South Carolina Basketball: Examining Zachary Davis's Rise

Despite flying under the radar for the early parts of the Paris tenure, Zachary Davis has emerged as a huge part of the program's future.
Zachary Davis gets ready pre-game before a matchup against Tennessee.
Zachary Davis gets ready pre-game before a matchup against Tennessee. / Eakin Howard/GettyImages

Every college basketball team needs a Zachary Davis. The rising junior is just one of two Frank Martin recruits left in the South Carolina basketball program, with the other being fellow in-state product Jacobi Wright. Listed at a lanky 6-foot-7, 194 pounds, Davis, a native of Orangeburg, has played every position besides point and center, and though his offensive production doesn’t jump off the page (a career mark of 4.1 PPG), he’s arguably the most valuable player on this team, and he’s just getting started. 

Coming out of Denmark-Olar High School, Davis was not a highly-touted prospect, rated at three stars on and 247Sports. Even playing on one of the worst (statistically, at 11-21) Gamecock teams in recent history as a freshman in Lamont Paris’s first year at the helm, he only saw 13.9 MPG while picking up just two starts. Most of the time the ‘Cocks were on the court, Meechie Johnson, Chico Carter Jr., and Jacobi Wright patrolled the guard spot while GG Jackson and Hayden Brown were on the wings. That didn’t leave much opportunity for Davis, despite the team’s struggles.

Primarily, that was because the team’s offense wasn’t clicking, and Davis wasn’t consistently alleviating those issues when he got in the game. His turnover rate of 19.6% was the second-highest on the team, and shooting woes from the perimeter plagued Davis’s offensive output. His 17.1 3PT% was the worst mark on the team, and in an offensive scheme that rewards high-percentage shooters, that wasn’t going to get him an extended role on offense. 

There were certainly sparks and glimpses of his potential, notably against Texas A&M at home, where Davis started the game and proceeded to score 13 points on 4-6 shooting with two steals. But he wouldn’t get another start until over a year later. Over the course of Davis’s freshman year, he averaged just 2.2 PPG, 2.2 RPG, and 0.7 APG. 

Defensively, Davis did excel, posting the highest steal percentage and defensive box plus/minus on the squad. But even though Jackson, Brown, and Carter were no longer with the program going into Davis’s sophomore year, Collin Murray-Boyles, Myles Stute, and Ta’Lon Cooper were brought in to help fill those voids, leaving some to question where Davis was going to fit in the rotation. 

Those questions were answered by a major growth in Davis’s game. In a real chicken-or-the-egg quandary, it’s worth asking which came first, the Davis development or the team’s improvement as a program. In all likelihood, it was probably simultaneous. The team brought in considerable talent, settled in during Paris’s second year, and yet the sophomore Davis still managed to break out in a huge way.

In the first game of the season against USC Upstate, it took the Orangeburg native all of 22 minutes to set a new career high in the rebounding department with eight boards, and he tied his career-high with three steals in that same contest. In other non-conference games, he made an impact on the offensive side of the ball, a trend that would increase as the year wore on. Against DePaul in a game where most of the team simply couldn’t put the ball in the bucket, Davis put together his second career double-figure performance, hitting two triples that ended up being crucial in a five-point victory. 

Still, it wasn’t yet evident that Davis was a completely different player compared to his freshman year. Through the first 16 games of the season, almost a half of the season, he was getting 20.0 MPG, but his offensive rates were roughly in line with the previous year, averaging 4.4 PPG in that span. That was flipped on its head in the second half of the loss to Georgia, when the Gamecocks lost starting wing Myles Stute to a shoulder injury. 

From that point on, whether it was as simple as a confidence boost, something clicked with Davis’s game. He slid into the wing in the stead of the injured Vanderbilt transfer, and in his first start since the aforementioned Texas A&M game in January 2023, Zachary Davis went a then career-best 5-8 from the field, scoring 12 points. 

By the time Stute returned to action in the win against Tennessee, the Gamecocks had gone 3-0 with wins over Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri with Davis in the starting lineup, and with Stute not yet at 100%, why mess with the magic? As it turns out, Davis would retain his starting position for the rest of the season. 

From Davis’s first start to the home loss against LSU, a span of nine games, South Carolina went 7-2 and Davis bumped his scoring average up from 4.4 PPG to 5.0 PPG and assist average up from 0.7 APG to 1.7 APG.  Not the biggest jump, sure, but still noticeable. After the demoralizing defeat to the Tigers, however, the sophomore hit another level of production yet to be seen from him on the court. 

The next game, a road victory over Mississippi, he got elbowed in the head by Allen Flanigan, resulting in the latter’s ejection. That didn’t stop Davis from putting up 14 points and nine rebounds, with both of those marks being career-highs at the time. That career-high mark in points ended up lasting all of four days, with a 16-point performance against Texas A&M coming in the very next game in that road trip. 

Once the Gamecocks returned home to take on Florida, they weren’t able to sustain that same momentum, at least for the first 28 minutes of the game. That’s when Lamont Paris switched to a 1-3-1 zone with Davis as the man up top, creating havoc. Lamont Paris didn’t switch to that defense for the “3” or the other 1; he switched so that Zachary Davis could turn the tide of the game. 

