Did you know that Ed Davis was leading the Toronto Raptors in PER? After spending two seasons hovering around the league average, Davis has jumped up to a 20.8 rating early this season, and that has put him in the top-ten amongst NBA power forwards. That means that Davis has a higher Player Efficiency Rating than Kevin Garnett, Zach Randolph, Paul Millsap, Kevin Love and Serge Ibaka - the next five guys on the list.
Of course, Davis' achievement requires a big ol' helping of context, because he's been posting that career-high rating on a career-low 17.2 minutes per game. While it's all well and good to make the most of limited minutes, Davis needs to prove that he can maintain that production when he's gifted with a larger dose of playing time, because he's going to be getting it with Andrea Bargnani out for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately for the Raptors, Davis showed Wednesday night that he might be up for the challenge. While the Raptors lost (try and contain your surprise), Davis was borderline dominant, posting 24 points on 11-for-13 shooting and pulling in 12 rebounds in a team-high 45 minutes against Brooklyn. He teamed effectively with Jonas Valanciunas in the frontcourt (the pair combined for 39 points on 17-for-19 shooting), scored in a variety of ways from the field and gave the Raptors an unexpected go-to weapon in a game where DeMar DeRozan was struggling to make an impact.
In a way, Davis is having the sort of season this year that many had predicted he'd have last year, and had the lockout not thrown a wrench into his developmental time with the team he may have lived up to those expectations instead of wasting the year like he did.
It can be hard to remember coming off of a season of such mediocrity, but Davis actually had a pretty solid rookie year. He was a dominant rebounder, a solid energy player and he shot a truly impressive .576 from the field. The expectation was that he would supplant Amir Johnson in Toronto's rotation because of his more refined game and join DeRozan and Valanciunas as core pieces for the club going forward.
Instead, Davis regressed across the board. His scoring, rebounding and shooting all declined, and he didn't play with nearly the effort or intensity that was becoming a trademark for the '11-'12 iteration of the club. He fell well behind Johnson in the team's pecking order and he came into this season in a dog fight not only for minutes but for a role of any kind on the squad. Dwane Casey was not shy about calling him out in the press and Davis began to look like a rare miss in Bryan Colangelo's draft history.
This year, though, things have been quite different. While his minutes have been slashed, his play has been markedly better. He had a breakout game against San Antonio back on November 25, and his play was so thoroughly impressive that many chastised Casey for taking him out of the game late for an ice-cold Andrea Bargnani. With Bargnani now out indefinitely with a ligament tear in his right elbow and a strained right wrist, the Raptors are going to get an elongated look at what they have in Davis and whether or not his production in limited minutes can survive a massive jump in playing time. Doing it on Wednesday is one thing, doing it consistently for the next few weeks is another.
Now that he's in his third NBA season this could serve as something of a career-defining stretch for the former North Carolina forward. If he excels then he could accelerate Bargnani's departure from the club and inherit his place in the starting lineup on a permanent basis. If he fails he could be relegated back to spot bench duty and lose his place in Toronto's future plans altogether. It's not an exaggeration to say that careers have been made out of opportunities like this, and now it's on Davis to capitalize.
To do that he needs to keep taking smart shots that he can hit efficiently, he needs to keep his rebounding rate sky-high (that's still his money-making asset), he needs to get way better at reading and reacting on defence and he needs to be a part of a team-wide re-dedication to out-hustling the opposition. He and Valanciunas should be a headache for opposing frontcourts from an energy and effort standpoint given their relative strengths, and while they won't be enough to save Toronto's season, at least they can be a part of restoring what this team's identity was supposed to look like before the wheels fell off in November.
Davis probably hasn't done enough to warrant outright optimism that he's about to break through as an NBA player, but an opportunity has been lain at his feet to define his future on his own terms. No longer can he hide behind inconsistent minutes or a fluctuating role - everything he needs is sitting right there for him to take the next step as a player and all he has to do is take it.