No draft goes according to plan, and the 2021 WNBA Draft was no different for rookie small forward Rennia Davis and Cheryl Reeve, head coach and GM of the Minnesota Lynx. Davis had been projected as a top-5 pick in nearly every mock draft leading up to the night of April 15. Reeve and her war room didn’t plan for her, if only because they didn’t fathom the former Tennessee Volunteers standout sticking around long enough for Minnesota to take her with the ninth overall pick. But as luck would have it, Davis slipped toward the end of the first round and Minnesota got the player it considered the best on the board.
Davis believes in things happening for a reason. She believed it when she heard her name called, which caused her to jump up from the couch alongside her mom, the both of them screaming, and she believes it now, in the long process of recovery from a sudden stress fracture in her left foot that has sidelined her indefinitely.
“I’m still trying to understand. I don’t really understand, but I feel like I try to understand,” Davis says with certainty over the phone from the Lynx’s practice facility. “We don’t know why this happened, but I know it happened for a reason.”
Three days after the mid-April draft, Davis relocated to Minnesota. It was there, during training camp, that she realized the extent of her injury, finding that it hurt her “more and more” to walk. She soon realized she was going to need surgery.
“I’ll basically be reteaching myself how to walk here for the next month,” Davis says. “Regaining strength over in that foot. My leg’s extremely skinny. I’m not the biggest anyways, but it’s extremely small in this cast. So it’s going to be a process.”
Injuries are always an unfortunate possibility for professional athletes, but the recovery process is often deceptively invisible to people on the outside. The event of the injury itself flows into a person’s rehabilitation, well out of the spotlight, so that their return to play can seem linear, the timeline eventually condensing altogether. The real process is absolutely nothing like that, especially in cases like Davis, whose timeline for recovery extends with each new step.
“I knew I would have to be out for a little bit, about the third day of training camp. I knew that. But I did not know I would be out the whole season,” Davis says. “Once I found that out, that was an even bigger blow, because you know, you’re prepared for the season and then, okay, cool, I can’t play for a minute. So I’m preparing to not play for a minute and then, okay, cool, now I’m preparing to not play for a whole season.”
Rather than looking at it as the loss of her inaugural season, Davis has stayed steady in the mental and emotional approach to her recovery, taking it just as slow as the physical part. She keeps herself grounded in her faith as well as the people around her, making sure they’re as level headed as she is.
“It helps being on a team full of vets because most of them have been through this process. Obviously not all of them have had a stress fracture, but something that set them down for a minute,” Davis says. “This is my first time having to be without basketball for an extended period of time. So just being around this group, it just helps.
“If I’m like, I’m not going, because I’ve become a hassle at this point, they’re like ‘No, you’re going, you’re going. It’s cool, it’s good. You’re going,'” she continues. “Sometimes the scooter and the crutches can become a hassle for me, so I don’t want to be a hassle for other people. But they’ve been very adamant about making sure I’m still included. That’s been helping me mentally too, that I’m on a team with people that want me around. That’s huge. And they haven’t played with me yet, so they want me around for more than just basketball reasons, so, that feels good to me.”
If you’ve done yourself a favor and watched Davis’s film from her time at Tennessee, you’ll understand quickly through the fluid, intuitive way that she plays that basketball is something that centers her, and to be without it as a daily rhythm is a struggle. She says she’s always been “naturally intuitive,” both on and off the floor.
She shifts between being a rebounding wraith, moving with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quickness out to the wings or cutting under the basket. It seems as if she’s magnetically pulled to wherever the ball is without hands to claim it, and a crafty catch-and-shoot player, picking her spots with timing that feels hardwired.
Davis is demure when it comes to talking about the explosiveness of her game, crediting athleticism and a propensity to outwork other players for being why she’s able to get there and back. She especially enjoys picking second chance points before her opponents realize what happened.
”I pride myself in rebounding in general, but offensive rebounds, I feel like I have an advantage, especially with a lot of guards because I’m 6’2, and in transition, like, people get tired,” Davis laughs. “You just take off and that’s two easy points. I used to only be able to know how shoot, which is weird, because my percentages would probably make you think different, but I could only really shoot at one point. Now, it’s just been great to see myself grow into a basketball player and not just stand out catch and shoot player, or somebody that just jumped over people — ‘cause I can.”
Davis left Tennessee as one of just four Lady Vols players to wind up top-10 in points and rebounds per game (15.4 and eight, respectively) as well as career points and rebounds (1,815 and 947, respectively). The other three: WNBA legends Candace Parker, Tamika Catchings, and Chamique Holdsclaw. Her four-year college career with the team was marked by upsets, with an abrupt coaching change in her second year that saw some of her teammates transfer out of the program. She also signed on to play for Tennessee anticipating that she’d have a year under Diamond DeShields to learn from, but DeShield ended up going overseas, thrusting Davis into a much larger role than expected from the start.
“So as a freshman I had to get in, play, compete, produce, be a big part of the team,” Davis says.
But Davis credits the pressure and upsets as tools that became essential in winnowing her focus in on what she really wanted.
“Obviously those coaches, in my first two years, they were the coaches that recruited me. And I definitely appreciate them for getting me to Tennessee, but being at Tennessee I realized that’s more so where I wanted to be,” she recalls. “And that might sound, well, I don’t know how it sounds, but it’s the truth. I was loyal to the university, the school. I liked the changes that I was being forced into outside of basketball.”
More than a place where she developed her game, Davis credits Tennessee as a place where she grew, quickly, as a person. She entered college with an Associate of Arts degree from Florida State College, skipping ahead of freshman classes — “I was in classes with all juniors and seniors and I was so lost,” she recalls. ” It was just a mess, but even through the mess, I was forced to grow.”
Though Davis considers herself an introvert, it’s clear through her easy and direct voice that she’s faced the kind of accelerated growth that forces a person to reconcile their natural comfort level with the understanding that challenges, setbacks, and difficult stretches can have a chrysalis effect, pushing them several evolutions ahead of where they otherwise might be. While her priority remains getting back on the floor, Davis has also had time to reflect and foster other goals — some short term and others in the future — once she’s fulfilled her basketball career.
Davis has been working diligently with her agency to create a logo for her brand, which she’d like to expand into fashion and wants to be as instantly visually impactful and recognizable as the Jumpman. She has a keen interest in branching out into the media space, where more and more athletes are building their own direct to audience platforms, either with a podcast or occasional livestream. She admits the production side of things could be “a mess,” but is willing to learn.
Her long term dreams — opening a restaurant and traveling — are tied together. Davis calls her restaurant her “biggest thing,” something she’s reached out to Black entrepreneurs for help with in planning and, eventually, executing. But before that, she’d like to see more of the world.
“It might sound weird because yes, as a basketball player, I’ve been traveling pretty much my whole life, but I want to travel without basketball. I want to travel and not have to worry about getting up the next morning for a game or practice,” she says. “Sometimes you just want to just be.”
The tricky thing with plans that don’t go as anticipated is working up the courage to make more. For Davis, the setback she suffered on the heels of one of her most hopeful moments only means her future stands to be that much brighter. As for finding a reason why that happened, the way that her future taking shape so broadly without restraint feels like reason enough.