published Monday, June 24th, 2013

Vols freshman A.J. Davis trying to get back to NBA

KNOXVILLE — A.J. Davis grew up in the bright lights of big cities, bigger arenas and some of the biggest of basketball superstars.

For the Tennessee freshman, though, the childhood many kids dream of having was his normal way of life.

Being the son of 13-year NBA veteran forward Antonio Davis had its perks, but A.J., who signed with the Volunteers last fall and moved to Knoxville earlier this month, doesn't like to talk about his upbringing.

"To me it's not a big deal," he said while clutching a black New York Knicks T-shirt after scoring 19 points in his Rocky Top League team's win Wednesday night.

Yet the 6-foot-8 Davis is appreciative of the path that took him from Indianapolis, where he was born while Antonio played for the Indiana Pacers in 1995, to Knoxville. The route included stops in Toronto and Chicago and a stint as a ball boy for the Knicks.

"It's just a cool experience," A.J. said. "It really makes you want to work to get back there to see that again. That's one of the things that pushes me.

"I want to be able to do the things that he did. He just played the game he loved all his life, and now he's living comfortably, doing what he wants and seeing me grow as a kid. It was an awesome experience."

A.J. began elementary school in Toronto while his father, a 6-9 center who played collegiately at Texas-El Paso in the late 1980s, played for the Raptors and was an All-Star in 2001.

After a one-year stint in Chicago in 2003, the Bulls traded Antonio to the Knicks, and A.J. moved with his dad to New York City and spent many nights tagging along to Madison Square Garden.

"That's what I remember the most," A.J. recalled. "I was in fifth grade, and my dad got traded when we weren't really expecting it. I was just home-schooled, going to the Garden every night just hanging out with Jamal Crawford.

"That was probably the best time of my life just because it was so cool. It was just me and him living in New York. I was the ball boy for New York. I was in the locker room every night."

A.J.'s own playing path began when his family moved to the Atlanta area following Antonio's retirement in 2006, though he first played organized basketball in fourth grade. While Antonio spent parts of two seasons for the Bulls, A.J. played with the likes of Jabari Parker, Thomas Hamilton and Jaylon Tate -- players about to start their freshman seasons at Duke, DePaul and Illinois, respectively.

At that point, A.J. says, he was just a "small and scrawny" player whose only strength was his shooting, and his parents wanted to develop his own game instead of playing off the talent around him in Chicago -- his mother Kendra's hometown and the city A.J. considers home.

It paid off.

As he hit his growth spurt, A.J. helped Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross win back-to-back state championships his freshman and sophomore years. After transferring to Buford High School before his junior season, the three-star recruit drew interest from Auburn, Clemson, Georgia and Georgia Tech. Tech signed A.J.'s sister, Kaela, a five-star recruit, in the 2013 class.

With his NBA career complete, Antonio, who joined ESPN as an NBA studio analyst in October, was there with A.J. and Kaela nearly every step of the way.

"He's coached me and my sister ... all while we were growing up," A.J. said. "Even when he played in the league, he still coached us. He's always been there.

"He couldn't be there all the time [during his career], and when he retired, he was there all the time. He took me to every practice, he was at all of my games, took me to workouts whenever I wanted. He's always been there, so that wasn't really a big thing, him not being around."

Antonio's career in the NBA paint didn't translate to giving basketball tips to his children, who were primarily guards, but A.J. said he viewed the advice he did receive as help from his father, rather than from a former NBA player.

"I look at it just like anybody else," he said. "This is my dad who loves me, and he's looking out for the best for me, just with more experience. He's seen it all, he's done it all, he's been where I want to go, and really it's just out of love he's telling me what to look out for."

A.J. doesn't yet know what his role will be in his first season at Tennessee, but he brings an intriguing skill set. He's comfortable playing on the perimeter, but he's also not afraid to play inside, whether it's posting up smaller defenders or banging with other forwards.

He's worked with the guards during some summer skill development workouts, and his immediate focus is adding strength to his frame, adjusting to the physical demands of college basketball and improving his perimeter shot.

"I think I'm going to be playing a little bit of the 4 -- stretch the floor and knock down shots, but still go down and guard a big," A.J. said. "If a big's guarding me, I can use my quickness. If a smaller guard's guarding me, I can post up.

"They haven't really decided what position I'm going to play, so I've just got to play whatever the team needs me to do."

And if A.J. needs some advice, he knows Antonio is only a phone call away.

"We talk every day," he said. "That's my best friend. Even if I'm not doing anything and I feel like talking to somebody, I just call him and he's always there to talk, he's always there to chat and talk about my day, his day, what happened, funny stuff.

"We've always been really close, even when I was growing up as a kid. Anywhere he went, I was trying to go, too. That's just how it's been."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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