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How much time should Terence Davis be playing?

Terence Davis’s first basket as a Toronto Raptor came, much like his journey to the NBA, after a failure. It was the Raptors’ first game of the season, against the New Orleans Pelicans. The undrafted rookie cut behind a Serge Ibaka post-up, received the ball while jumping, and lofted a reverse layup towards the rim without coming back down to the ground. He missed, grabbed his layup, and missed again. Davis, however, didn’t quit. He snatched the ball once more, settled onto the floor, and launched himself back into the air, laying the ball in for his first career points. It was a microcosmic moment of the resilience that so defines Davis’s young career. It was impressive that Davis had even found the court, let alone the ball, let alone his first points. How expectations have changed. Davis has now scored in double-figures in four of his last seven games, and a zero-point outing against Philadelphia was more surprise than adherence to the norm.

The point, of course, is that context is everything.

There’s one statistic this season that perhaps best describes Davis’s season, and it also requires a titanic amount of context in explanation: Among rotation players, Terence Davis has the highest net rating on the entire Raptors roster. His net rating of 14.3 is higher even than on-off king Marc Gasol, and it is, among players who’ve played in 30 more games this year, the third-highest in the league, sandwiched between players rostered on the historically dominant Milwaukee Bucks.

To repeat, the Raptors are at their statistical best when undrafted rookie Terence Davis is on the floor.

That’s a difficult fact to parse. On its own, it probably means that Davis has a legitimate First-Team All-Rookie candidacy. It is also why Davis has among rookies the highest PIPM, a single-number metric designed to evaluate a player’s contributions on the court. It stems from Davis’s net rating.

Before you criticize net rating as a concept, I’ll do it for you. There are flaws. It is entirely dependent on the other nine players on the floor, and an individual’s own performance can have little effect on that player’s net rating, especially if he plays low minute totals, which Davis does. But there’s something to being a net rating leader. Let’s gander at the historical leaders of the franchise going back, say, six years.

There are a few important takeaways to this chart. One important factor is that to be a net ratings leader, it’s immensely difficult to be a team’s best — and most-played — player. Kyle Lowry has been the raw, beating heartbeat of every Raptors team for almost a decade, but he has never been the team net rating leader. He plays too many minutes. So there are qualifiers that go along with having such a high net rating. That doesn’t mean that sporting a team’s highest net rating doesn’t matter; those players always help lineups by playing in situationally significant contexts. Patrick Patterson is a good example of that; though he’s historically undervalued by Raptors’ fandom, he was a fantastic defender and good spot-up shooter in his prime. He made lineups much better. More recently, Gasol and VanVleet were even larger contributors to their teams. They played low minutes, but they were such important two-way players that the team thrived with them on the floor. Both were closers on a championship roster.

Looking at how Davis specifically impacts lineups in which he is included is revealing. According to Cleaning the Glass, lineups that include Davis are 90th percentile or above, league-wide, in the following offensive categories: points per 100 possessions, offensive rebounding, free throw rate, frequency of attempts at the rim, and frequency of transition attempts.

Defensively, lineups that include Davis are 90th percentile or above, league-wide, in points allowed per 100 possessions, opponent effective field goal percentage, opponent turnover rate, opponent accuracy at the rim, and opponent accuracy from deep.

On its own, that’s a lot of gobbledygook, but the basic points are that Davis lineups are dominant offensively because they run a lot and get shots at the rim, and they’re dominant defensively because opponents shoot horribly against them and turn over the ball like uncoordinated children.

Davis isn’t responsible for all of that. It’s still up for debate among the analytical community how much effect teams even have on opponents’ three-point accuracy, and Davis lineups actually allow opponents to attempt a boatload of triples, even if they miss them, so there’s certainly some luck involved in some elements of Davis’s net rating.

Still, there are facets in which Davis does inform the success of his lineups. His shooting has been much better than advertised on the year, and he’s hitting 39.7 percent from deep on a beefy 3.2 attempts per game, and that percentage rises to 42.2 on catch-and-shoot triples. He is an excellent shooter, but he does far more than space the floor.

Davis is a great offensive rebounder for his position. As soon as a shot goes up from a teammate, he transforms from a point guard into a fullback, wriggling into rebounding position and even wrestling with players who suddenly don’t seem so large at all.

His 15 putbacks on the year, per nba dot com tracking data, are fourth among point guards in the league, behind only Luka Doncic, Collin Sexton, and Ben Simmons, all of whom play dramatically more minutes than Davis. Davis has more put-backs than most much larger players, who play far more time, including Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love, Pascal Siakam, Myles Turner, and many more. Davis’s efficiency on such plays league-wide is 84th percentile. Davis’s unbelievable value added on the offensive glass, from a position that usually gives nothing in that area, is probably the single most unique contribution he offers to his lineups’ successes; Davis largely drives his lineups’ success on the offensive glass.

It’s one of my physical attributes,” explained Davis, after getting over the shock when learning that he is so high on the league-wide list of most put-back baskets. “Being that I played football, and I would say, [I’m] just physical, just have a knack for the ball.”

Any time my defender has his back turned to me, or his head, then I’m going [for an offensive board].”

He shoots exceptionally well at the rim, 65 percent, good enough for third-highest on the Raptors. He isn’t just athletic, strong, and balanced; he already has solid counters, including a fluid eurostep towards his outside or inside hand.

He has a speedy crossover.

Davis has shown glimpses of a useful hesitation change-of-pace in the middle of his drives.

He has a surprisingly tight handle for a converted point guard, including a nasty in-and-out dribble that can get him past the first line of the defense.

That’s just his dribbling game. His handle, by the way, is as simple as possible. Despite the upside, Davis explained that the most important informer of his dribbling game is simplicity.

