SAITAMA – “The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot.”
- Bill Russell, Boston Celtics Hall of Famer
Nobody will confuse Jeral Davis with Russell, but the Shimane Susanoo Magic center is an intimidating, get-the-job-done swat maestro for the bj-league franchise.
He was the league’s top shot blocker last season (3.2 per game). This season, he’s better than ever, averaging a league-high 4.0 per contest.
Through last Sunday, Davis had 21 games with three or more blocks, including an eight-block outing on Nov. 26, a nine-rejection game on Dec. 11 and a rare triple-double (12 points, 14 rebounds and a league-record 11 blocks in the series opener against the Saitama Broncos on Jan. 28, an 88-66 win for the Magic). A day later, Davis had five more blocks for a grand total of 16 in the series, and Shimane improved to 17-11 overall (10-6 on the road) with a 71-67 series-ending triumph.
“I try to block as many shots as I can,” Davis said at Saitama Municipal Gymnasium in a post-game interview last Sunday. “I know it helps my team out, and sometimes it starts an easy (fast) break for us to score on the other end.”
The long-limbed, high-leaping Davis stands 216 cm and weighs 115 kg. That doesn’t stop him from attacking the basket at every possible opportunity. Averaging 10.0 points in 28 games, he has made 121 field goals, with 51 slam dunks in the books. He’s had two or more dunks in 16 games, and five four-dunk contests.
Around the basket, Davis is like a shark waiting for the most opportune moment to attack his prey.
“Davis has a natural feeling for shot blocking, very good timing and very good rebounding,” Shimane coach Zeljko Pavlicevic said.
As the team’s sideline supervisor, Pavlicevic plays a proactive role in putting Davis in the best positions to succeed.
“What I help him with is to adjust some things,” the Croatian coach said after the Saitama series. “Like today, I taught him how he needed to react.”
Davis spent considerable energy guarding Broncos forward John Flowers during the series. In the finale, Flowers had 21 points, but Davis helped hold him to 8-for-22 shooting.
On Sunday, for instance, Pavlicevic noticed that when Flowers got the ball, he would drive, take a double step, pump fake and then go up for a shot.
The key, Pavlicevic said, is for a shot blocker to adjust before an opponent shoots the ball. And with Davis’ giraffe-like length, “nobody shoots easy against him,” the coach added.
Less than 24 hours after Davis’ monster 11-block game, team officials joked with the Toledo, Ohio, native that he actually had 15 blocks.
Or maybe it only seemed that way.
“Well, I know from playing against him in practice, he’s actually one of the best shot blockers I’ve played with, and I’ve played with a lot of big guys,” said 201-cm forward Reggie Golson, a Southeast Missouri State product who also suited up for Shimane during the team’s inaugural season in 2010-11.
“The timing and the way he makes you change your shot, he got a lot of blocks this weekend because the guys never really changed how they were coming. So they were just coming with the same approach, and he was just blocking it.”
Three-time reigning scoring champion Michael Parker, who joined Shimane after four stellar seasons with the Rizing Fukuoka, is arguably the league’s best all-around athlete, a stat stuffer who picks up rebounds and steals in a hurry. Parker quickly became a favorite of the Susanoo Magic supporters, but Davis is doing his part to raise the shock value of every Shimane game.
“He gets a lot of blocked shots, but it’s also the shots that he makes opponents change,” Golson said of his taller frontcourt mate. “It’s just crazy how he can change the whole momentum of the game. It’s crazy to watch.”
At the same time, when Davis finds his rhythm as the in-the-paint enforcer, it gives his teammates a chance to take a few gambles, which can lead to rushed shots and bad possessions for foes.
“I kind of lead my man into Davis,” Golson said, “because I know he’s good at going up in the air to block shots. So it’s just like a double front . . . and we’ve got the advantage of having a guy who can change your shot.
“It makes the game a lot easier having a shot blocker, too.”
For all his size and understated athleticism, Davis’ path to a pro career is an unlikely one. The 27-year-old didn’t begin playing organized basketball until after high school.
But he was always able to figure out a way to swat shots.
“When I first started playing in prep school, that’s all I could do,” Davis recalled. “That was right after high school. It was like something natural that I could do, and I got better at it as the years go on.”
The more he played, the better he got. Yet Davis was willing to invest time as a student of the game, using his TV-viewing time to observe how the NBA’s top shot blockers operated.
“I watched a lot of NBA games, good shot blockers,” said Davis, citing Dikembe Mutombo from his Philadelphia 76ers days and current standouts Serge Ibaka and JaVale McGee of the Thunder and Wizards, respectively. “But it’s really all about the timing and just the reaction and waiting and stand down, waiting for them to shoot it first.”
Davis began his college basketball career at Daytona Beach (Florida) Community College in 2004-05 and averaged 6.0 points, 5.0 rebound and 3.0 blocks. He moved on to St. Catharine (Kentucky) College for the 2005-06 season and his numbers rose to 9.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.6 blocks.
Two seasons later, he was playing at Texas College, where he led the NAIA Division I ranks in blocks (6.0), under coach Matt Cross.
Cross then landed the coaching job at Talladega College, and Davis joined him at the small liberal arts college (enrollment: 600).
In his senior season, Davis had a 32-point, 20-block, 14-rebound performance against Concordia-Selma. That 20-block effort set an NAIA single-game record. Talladega went on to capture the 2008-09 NAIA championship.
“Jeral will go down as one of the all-time best small-college players in the history of this game,” then-Talladega College coach Cross told the Daily Home, an Alabama newspaper, in 2009.
Davis had a pre-draft tryout with the New York Knicks in 2009, but his physique has been one factor that’s kept him out of the NBA. Instead, he’s worked diligently to establish himself as a premier shot blocker and perfect his craft from Mexico to Lebanon, Vermont to Shimane Prefecture.
Can Davis play in the NBA?
“It’s hard to say,” former Tokyo Apache coach Bob Hill told The Japan Times in January 2011. “He’s so thin. He’s very thin. . . . (But) everybody’s looking for guys that can block shots.”
Hill said Davis would need to bulk up a bit to withstand the rigors of the NBA.
“His lack of strength would be a problem, but he’s one of those guys that if he could commit to this, he could make a really good living overseas, be it Japan or Europe,” said Hill, who coached four NBA teams.
To a man, Hill’s comments are on the mark. And, as one spends time conversing with Davis, what’s clear is his commitment to excellence.
A day after his aforementioned 11-block masterpiece, Davis summed it up this way:
“Coach just wants us to work hard and never take plays off. He just wants me to hold the paint down while I’m in there. He doesn’t want us to relax and be complacent. . . . When everybody’s on the same page, we’re focused and we’re a good team.”