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Friday, November 03, 2023

Walter Davis: The Greyhound

When I think of Walter Davis--the six-time NBA All-Star who passed away on Thursday--the word that comes to mind is "smooth." Davis glided across the court with such grace and speed that he earned the nickname "The Greyhound." He had the perfect build for a versatile perimeter player--6-6, 195 pounds during his prime--much like Pantheon players Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant. Davis was a very efficient and prolific scorer, averaging 18.9 ppg on .511 field goal shooting during his 15 season NBA career. He just missed joining the 20,000 point club, finishing with 19,521 points and ranking 18th on the NBA career scoring list/22nd on the ABA/NBA career scoring list when he retired in 1992.

Davis is one of the greatest players in the history of the prestigious North Carolina program, and he still ranks 10th in career Tar Heel scoring with 1863 points. Perhaps the most famous moment of Davis' college career happened during his freshman year in 1974, when he drained a 25 foot jump shot to cap off an eight point comeback in 17 seconds versus Duke and send the game to overtime, where the Tar Heels prevailed. Davis earned All-ACC honors twice, and he led North Carolina to the 1977 NCAA Championship, scoring a game-high 20 points in a 67-59 loss to Marquette. Davis is the uncle of current North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis, who averaged 8.2 ppg in a 12 season NBA career after a solid four years playing for North Carolina.

Walter Davis spent his first 11 NBA seasons with the Phoenix Suns, earning all of his six All-Star selections and both of his All-NBA Second Team selections (1978, 1979) during that time. Curry Kirkpatrick profiled rookie forwards Walter Davis, Marques Johnson, and Bernard King in the February 20, 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated. Kirkpatrick declared, "Walter Davis, Bernard King, and Marques Johnson may be the best athletes ever to come into the same professional sport at the same time at the same position." Johnson offered this assessment of how he and King stacked up versus Davis: "My game is inside and on the board, Bernard's is around the lanes, but Walter Davis' game is everywhere." During that historic 1977-78 season, future Hall of Famer (and 1985 scoring champion) Bernard King averaged 24.2 ppg (10th in the league), Johnson averaged 19.5 ppg, and Davis won the Rookie of the Year award after averaging 24.2 ppg (ninth in the league, just a few percentage points ahead of King) on .526 field goal shooting (10th in the league) as the Suns improved from 34-48 to 49-33. Davis finished fifth in regular season MVP voting. Johnson's Milwaukee Bucks--a Western Conference team at that time--beat Davis' Suns 2-0 in a first round mini-series during which Johnson averaged 28.5 ppg and 14.0 rpg while Davis averaged 25.0 ppg and 8.5 rpg.

Davis' scoring declined slightly in his second season (23.6 ppg, 10th in the league) but he increased his field goal percentage to .561 (seventh in the league), and he averaged 22.1 ppg on .520 field goal shooting in the playoffs as the Suns lost 4-3 to the eventual NBA champion Seattle Supersonics in the Western Conference Finals.

From 1978-80 Davis and Paul Westphal formed a tremendous Phoenix duo. Davis and Westphal each made the All-Star team in all three seasons. Davis made the All-NBA Second Team in 1978 and 1979, while Westphal earned All-NBA First Team honors in 1979 and 1980 and All-NBA Second Team honors in 1978. The Suns posted a 154-92 regular season record but did not advance past the Western Conference Finals. In 1980, the Suns traded Westphal to Seattle for Dennis Johnson, the 1979 NBA Finals MVP.

Davis made the All-Star team in 1981, but his numbers steadily declined in the early 1980s, and he did not make the All-Star team in 1982 or 1983. On February 25, 1983, Davis set an obscure but impressive NBA record by scoring his first 34 points without missing a shot from the field or the free throw line. Davis bounced back to average 20.0 ppg and make the All-Star team in 1984. He averaged 24.9 ppg on .535 field goal shooting during the 1984 playoffs, leading the Suns to the 1984 Western Conference Finals. Davis and the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tied for top scoring honors (23.8 ppg) in the Western Conference Finals, but the powerful Lakers won, 4-2. 

Davis voluntarily entered drug rehabilitation in December 1985 to treat his cocaine addiction. He averaged 21.8 ppg in 1985-86 but was not selected as an All-Star. Davis averaged 23.6 ppg (11th in the league) in 1986-87, earning his final All-Star selection. He signed with Denver as a free agent in 1988, and he remained a solid double figure scorer coming off of the bench for the next three seasons. Denver traded Davis to Portland in January 1991, and he averaged 6.1 ppg in 32 games for Portland. Davis signed with Denver as a free agent in November 1991, and he averaged 9.9 ppg in 46 games in his final NBA season.

At his peak, Davis could both slash to the hoop and dissect defenses with his deadly midrange jump shot that earned him the nickname "The Man With the Velvet Touch." His Phoenix teammate Alvan Adams once told NBA.com, "I don't remember a sweeter shot. Ray Allen's got a great shot. The Splash Brothers (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson), too. He (Davis) was a feared shooter. The other team knew it, too. Walter was one of the great shooters in NBA history." Davis was an outstanding player in his era, and he would have been even more productive in today's game that emphasizes offense in general, and perimeter play in particular. Davis did not shoot many three pointers--few players did during those days--but there is no doubt that he could have extended his range to fit in with today's three point shooting explosion.

Davis began his career as a small forward, but then shifted over to guard because of his ballhandling, passing, and midrange shooting. Davis played in at least 75 games in six of his first seven seasons, and he played in at least 70 games in 10 of his 15 seasons. He is the Suns' all-time leading scorer with 15,666 points. The Suns retired his number 6 in 1994, and they also inducted him in the franchise's Ring of Honor. It is a shame that Davis' name is probably largely forgotten outside of North Carolina and Phoenix, because he was a productive and efficient player who was fun to watch and who made significant contributions to winning teams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 AM



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