Big Baby Working Through NBA Growing Pains
Before his breakout game in Detroit Saturday night, when he scored 16 of his game-high 20 points to lead the Celtics past the Pistons, Glen Davis was struggling to find consistency. Has he turned the corner? As 2007 was wrapping up, Parquet took a look at the rookie's journey.
When a kid comes into the NBA with a nickname like "Big Baby," you have to wonder.
Glen Davis is learning to use his body around the basket to carve out scoring space against taller opponents.
How will he handle the transition from dominating his peers in high school and college to playing against stronger, grown men who will try to crush his spirit at every opportunity? Is he tough enough? Just how big is he? And exactly how did he get, and why does he keep, such a nickname in the first place?
Admittedly, Glen Davis' professional basketball career didn't quite start off the way he pictured it. From being drafted in the second round rather than the first to struggling through his first NBA training camp, Davis learned early and often that proving people wrong was just part of the rookie job description.
These days, Davis is refocusing his lens as he looks at the early stages of his NBA life. He's accepting the fact that dedicating himself to his craft is the only way to keep from being cropped out of the picture entirely.
When Big Baby looks at the Big Picture, he's content with being on the outskirts for now. Heck, he's just happy to be in the photo.
"I've got to be the guy in the picture, 'Who's that arm? Who's that guy?' You just know he's with some important people, he's somebody," Davis said. "That's the kind of approach I have to have, doing my job in order for my team to be successful."
This summer, Davis found himself in a role that's all too common yet tough for many draft picks to accept: They're looking up the totem pole, but still unable to shed themselves of the inherent sense of entitlement born from college basketball stardom.
Surely his college career was impressive. Davis was compared to fellow Tigers alum Shaquille O'Neal during his three seasons at LSU thanks to gaudy statistics (both surpassed 1,500 points, 900 rebounds and 100 blocks) and his infectious personality. While scouts had doubts about his size, weight and work ethic, Davis entered the NBA Draft expecting to be a first rounder.
Instead, he dropped to the second round. The #35 pick in the draft, Davis was sent to Boston alongside Ray Allen in the trade that sent Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and the #5 pick in the draft to Seattle.
But disappointment really started setting in when training camp began in Europe. Davis was underwhelming in practice and had trouble just getting on the floor.
"I was a starter since forever," Davis said. "You achieve over and above when you are in high school. Then you get to college and you still do OK. And then you grow and then you still dominate and still put up big numbers.
"And then you get here and there's just nothing of that."
Kevin Garnett took Davis under his wing during training camp in Rome, explaining to the rookie that he needed to bring a consistent effort every day if he wanted to fulfill his potential.
He learned that his past meant nothing in the eyes of a coaching staff that had a veteran team targeting title contention. All they could see was an underdeveloped work ethic, an oversized body and something of an overinflated ego to match.
It took a heart-to-heart with Kevin Garnett for Davis to realize that he needed to change his approach.
"You don't just step on the court, smell the popcorn pop and then turn it on," Garnett said. "You have to be able to prepare yourself to come in here and work your ass off. If I'm on the floor, Posey's on the floor, Paul's on the floor, Ray's on the floor, that's the standard. That's the example.
"I'm not around [Davis] 24-7. But I have seen him come in here from being not necessarily one of the first to come in here to being one of the first four. And coming in here and looking at it a whole different way from taking care of his body and knowing he's not going to get anything, he has to work for everything. The coaching staff is seeing his progress and seeing how he wants to be here."
The message had to sink in. Throughout training camp, Garnett was often seen taking Davis under his wing -- often putting his arm around him, pulling him close and talking in his ear -- trying to pound home the message of accountability.
"His message was just being consistent every day, in order to achieve what you want to achieve," Davis said. "He sees a lot of potential in me. Him being a rookie once upon a time and being successful, that's one of the things he would love to do, is pass his knowledge of the game down to someone who could be great one day.
"I had no idea of the effort it was going to take. I have a clue now. But the more time and the more I get on the court, and the more I'm around these guys, the more I'll get better."
You get the sense from talking to Davis, as well as his teammates, that he never really had to work too hard to be effective in the college game. This did not bode well for his transition to the NBA, especially for a guy who is considered undersized at the power forward spot. Davis is learning how to carve out space for himself in the paint to get his shot off, whether it's backing a guy down with his rear-end or going up-and-under the other side of the rim to avoid a blocked shot. And he's also learning the tricks of the trade -- the subtle moves veterans use to get an advantage against a bigger opponent.
"He's understanding that even though he was big in college, he's still big in the pros but he's not tall," Coach Doc Rivers said, noting that playing alongside veterans like Garnett and Pierce is beginning to rub off on the rookie. "He's learning how to space, use his body, his butt to get his shot off."
Rivers says that all bigs, especially those of the undersized variety, had better learn to be extremely physical and do it without fouling so they can stay on the floor.
