Everything was going wrong for Javian Davis.
In his first season at Mississippi State after transferring in from Alabama, the redshirt sophomore forward was met with difficulty after difficulty. Davis lost a third of his minutes. He started just one game after starting 14 the season before. He missed four games over the course of the year.
His statistics cratered accordingly. Davis averaged just 2.6 points per game after contributing six the prior season. He turned from a 59.4 percent shooter from the field to a player converting at just a 41.8 percent clip. At the free throw line, his 61.5 percent mark plummeted to just 39.5 percent.
“It was kind of hard,” Davis said. “Going through not making free throws, not finishing well and not playing as much as you want to, it kind of weighs on you a lot.”
So Davis went into the offseason with one simple — or not-so-simple — goal: to improve wherever he could.
And thus far, the Mississippi State forward seems to have succeeded.
Davis has bettered himself in practically every statistical category this season, approximating the numbers he put up as a redshirt freshman for Alabama. His shooting percentage is back over .500. His scoring total is back near six points per game. And he’s making free throws at a higher rate than either previous season.
“My main thing in the offseason was to try to be better at everything, and I feel like that’s what I’m doing this year,” Davis said after Wednesday night’s win over Georgia.
Now in his redshirt junior season, Davis has stepped up when Mississippi State has needed it most. He’s taken on a bigger role with forward Tolu Smith in and out of the lineup; Smith has played just five games this year, and while Davis hasn’t started at all, he’s been a key piece off the bench for the Bulldogs.
On Wednesday, Davis delivered one of his finer games at MSU, scoring 12 points in 19 minutes on 5-of-7 shooting and grabbing six rebounds in the process. With Smith out again, Davis and Andersson García combined for a quarter of the Bulldogs’ scoring in their 88-72 win over last-place UGA.
“JD’s minutes are critical for us, and when we get Tolu back, he’ll continue to play a very important role,” head coach Ben Howland said of Davis.
Davis averaged just four points per game in his first seven games of the season but has scored 7.6 points per contest in his most recent seven contests.
And after a rough start at the foul line, Davis has been reliable as any Mississippi State player save Southeastern Conference free throw percentage leader Iverson Molinar. Davis shot just 3 for 13 at the stripe in his first three games but has made 28 of 36 (77.8 percent) since then for an overall mark of 63.3 percent. He shot 61.5 percent at Alabama in the 2019-20 campaign.
“It feels great,” said Davis, who noted Dec. 11 his free throw shooting was one of his two main offseason concerns, along with conditioning. “I’ve been getting way better with that. My main focus is just to keep getting reps in every day and try to keep improving on that.”
It hasn’t been easy for Davis to navigate a changing role over the course of the season. Smith has been in and out of the lineup all year, but regardless of his availability, Davis must stay the course as best he can.
“When he’s here, my mindset’s still to come in and play hard and do what I’ve got to do in my minutes,” Davis said. “Obviously when he’s out, I feel like it’s on me to just step up and be a better player.”
To this point in the 2021-22 season, he has been. Howland praised the 6-foot-9 forward’s all-around game Wednesday: his scoring, his rebounding, his nifty pass to García late in the game and his skill in staying in front of Georgia players while on defense.
With that kind of production from a backup big man, it’s not hard to see why Mississippi State is off to a 2-1 start in SEC play.
“He’s been a critical reason why we’re 11-4 right now,” Howland said.
But the Bulldogs’ upcoming game is their biggest yet, and maybe it’s only fitting that it will come against a team Davis knows well. At 5 p.m. Saturday, No. 24 Alabama (11-5, 2-2 SEC) comes to Starkville to face Mississippi State.
“It’s always shocking because I’ve still got old teammates there,” Davis said of squaring off with the Tide. “That’s still a shock to me. It’s another opponent. Obviously, they’re a great team. It would be great to get a win versus them.”
Davis said he talked to some of his old Alabama teammates after watching Auburn take down the Tide on Tuesday night in Tuscaloosa, an exciting chapter in a rivalry Davis knows well. He called his old compatriots his brothers regardless of their current affiliation, and his mother is similarly close with parents of several current Tide players.
But even with Saturday’s game looming, there’s not much trash talk. Not yet, anyway.
“We never talk about playing each other,” Davis said Wednesday. “Maybe we’ll get to it in the next couple days.”
With two regular-season games against Alabama and a potential third matchup in the SEC tournament — which happened last season — Davis and Mississippi State are hopeful to secure bragging rights, depending on Saturday’s result.
And with his newfound — or merely rediscovered — confidence, the Bulldogs forward expects a good one.
“We’re pretty much ready for it,” he said. “We’ve got two or three days to prepare for it, and I feel like my team is going to be ready to come out and try to get the W.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.