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Jim Polzin: Why the NBA draft is a banner moment for both Johnny Davis and Wisconsin men's basketball

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davis photo 6-22

UW's Johnny Davis was the Big Ten Player of the Year and a consensus first-team All-American this past season.

Another memorable moment awaits Johnny Davis, a likely lottery pick when the NBA draft is held Thursday night in New York.

The former La Crosse Central standout has worked hard for this, and while there are some fans out there who still believe the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year should have returned for one more season with the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, let’s put aside that debate to appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment for the talented guard.

Davis carried the Badgers on his shoulders this past season, guiding a team that was picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten Conference to a share of the regular-season title. He was a first-team All-American and, for a while there, it seemed like he may even end up as the national player of the year.

So, yeah, Davis did a lot for this program over the course of five months.

But he’s not done yet. In fact, Davis’ value to UW may extend far beyond the two seasons he spent in Madison.

It was good to hear Badgers coach Greg Gard is scheduled to fly to New York on Thursday morning and attend the draft. Gard isn’t a glory hog and certainly won’t do anything to steal the spotlight from a former player, but he should bask in this sun and try to soak up some good publicity in the process on this banner day.

Davis will be the first NBA draft pick of the Gard era. It’s been seven years since Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker both were taken in the first round in 2015, a historic night for the program that ended a first-round drought of eight years since Alando Tucker had gone 29th overall in 2007.

Those are long stretches — Jon Leuer was taken in the second round in 2011 — yet I’ve always thought it was unfair when I’d hear people say UW isn’t a good landing spot for recruits who have legitimate goals of playing in the NBA.

Gard has heard that same criticism and said earlier this week that it doesn’t annoy him — “because I knew that it was just a perception,” he said, “it wasn’t reality” — but it doesn’t hurt to have Davis as a recent example in the it-can-happen-here argument.

How much is Davis’ name coming up in UW’s interactions with targets on the recruiting trail?

“All the time,” Gard said. “The kids we’ve had on campus, others we’ve talked to, everybody knows who Johnny Davis is. Everybody has watched us. It definitely put us front and center. We’ve tried to take advantage of it.”

What’s remarkable about Davis’ journey is the Kaminsky-esque leap he’s made. Davis wasn’t a top-100 recruit coming out of high school and wasn’t even considered among the top 100 college players in the country by some leading into his sophomore season.

Davis is coachable and a hard worker, traits that have helped him continually add to his game. While he’s never lacked in confidence, Davis’ Team USA experience last summer was a tremendous growth opportunity and he returned to Madison with an elevated belief in his abilities.

Gard and his staff deserve credit for helping to fine-tune Davis’ skills and giving him freedom. The Badgers played faster during the 2021-22 season and Davis was essentially handed the keys to the offense, nearly becoming the first UW player to average 20 points per game since Michael Finley did it 27 years ago.

That’s a heck of a sales pitch to any wing that may be considering playing for the Badgers.

“Can it help us? Yes,” Gard said. “Is it going to make us do a 180 or completely change our approach or our mindset and maybe our due diligence behind it? No, because we know at the end of the day the vast majority of the people we’re going to talk to are going to be (similar to) how this program was built over the last 20-plus years.”

I appreciate that answer because it’s consistent with what Gard said eight years ago when I was working on a story on how UW’s run to the 2014 Final Four might impact the program’s recruiting. Gard’s point, then and now: Sure, more doors to higher-end recruits may be open than they were previously, but it’s not as though the Badgers are going to be landing top-50 recruits left and right based on the success of one team or one individual.

Still, there are plenty of difference-makers out there, regardless of ranking, and Davis could be the key to helping UW unlock those doors. There’s a season’s worth of Davis highlights to display and even this money quote from his father. “In Wisconsin’s system, the way they play basketball, he’s getting his opportunities,” Mark Davis, a former NBA player, told me back in January. “And he’s definitely making the most of them. No doubt about it.”

And now Davis gets to reap the rewards. He should savor every second of this magical day.

But so should Gard and Co. because this is a glowing advertisement for the program. In Davis, the Badgers have a giant hammer to help shatter an unflattering perception.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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