Terence Davis could have been drafted, but said no. Ever since he was six years old, Davis dreamed of making the NBA, but, with family and friends gathered at a hotel on June 20, he told them to wait. To trust him. Davis knew what he wanted on draft night, and it wasn't a two-way contract, which would make him a hybrid of an NBA player and a G League player and would pay him accordingly.
Davis told everyone that he had turned teams down and would try to earn an NBA deal at summer league. In Las Vegas, the draftees would have to lace up their shoes just like he would.
"Honestly, I just bet on myself, Davis told CBS Sports. "Like Fred VanVleet's saying."
VanVleet famously went undrafted in 2016 and inked a two-year, $18 million deal after two seasons with the Toronto Raptors. Now he is an NBA champion who sells "bet on yourself" T-shirts on his official web store. VanVleet and New Orleans Pelicans wing Kenrich Williams, who shares an agent with Davis, served as examples of how this gamble could pay off. At midnight, Davis tweeted a video of VanVleet's draft-party speech.
The next morning, Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis called and asked if he was sure he made the right decision. The 22-year-old wing said he was. The coach wished him good luck.
"And I'm second-guessing," Kermit Davis told CBS Sports. "I'm going, like, dang, he had a chance to be drafted."
In the crowd at Cox Pavilion, Davis' college coach watched him score an efficient 22 points with five rebounds and three assists for the Denver Nuggets' summer league team, marveling at how much he had improved since the Rebels were eliminated in the NCAA Tournament. The two of them had a post-game dinner at the SkyBar at the Waldorf Astoria, where Davis was staying. As they were catching up, Davis got a call from his agent, who was already on his way to meet him.
Toronto had offered Davis a guaranteed contract. When Boston, Philadelphia, Golden State and Denver didn't immediately come forward with a better offer, the decision to accept it was easy. Like VanVleet, Davis has a motto: "Make 'em believe." The Raptors showed him that they believed, and they gave him exactly what he wanted, and with it, a chance to earn real playing time and to hit free agency in two years.
"It felt like my draft night," Davis said.
Toronto felt lucky. "It's essentially like we're trading up without giving up anything to do so," assistant general manager Dan Tolzman told CBS Sports. The Raptors saw a player who had the tenacity they were looking for, who had improved significantly in college, who would fit right in.
"He showed great athleticism and shooting ability and all the sort of things that show that he's talented enough to play at our level," Tolzman said. "But then you add in the competitiveness and the desire to want to play on the defensive side of the ball and the sorts of things that we are drawn to in a lot of players, that we've had a lot of success with among the later-picked players in terms of the chip that's on their shoulder and just the approach to the game. It's very similar to guys like Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet."
Toronto is drawn to prospects who play with an edge. Ask Davis about his game, and he will bring up his energy and effort before talking about his skills. He is pleased to be a part of a program that has developed VanVleet, Powell and the reigning Most Improved Player, Pascal Siakam, who was drafted No. 27 three years ago.
"Once you're around people like that, it just makes you even hungrier," Davis said.
Davis flew to Toronto for his physical the day after agreeing to the deal, and that's when it started to hit him: "Man, I just signed an NBA contract. I'm an NBA player now. It all just happened so fast." He returned to Vegas the next day, and it felt like he had been traded from one summer league team another.
"I met my teammates like five minutes before the first game," Davis said, "so that was kind of different for me."
Watch him against summer league competition, and you can see why the Raptors wanted him. Davis is 6-foot-4, but his wingspan is close to 6-9 and his hands are enormous. He should be able to defend 1-through-3, and he has a smooth and quick release on his jump shot. Kermit Davis compared him to Danny Green, but also said he could see him playing combo guard in the NBA. Toronto started him at point guard in its final game in Vegas, which shocked and excited him.
"I can do numerous things," Davis said. "Whatever role a team can give me, I can play that role until I'm able to expand that role."
It just so happens that Davis' favorite player first earned minutes as a 3-and-D guy and gradually expanded his role. Davis grew up a San Antonio Spurs fan, attracted to Gregg Popovich's system and Manu Ginobili's style. When he was 14, they added a tough and talented wing who was, in Davis' words, "just about his business." Davis loved that about him.
"I don't know if I should be saying it," Davis said, "but Kawhi, he became my favorite player, man. It was just, I don't know, something about him. The way he carried himself."
Davis will not get to team up with Kawhi Leonard, but he considers it special to start his career in the city where Leonard won his second title. Davis watched the Raptors' run as he was going through the pre-draft circuit, from workouts with teams to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament and the NBA Draft Combine. He needed his agent to pester league personnel to get a late invite to the G League Elite Camp. His rise is remarkable, considering how recently he wondered if he had chosen the wrong sport.
Davis was a star in both basketball and football at Southaven High School in Southaven, Mississippi, and there was backlash when he chose to follow his "first love." When he rode the bench as a freshman, he questioned himself. He thought about the people back home who doubted him.
"I just told myself I can't let these people be right," Davis said.
For Davis, there was always something different about putting the ball in the hoop, and he never loved football the same way. He "lived on his iPad," Kermit Davis said, studying game film and practice film. Ole Miss tracked the players' viewing habits, and he blew all of his teammates away. Davis believes "you can never get enough knowledge, especially about something that you love doing and something that's your job." He devours NBA documentaries and Kobe Bryant's Xs and Os show, "Detail."
Davis acknowledged that his basketball career could have ended three years ago if he hadn't wanted to make it so badly. "And now I can call myself an NBA player," he said, laughing. The novelty of saying it has not worn off.
He understands, though, that he is starting from scratch in the best league in the world. "I went undrafted, I've been underrated, looked at as this small guy," he said, and he feels ready to show that he belongs. That he can reach his full potential. That the Raptors were right to believe.
"I have so much more to prove," Davis said.