December 27, 2023

Blazing a Trail from the Chicago Public League, Davis Emerging as a Key Reserve for PU Men’s Hoops

GOOD DAY: Princeton University men’s basketball player Dalen Davis dribbles upcourt in recent action. Last Friday, freshman guard Davis scored 10 points to help Princeton defeat Division III Delaware Valley 84-53. The Tigers, now 11-1, play at Delaware on December 30. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Dalen Davis is a unicorn for the Princeton University men’s basketball team.

The first product from the Chicago Public League to play for an Ivy League program, Davis has made an early impact as a trailblazer. Davis played a team-high 31 minutes and scored 10 points as Princeton improved to 11-1 with an 84-53 win over Division III Delaware Valley on Friday, his latest step in adjusting to school and college basketball.

“I’m just learning from older guys, from the starters,” said Davis. “They’ve been there – Sweet 16 run last year – so it’s been a blessing to learn from them and all the upperclassmen, even the sophomores too. Time management is probably the best thing. It’s Princeton, just managing both at the same time. And also health. I’ve been sick a lot and dealing with a lot of health issues. So time management all around.”

Davis has come on strong in December. He was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Week after scoring 11 points against Drexel on December 5 in an 81-70 win and tallying a career-high 13 points against St. Joseph’s five days later in the Tigers’ lone loss of the season, a 74-70 setback. Then he’s logged 23 and 31 minutes in Princeton wins over Division III Bryn Athyn (92-40 on December 13) and Delaware Valley.

“He’s improving on understanding what it takes for the level of play,” said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson. “We’re asking him to keep going because he has these different gears. He’s still acclimating to the speed that’s necessary. Certainly it’s not anything he’s not capable of. When he has urgency, he’s terrific.”

Davis made headlines even before he arrived on campus with his decision to commit to the Tigers. He also held offers from Illinois, Northwestern, Kansas, South Carolina, and Stanford according to, but found everything that he wanted in Princeton and a new path for a Chicago Public League player. He has embraced being the first from the league to take this road.

“Speaking from experience, this is a tough transition coming from being an inner-city kid,” said Davis. “I don’t know if it’s the way Ivy League recruits, but they’re starting to get more in the city which I like. There are a couple 2024s being recruited by Ivies in the city, same school district, so it’s nice to be trailblazing for others to come.”

Davis wasn’t the intended target for Brett MacConnell at an Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) summer session, but the Princeton assistant reached out to Davis after he had played well. They struck up a relationship and Davis was intrigued by the chance to go to Princeton. A four-year starter at Whitney M. Young, Davis wasn’t fazed by the challenges. He grew up with four brothers.

“It made you tough,” said Davis. “I had three older brothers. I was playing against them all the time in the house, outside, inside. Anything, we were competitive with games. There was a lot of crying and a lot of fights, brotherly love. I think my dad and mom were very supportive along the way as well and I had other people around. I had a good support system and some tough brothers.”

Princeton was thrilled to land the high-level talent. And the Tigers like having a different background on their team. Davis is one of a handful of public-school products for the Tigers, but the first from Chicago.

“I think it says so much about Dalen and his family,” said Henderson. “We’re always looking for the very best student-athletes we can find, and Dalen is right up there with everybody that we’ve ever had. I’m so excited that he sees himself as a person who can be an example to others. And we see him that way too. I just love it. We’re hoping to get more kids just like him.”

Standing at 6’0, Davis is the shortest player on the Princeton roster, but he has shown an ability to score in bunches. He was 3-for-3 from 3-point range against St. Joseph’s. As he continues to develop and adjust, he could earn more minutes for the Tigers as they get into the Ivy League season.

“Trust on the defensive end and cutting,” said Henderson of Davis. “He’s such a capable scorer. But we feel like doing the things that help his teammates like cutting or setting screens or a great start to the offense, those will help him. The more he does that, the more it’ll help him is what we feel.”

