of his size.
“My height is my height,” he said. “I have to make the best of it.”
His size didn’t matter at Sam Houston High School. Davis’ senior season numbers were noteworthy - 22.6 points and 6.6 assists per game, shooting 79 percent from the field, 51.3 percent from 3-point range and 82 percent on free throws. In the spring of 2018, he was a four-star recruit who was ranked as the ninth-best player in Texas and the 23rd best point guard in the country.
“In high school, I was always the most competitive guy on the court,” he said. “My size didn’t matter - if you can play you can play. But when I got to college, I saw how big dudes were, they were always tryin’ to post me up, get physical with me. They thought they were better than me just because they were bigger than me.”
His freshman season at TCU in 2018-19 was solid. He played in all 37 games, averaging 19 minutes a game. It was a promising start, but since then his college career has turned into a test of Davis’ patience and perseverance – qualities that can be traced to his upbringing.
Trials and Patience
There is precious little that’s positive about Houston’s Greater Fifth Ward. Located in the northeastern part of the sprawling city that is the largest in Texas, it is bisected by Interstates 59 and 10, north and south routes that carry millions of cars over and past the neighborhood no one wants to see, and everyone wants to leave.
In the Fifth Ward, 34% of the citizens live below the poverty level; overall in the city, that number is 10%. Over half of all the children live below the poverty level and most are in single-parent households. You won’t find a McDonald’s or a Starbucks. You will find mom-and-pop markets, smoke shops and liquor stores. Most are built with cinder blocks and have bars on the windows and reinforced doors.
“Fifth Ward, man, it’s a jungle,” Davis said. “It’s probably one of the roughest environments to grow up in. Seems like every day, I’d hear gun shots, I’d see crack heads on the corner, I’d hear about people getting shot. That got to seem normal. I walked to school, and I’d see a lot of things I wasn’t supposed to see.”
The story is too familiar and it’s so familiar it’s become a cliché – a black youth witnesses too many lives consumed by hopelessness.
“Most kids choose the streets and a lot of my friends growing up are dead or in jail,” he said. “Once I fell in love with basketball, I knew there was no way I was gonna go down that path. My older brother went down that path and I saw how it hurt my mom. I saw how me playing basketball made her happy.”
His first obstacle to overcome in college involved his decision to transfer from TCU to SMU after his freshman season. This was during the archaic “transfer and sit a year” era in the NCAA. To avoid the “year in residence,” transfers could appeal for instant eligibility. Initially, the NCAA denied Davis’ request. Four games into his sophomore season, his waiver was granted. He had not burned bridges between Fort Worth and Dallas. TCU coach Jamie Dixon and administrators at the school supported his eligibility request and that helped influence the ultimate decision.
Once he was able to play, Davis started every game, averaging 14.2 points per game and leading the American Athletic Conference with 6.7 assists per game. SMU lost five of its last six games and its 2019-20 season ended – along with every other team in Division I – with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four months later, Davis became a statistic. He had returned to campus for summer workouts when he tested positive for COVID.
“The first couple of days, I felt horrible,” he said. “Then when I started feeling better, I was having trouble breathing, I was really tired, my bones hurt. I felt like my nose was always stuffed up. It was hard to workout, play. That lasted for about six weeks, and I was really worried. I knew I couldn’t play if I kept feeling like that.
“The scariest part was that the doctors didn’t have a lot of answers.”
Davis recovered and had his best season. The Mustangs, not so much. COVID wrecked their season. SMU entered last February with a chance to play its way into an NCAA Tournament berth. But coach Tim Jankovich was sidelined three weeks with the virus but then players tested positive and contact tracing led to the Mustangs not finishing the regular season. They won their last game on Feb. 8, then returned over a month later, losing to Cincinnati in the AAC Tournament and then losing a first-round NIT game.
“Last year was a mental test,” Davis said. “You’d practice and not know if the next game was gonna be canceled, you’d be flying to a game not sure if they’d play the game, there were no fans, you had to bring your own energy, guys were in quarantine.”