And, no surprise, it worked. From the 12:00 minute mark in the second half to the time the buzzer sounded, South Carolina outscored the Gators by a 36-20 margin, winning by six points. Davis finished the game with eight points, three rebounds, two assists, two steals, a block, and a Florida Gators offense in disarray. 

Lamont Paris has had 21 players step onto the court in his two years as head coach in Columbia. For 20 of those players, his schemes have remained constant. He did not change his strategy for GG Jackson, Meechie Johnson, or B.J. Mack. And yet, for Zachary Davis, Paris adapted. The switch to the 1-3-1 to take advantage of Davis’s abilities is the reason why South Carolina ended up on top in several games this season.

On the road against Mississippi State a week later, Davis again excelled, this time on offense, scoring 13 points. Less than a week after that, in the SEC tournament, Davis led the team in assists against Arkansas, tallying four. In the next round against Auburn, he scored in double figures yet again, this time adding eight rebounds and a team-leading four assists. 

As a whole, Davis’s season can be separated into three distinct timeframes. The first is from the tipoff against USC Upstate to Myles Stute leaving the Georgia game with a shoulder injury, a span of 16 games. Then, a nine-game stretch between his first start of the season against Arkansas and the home loss to LSU. That was followed by the final stretch between the road win over Mississippi to the tournament loss to Oregon. 

Games 1-16: (4.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.8 SPG, 51.6 2PT%, 20.0 MPG).

Games 17-25: (5.0 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.6 SPG, 63.2 2PT%, 23.0 MPG).

Games 26-33 (9.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 0.6 SPG, 60.0 2PT%, 29.0 MPG).

For almost the first half of the season, Davis had similar defensive numbers to last year, which was solid, but the offensive impact just wasn’t there yet. Once Myles Stute went down, Davis’s rebound and steal averages fell slightly, but he experienced a slight jump in points and a better all-around game, with an over 100% increase in assists and significant improvement shooting the ball from inside the arc. 

Over the last eight games of the season, Davis’s efficiency really took off. After recording just three 10+ point games in his first 55 career games, he managed four games of 10+ points in his last eight games. His rebounding numbers went above his start-of-the-year averages, almost tripled his career PPG averages going into that eight-game stretch, and tallied more assists in the last eight games of the season than he did in his first 23. 

One huge reason was his ability to get inside the arc and force himself to the line. Going into the Mississippi game on the road, Davis’s career free-throw rate, or number of free throw attempts per shot attempt, was just .180, a rate that would have ranked second-lowest on the team in the 23-24 season. But over the last eight games, Davis bumped that number up by 333%, all the way up to .603. That rate, if extrapolated over the course of the season, would have been the second-highest. 

That’s a jump that seems almost impossible. A player doesn’t just go from being one of the worst foul-drawers on the team to arguably the best. That is, unless that player is Zachary Davis. Unless that player, a career 24.7% shooter from deep, decides to cut his 3PAr from 51.7% down to 31.0%, attack the lane, play to his strengths, and blossom into the fifth option on offense for a top-25 team. A ranked team that, in the offseason, will lose three of those four ahead of him in that regard.

Prior to the win in Oxford, Davis averaged 2.0 2PA per game and 2.2 3PA per game. In the eight game stretch starting against Mississippi, he averaged 5.0 2PA and 2.3 3PA. It wasn’t that he stopped taking threes, he just became much more inclined to take the ball to the basket rather than trying to get it in from 24+ feet out. 

There’s no way to know what happened in between the loss to LSU and the road win over Mississippi. Whether it was a conversation with coaches or just basketball being the unpredictable sport that it has proven to be time and time again, Zachary Davis transformed into a legitimate two-way threat. 

Zachary Davis is the type of basketball player that is uniquely appreciated by people who grew up playing basketball. Anyone who grew up on the courts knows what it’s like to play against a player like Davis. You can’t give him an inch while you’re on defense, because he will take advantage of the lane. And once you get back on offense, you’ve got to resign yourself to the fact that you’re not going to score for a while.  

There is something different about Zachary Davis. A defensive-minded three-star in-state product recruited by Frank Martin that, once in the hands of a head coach with an entirely different basketball mindset, then gets that coach, one that wouldn’t change his game plan to suit a five-star prospect in GG Jackson, to change his defensive plans to mirror something much more likely to be seen in the Martin era than what the typical Paris defense looks like. This is a player that, seemingly overnight, was able to switch his entire offensive skill set and quite literally take off, all in the midst of arguably the most difficult stretch of schedule the Gamecocks had faced in the two-year Paris tenure. 

The overlap between Frank Martin’s preferred players and Lamont Paris’s preferred players, scheme-wise, is almost invisible. But if there’s one player that encapsulates all of the best parts of Frank Martin’s game plans and the best parts of Lamont Paris’s game plans, it’s Zachary Davis. Keep in mind, this is a player that still has two years of college remaining, getting ready to (assumedly) begin the season in a starting role for the first time. We have not begun to see Zachary Davis’s ceiling, and he’ll be second amongst returning players in terms of minutes per game. It’s time to start the Zachary Davis bandwagon, on and off the court, if it hasn’t left the station already.