"If you're going to be a physical big who rebounds, I don't know if you have to have a nasty streak but you have to be extremely tough, and you have to like physical basketball," said Rivers. "[Charles] Barkley would, and [Charles] Oakley always got upset when you called him an undersized four. Part of what makes them good is that makeup. They believe they are as big and tough as anyone, and that's probably what makes them good."
Rivers warned that it's far too early for such comparisons, and if you read between the lines, the message seems to be that Davis still has to develop an edge and the necessary grit to be an effective NBA big. Which brings us back to that "Big Baby" nickname, which could imply exactly the opposite.
Few would be quick to embrace such a moniker. But Davis doesn't hide from it.
"I was really large as a youngster. I used to play pee wee football, but I was too big and couldn't play with my age group. I had to play with the older kids and they would pick on me," Davis recalled. "I'm tough now, but I wasn't so tough back then. The coaches said, 'big baby's crying a lot.' Then it was like wildfire. I learned to embrace it."
Off the court, his personality and penchant for smiling has already made him a fan favorite and media darling. He has no problem being the center of attention, whether it's cracking jokes at a team meal or at a public community appearance. Before the season he took a Boston Duck Tour with stickers affixed to his head for the entire afternoon just to make a few kids smile. His 100-watt grin is contagious, and he's one of those guys who enjoys entertaining others.
Still, on the court, questions remain. Does Big Baby play big? Will he learn to stay out of foul trouble? Can he bang with the really big boys? Is he tough enough? And is he willing to do the work to shed the baby fat and transform his body for the rigors of an NBA season?
Center Kendrick Perkins, a tough guy in his own right who had to reshape his own body early in his career to earn his spot in the league, also spent some time trying to teach Davis that he was no longer among college boys.
"He used to be the man at LSU; he was 'Big Baby' there, he was a big deal," Perkins said after a December practice, noting that Davis is a solid player whose size is "no joke" and isn't easily budged on the basketball court. "But you come here and suddenly you're among men working for a living. This is serious business, and it was a big change for him."
A rude awakening, perhaps?
"Nothing that happened even matters. It's all out the door," Davis said of his collegiate glory. "You start from scratch. You're put on the third team. It's hard to get in the [first- or second-team] rotation, hard to get in a rhythm. You've got to stay focused. You've got to play a mind game with yourself. You know what you possess. You can't mentally figure it's gone."
Physical toughness is one thing, and mental toughness is another. Davis will need both to succeed in the NBA. When Rivers pulled him from the floor after less than three minutes of action during a recent home game against the Orlando Magic when Davis failed to defend Dwight Howard on the pick and roll according to the game plan (foul him to prevent a dunk), Big Baby looked like, well, a baby. He hung his head as he walked off the court, sat down on the bench and covered his face in a towel.
It was a far cry from the kid who had spark-plugged the Celtics in New Jersey in early November during his first significant NBA minutes (scoring six points and grabbing eight rebounds in 17 minutes), or the rookie who made his first career start against the Sacramento Kings and came up with 16 points and nine rebounds.
Toughness and consistency doesn't come overnight in the NBA, but Davis wants to be a big part of the Celtics. Asked about his role, Davis knows that his job is to be ready to pitch in when he's called upon, whether it's grabbing a rebound or just keeping the team loose.
Along those lines, perhaps the only thing bigger than Big Baby's 6'9", 289-pound frame is his effervescent personality. While in most cases NBA rookies are to be seen and not heard, Davis has certainly made an impression on his coach and teammates.
"Big Baby is the personality of the Boston Celtics. He has an aura around him which follows him," Garnett said of Davis. "He carries that on and off the court. It just so happens that he's a rookie, so watch out, y'all."
Whether he's popping up on the jumbotron trying to fire up the Garden crowd in the fourth quarter or dodging traffic during training camp -- he was actually hit but not hurt by a car in Rome -- Davis always seems to be in the middle of things.
"One key thing, one trait in having great team chemistry is laughter," Davis said. "Sometimes you have nothing to talk about, but laugh. Sometimes I try to be that guy. If the joke's on me, I'm laughing too."
That said, on the court, professional basketball is serious business, and Davis is still trying to find his place. One night he'll play 18 minutes, the next night three, and sometimes its match-ups working against him, but in other cases it's been his lack of effort or execution. He's already notched a few DNPs as well, something that doesn't sit well with the rookie, yet he understands it's a part of the process.
"I don't think I'm as comfortable as I want to be," Davis admits. "I'm just trying to get to the point where I can produce on the floor and do what the team wants me to do. Being a rookie and getting thrown out there, you have to adjust. That's the biggest thing. You have to adjust to the tempo they're playing at, and you have to be alert. Your antenna has to be up. When you're out there, it doesn't matter that you're a rookie, you're out there and you've just got to play like you've been in the league forever."
A few months into his career, Davis is playing like he's been in the league for, well, a few months. When he learns how to be effective on a daily basis, you'll be seeing a lot more of him.
Peter Stringer covers the team for Celtics.com and Parquet Magazine. You can send him .