Princeton had plenty of help with a balanced effort against Delaware Valley. The game was tight early with the Tigers holding a narrow 10-8 lead before a Davis 3-pointer opened up some breathing room. Three-pointers from Xaivian Lee off an offensive rebound from Jack Scott and a Blake Peters’ 3 opened the gap to 21-10. Princeton took off from there as part of a 26-8 run, going on to build a 45-21 halftime bulge.

“The first group went back in there and was able to get about a 10-15 point lead,” said Henderson. “I know it wasn’t pretty, but we needed to get out the cobwebs. It took a little longer and it wasn’t perfect tonight, but we needed to play that game so badly. It’s really a very condensed intense week. We barely saw some of the guys. We were shaking things loose.”

Like its win over Bryn Athyn, the game was a chance to spotlight the bench depth for Princeton. Darius Gakwasi led all Princeton players with 18 points, Vernon Collins scored 11 points and Jacob Huggins and Davis had 10 points apiece.

“They give guys six through 15 good experience,” said Gakwasi of the last two games. “The first five guys go out and set a tone, and it’s our job to go and follow. When you have those tight games in the season, everybody doesn’t get a chance. So having these games where everybody can get experience, get confidence that’s really important.”

Gakwasi’s big game was a feel-good moment. The junior had two back surgeries last year and missed the season. He has worked his way back and hit four 3-pointers Friday.

“Once I got momentum and I got healthy, things have been smooth sailing,” said Gakwasi. “It’s nice to be playing with my friends again. That’s really what it feels like.”

The Tigers have sorted out their roles with only one non-conference game left before they open Ivy play. Princeton will be at Delaware (8-4) on December 30. The Tigers lost last year’s matchup with the Blue Hens 76-69.

“They’re good,” said Henderson. “They got us last year. They’re well coached with Martin Ingelsby. They’re tough and physical. They’ll present a lot of difficulties in guarding them. It’s a cool trip in the sense it’s not that far away. I like the game a lot.”

Princeton is looking to stay on a roll and gain more momentum as it heads into conference play. The Tigers feel good about the way that they are playing entering January.

“We know what we are,” said Henderson. “We know what we need to work on. We have a really tough Delaware game on the road before we open up with league so we have one more opportunity here to get sharper. I think the team is ready to grow and do more things than the place they’re in now.”

For new players like Davis, the first two months have been about adjusting and finding their role. After starting every year of high school, Davis is coming off the bench for Princeton. He has played anywhere from four minutes to 31 while averaging 5.0 points per game.

“It’s a team game,” said Davis. “Whatever coach feels he needs is what he needs. When I come, whatever minutes I have I do my best. I come from a winning program in high school as well, so whatever the team needed there I did what I had to do to win.”

Davis is part of a bench that will be needed. Princeton got a big scare with 55 seconds left in the first half against Delaware Valley when Jackson Hicke crashed to the floor after a high-flying block. Hicke was taken to the hospital but no further details were available immediately after the game. Princeton, too, still hopes to get back sophomore Deven Austin, who was in last year’s rotation before a serious knee injury.

“With Deven, it’s really week by week,” said Henderson. “At this point it’s unlikely any time soon.”

Princeton utilized a pair of games against Division III teams to sharpen and gain more experience before their holiday break. They will return with focus to push ahead and play even better as they begin the final 15 games of the regular season. Though it has been a fast start, Princeton continues to strive to improve each game.

“Details,” said Davis. “We lost to St. Joe’s by a couple points. That obviously comes down to details, one play, two plays here and there. Also what D.J. said, it’s finals week so just having fun has been a main thing for us. And getting this game in before we leave and enjoy the holidays. You get the rust off before we leave so we’re not super rusty as we come back locked in for the 27th.”

Davis has been gaining confidence with every week. His Ivy Rookie of the Week performances were an example of what gets Princeton so excited to have the trailblazer. Davis is hoping he can continue to contribute even more heavily in the next four months.

“For the past two months just doing what I do,” said Davis. “Just maintain the same routines. Obviously everybody has their time, and I just had my moment. It’s not the end of the season. We still have conference play coming up so 14 more games in conference and the Ivy tournament I’m looking forward to now.”