Davis had to wait for his transfer waiver, then waited (and worried) about recovering from COVID. Then he and his teammates waited out through the uncertainty created by the pandemic. Patience isn’t a virtue for most who are Davis’ age, but he says he’s learned how to cope with the delay game.
“You have to have the mentality of taking it when it comes,” he said. “You can only control what you can control.”
Time is Now
Only dedicated college hoop heads are aware of Davis. They likely know that last season he led the AAC in scoring (19 per game) and assists (7.6 per game). KenPom.com had Davis’ assist rate at 46.4, which was tops in Division I. Davis is one of two players (Wichita State’s Travis Etienne is the other) who was a unanimous selection to the AAC’s preseason all-conference first team.
“Kendric is a fantastic point guard,” Jankovich said. “He’s always had confidence, but with his experience he’s got a different level of confidence. He’s worked really hard on the little things, the kind of things that don’t show up in the box or in stats – defensive positioning, defensive vision, floor spacing when you don’t have the ball.”
Prior to this season, The Athletic listed Davis as the tenth-best guard for this season and called him a dark horse All-American candidate. CBSSports.com had Davis at No. 25 in its ranking of the nation’s top players. Memphis coach Penny Hardaway, who could be called as an expert witness to testify about point guard play, told the web site’s Gary Parrish that Davis is “the most difficult opposing player to contain in the AAC.”
“I’m with Penny on that,” ESPN college basketball Fran Fraschilla said. “If Kendric was playing at Kansas or Kentucky, he’d be a household name. He can play, man. He’s always been under the radar, but he could he play anywhere in the country. He’s making his mark as an elite college point guard. Next year we’ll find out if he can make the transition to the pros.”
Once Davis realized that a growth spurt was not in his DNA, he started studying players who were similar in stature. He studied how he could turn the perceived weakness into a strength.
“On defense, dudes hate to have a guy get up underneath ‘em,” he said. “A lot of dudes hate to have a guy guardin’ ‘em all over the court. They have to prove they can handle the ball.
They gotta dribble at my level. Taller guys have to bend over more to protect the ball. And it’s harder screenin’ me because I’m so small.”
The NBA’s under 6-foot barrier has been broken by some notable successes. Calvin Murphy, Damon Stoudamire, Spud Webb, Muggsy Bogues, Michael Adams, J.J. Barea all had notable and lengthy careers. Out of nearly 450 current players listed on the NBA web site, only six are under 6-feet tall.
During the off-season, Davis submitted his name in the NBA Draft but withdrew in time to retain his college eligibility. His test of the draft waters was more like a toe dip; he didn’t attend any tryouts. The verbal feedback, according to Davis, is that the league is aware of his talents, but they want to see him on The Big Stage.
That means the NCAA Tournament. And that might be as long a shot as his NBA ambitions. SMU has made just two NCAA tourneys over the last 28 years and hasn’t made it past the second round since losing a regional final in 1967. The Mustangs, picked in the league’s pre-season poll to finish third, will be challenged to earn enough credibility with the tournament committee.
When he submitted his name to the NBA Draft, Davis said that “If I can make some money, I’m gone.” His goal is to make life-changing money for himself and his family. Should his height be too big a hurdle, there are other options. Fraschilla points out that former SMU point guard Nic Moore – a two-time AAC player of the year – has enjoyed a lucrative career in Europe. Moore, by the way, is 5-foot-9.
“In the NBA, he’s gotta find the right fit,” Fraschilla said. “But at worst, he’s gonna be a professional basketball player. He’s got options whether it’s the G-League, a two-way NBA contract or Europe.”
Davis realizes his time has come. This season will be about proving he has improved his game while being the catalyst to help SMU gain an NCAA Tournament spot. He’s motivated to secure the bag with a pro career. And the chip on his shoulder now includes the responsibility of fatherhood. Kendric Jr. was born over the summer.
“I want to be a role model for him,” he said. “My life changed a lot… it has changed a lot. For the better. Doing the best for him comes first. This year, it’s now or never. And nothin’s in the way.”
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