I just try to keep it simple,” he explained. “It’s my rookie season. I think I have time in front of me, in the summer, things of that sort, to work on those moves, but right now I want to be simple and not get into a situation where I can make mistakes. This is a playoff team. We’re a very good team. [I] really try to limit my mistakes [to]  be able to stay on the floor.”

Davis is most effective on the fast-break, and he seeks it out like a young Pascal Siakam. He gets out in transition with fearless abandon, like a killer animal sensing a wound hampering his prey.

Seriously, look at his acceleration — head down like a sprinter leaving the block — as soon as he gives the ball to a teammate.

So even if there is some luck involved in Davis’s net rating, Davis does contribute statistically and aesthetically to some of the elements of success that his lineups have found. His strengths, in some ways, mirror the strengths of lineups that include him. It isn’t random that when he plays, his lineups are so successful.

If it’s established that the net rating data that so adores Davis is at least partly onto something, then it’s time to turn our lens to the question of how Davis should be best employed.

It’s important to remember that net rating leaders can probably only remain net rating leaders in low minute averages; whenever the Raptors tried starting Patrick Patterson, and playing him for 35 minutes a game, his impact was muted. Davis will only remain Toronto’s secret weapon as long as he is used sparingly. Given too large a role, his constant, churning aggression would waver for stretches. He probably couldn’t dominate against stronger competition. The context in which he is used is therefore an important factor in his success.

It must be remembered that Davis, despite his poise, is a rookie; he makes mistakes. He should be alongside another ball-dominant handler. Peep his numbers alongside Toronto’s two star point guards, with the numbers taken from pbpstats.

Despite the success of Davis alone, without the other two point guards, that grouping is probably not the best long-term lineup. Most of the success there is driven by the hot streak of those lineups combining to shoot 46.3 percent from deep while opponents shot 31.7 percent. Davis with neither of Lowry or VanVleet also usually faces far lesser competition than the Lowry and VanVleet pairing, who generally play against opponents’ starters. It is worth noting, because of the sheer incomprehensibility of the fact, that Lowry and VanVleet have a negative net rating when they play without one Terence Davis on the floor.

The lineup data above would seem to show that Davis is best employed alongside Lowry. VanVleet can slow the pace, especially in the half-court. Lowry and Davis, on the other hand, both push the ball as much as possible, and playing in transition unleashes their skills. Lowry is probably the best compliment to Davis among the backcourt core.

Per nba dot com lineup data, there are only three other high-minute combinations that involve Davis that yield better net ratings than the Davis-Lowry combination. They all involve Davis with other starters: Siakam, Gasol, and Anunoby. Davis is at his most effective with Toronto’s best players. That’s no surprise. It does reinforce the hypothesis that Davis should have his minutes limited. If Davis is best employed alongside the starters, for him to remain effective and play more minutes, he would have to displace starters from their time; therefore, Davis sort of has a cap on his time for his net rating to remain sky-high. He’s not going to take too many minutes from VanVleet or Norm Powell, as they’re simply better players. That was Nurse’s takeaway when I asked him whether Davis’s statistical success could scale into a larger rol.

I know his plus minus is high and all those kinds of things has been good,” said Nick Nurse. “I don’t know if it’ll develop into a bigger role or not. I think that, you know, we have Kyle, we have Fred, we have Norm. Those guys have been around here a while and and pretty darn good themselves, right?… We still have Pat McCaw, as well, so there’s kind of a number of guys in there that play.”

Translation: Davis isn’t ahead of any of those four guys. Net ratings are probably low on the list of drivers of decisions for NBA head coaches, after all. Still, that doesn’t mean Davis couldn’t play a little more. Currently averaging 14.3 minutes per game, the Raptors could add 5-10 minutes a game to his workload without jeopardizing his idealized role. Davis could play a few extra minutes within a transitional grouping, perhaps as an early guard off the bench with Powell and Serge Ibaka, forming a transitional lineup of Lowry-Davis-Powell-Siakam-Ibaka. That group, by the way, has outscored opponents by 27.6 points per 100 possessions, though they’ve only played a minuscule 36 possessions together.

Davis could take a few extra minutes in Pat McCaw’s usual rotation spot with four starters. Or, though it lacks Lowry as a booster, Nick Nurse could extend the run of his all-bench grouping of Pat McCaw, Davis, Powell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Ibaka. That group has somehow outscored opponents by 20.1 points per 100 possessions in 51 possessions. For a little extra oomph, Lowry could replace McCaw in the same fivesome to institute the Lowry+bench that always tramples opponents.

The point is that there are options to increase Davis’s playing time without changing his role or decreasing the roles of Toronto’s best players. Davis can help a lot of different groupings without becoming over-extended. The Raptors are at their statistical best when Davis is on the floor, and we could see a whole lot more of that if by chance one of the guards ahead of him in the rotation happens to be traded at the deadline. Davis should be playing a little bit more, at the very least, even if he doesn’t crack 30 minutes a game outside of special circumstances. The secret, there, is at the defensive end.

We just want to keep improving, get him improving, and for me that’s that’s cut down those defensive lapses, get him solid in the game plan, get him, get him really on board so that it’s not all about whether he’s just making shots,” explained Nurse.

If Davis’s defense improves, especially within the schemes Toronto uses, then he could see his minutes improve dramatically.

Context is everything. For Terence Davis, it has allowed him to thrive despite his uncertain entry to the league. For the Raptors, it means the team has one more skilled youngster who contributes in the present and could grow into a whole lot more. In terms of this present season, however, the context of Davis’s growth could be the small factor that pushes the Raptors over the top in an individual playoff game or even series. To find out, the team should continue expanding the contexts within which Davis plays. More minutes will be undeniable as his fit within the context of the defensive framework improves. It’s time to see what he can do in a larger role.

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