MADISON, Wis. — The typical profile of a freshman on a college basketball team is someone too timid to speak up for fear teammates won’t listen. It is a player who needs a year or two in the program to assimilate before showing the confidence necessary to lead.
And then there is guard Brad Davison, whose entire disposition completely belies the fact he is a freshman playing his first college games. If you have seen even one Wisconsin basketball game this season, you know that Davison has quickly become the Badgers’ vocal and emotional leader. When Davison calls out sets, shares what he’s seeing on the court or offers encouragement, teammates are instantly receptive.
Davison has backed up that behavior by putting together a fantastic rookie season. He ranks first on the team in steals, second in assists and second in scoring at 11.9 points per game. He has achieved all this while enduring a pesky left shoulder ailment and being thrust into a starting point guard role he never saw coming because of injuries to teammates.
Only three other freshmen in the last 20 years have averaged double figure points at Wisconsin: Devin Harris, Alando Tucker and Ethan Happ. All three of those players became All-Americans.
Davison has a ways to go to reach that accomplishment, but he is off to a strong start. Wisconsin (9-8, 2-2 Big Ten) will need more quality play from him over the team’s final 14 regular-season conference games.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Davison said he wasn’t nervous about acclimating with older teammates because he has done so his entire athletic career. That includes his days as a quarterback on the football team in Maple Grove, Minn., as well as running the show on the basketball court.
“I always was a younger guy playing with older guys,” Davison said. “That’s something that I always kind of challenged myself and prided myself on. I didn’t want to demand respect; I wanted to earn respect. So that was my goal coming in here, whether it was in the weight room, outside of basketball, on the court, I wanted to earn their respect.”
Those traits materialized during summer workouts and practices leading up to Wisconsin’s five-game exhibition tour of New Zealand and Australia in August. Even during half-court 3-on-3 drills, Davison was the player taking charges, diving out of bounds for loose balls and clapping to implore others to give their best performance. He averaged 11.2 points on the trip and needed all of four games once the season began to enter the starting lineup.
Badgers coach Greg Gard described Davison then as “not your typical freshman, physically or mentally” and praised his leadership ability. But how easy was it for teammates to listen to Davison?
“He came in with that mentality, and I think that’s just something that happens naturally,” Wisconsin guard Brevin Pritzl said. “If you come in as a natural-born leader, you just assimilate right into the role, and I think that’s exactly what he’s done. He’s kind of just come in and done exactly the role you need him to, and he fills it perfectly.
“If a kid knows basketball, a kid knows basketball. It’s as simple as that. Some teams, you don’t want to accept that fact that a younger kid may know more. But it’s about winning games and getting better. If somebody’s got that kind of knowledge and that kind of leadership, you just take it in.”
Davison’s voice has been needed on a team beset by injuries and full of relatively inexperienced players. Happ, a redshirt junior, was Wisconsin’s only returning starter. Other players in the current rotation include redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford, freshman forward Nate Reuvers and walk-on freshman guard Walt McGrory.
If everything had gone according to plan, Davison would have spent much of this season as an off-guard while learning from point guard D’Mitrik Trice. But Trice and freshman guard Kobe King have not played since Wisconsin’s 59-55 loss against Temple on Dec. 6. King underwent season-ending surgery on his left knee, while Trice has yet to return from surgery on his right foot.
With two of Wisconsin’s top four guards out, Davison slid over to play point guard, and he rarely has left the court. Since the Temple game, he has played at least 36 minutes in four of seven games. But he has shown all season that fatigue won’t keep him from shining in big moments.
Davison leads the team in made free throws and 3-pointers. He drilled a 3-pointer to tie the score at 53-53 in the waning minutes against Rutgers on Friday night in an eventual 64-60 loss. On defense, Davison has drawn a team-leading 18 charges this season.
“Brad’s been very impactful on both ends,” said Happ, who leads the team in scoring, rebounding and assists. “Every individual player has to stay positive throughout all of it. But him especially, he obviously didn’t start to begin the year. Then, he moved over to the 1 when [D’Mitrik] goes down.
“When I first came here, I was definitely not ready to be on this stage, let alone the pressure that this team has on it after losing those early games to ranked teams.”
Learning to play point guard in college would have been enough of an adjustment. But Davison is battling through a painful dislocated left shoulder injury that has frequently required medical assistance to place back into the socket.
Davison first dislocated his shoulder in a game against Baylor on Nov. 20. He said the shoulder has popped out on four other occasions — once in practice and three times in games. It happened Nov. 27 against Virginia and twice against Chicago State on Dec. 27. Davison has worn a bulky brace over the shoulder, which serves as a reminder for him not to put himself in a risky situation by reaching or shooting with his left hand — if he can help it.
“I try to forget about it,” Davison said. “I can’t complain about it because I’m just very thankful the Lord is letting me keep playing because I have two teammates who can’t. But there’s a lot of times throughout the game where I feel it, whether it gets pulled on or just doesn’t really cooperate with me, and I can’t do what I want to do because of the brace. So there’s definitely a lot of possessions throughout the game where I feel it. But I can’t complain about it. I just try to play through it.”
Davison said he’s been told there is a slim chance the injury will heal on its own. But he isn’t thinking about surgery yet. He has more games to play.
Gard said he has attempted to limit Davison’s time on the court during practice by keeping him on a pitch count of sorts. But Davison’s competiveness, talent, leadership and the lack of point guards remaining on the roster make it difficult for Gard to take him out during games despite the injury.
“I don’t think he’s the same as what he was or what he will be,” Gard said. “He’s done a lot. We’ve asked a lot of him.”
Never more than Davison asks of himself.