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Johnell Davis goes from Gary projects to Elite Eight with FAU
Johnell Davis’ journey to the Elite Eight began in the Dorie Miller projects of Gary, Indiana and now his FAU Owls are three wins away from a national title. (Credit: Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

Johnell Davis goes from Gary projects to Elite Eight with FAU

GARY, Ind. (BVM) – As the Florida Atlantic University Owls men’s basketball team has advanced further and further in the NCAA Tournament, they have been led by sophomore shooting guard Johnell Davis. Following each win, Davis has become more and more candid about why he’s been playing so well during March Madness.

“I’ve been proving this [expletive] since day one,” Davis said after the team’s Round of 32 win in  a now-viral clip. “I’m just trying to feed my family, that’s all.”

While in some cases this may seem like a clichéd reasoning for an athlete to give it their all, for Davis it is true. That’s because Davis grew up surrounded by dangers and negative influences.

As a child in Gary, Indiana, Davis’s journey began in the Dorie Miller housing projects, a notoriously bad neighborhood in an already dangerous city. According to, Gary’s per capita homicide rate in 2020 was about 78 per 100,000 residents, roughly 2 1/2 times more than Chicago which recorded about 28 homicides per 100,000 residents. By October of 2022, the city had already seen as many homicides as in 2021, at the time an increase of 33%.

“We came from the Dorie Miller projects, and a lot of good things don’t come out of Dorie Miller,” Jaunesia Davis, Johnell’s sister, told

These dangers were not lost on Davis or his family either.

“One of my friends I was hanging with got shot and killed,” Johnell said. “I used to play biddy (basketball) with him. We used to be really close, but when we got to high school, I stayed with basketball, and he stayed in the streets.”

Johnell decided to stick to basketball thanks to an earlier star at his high school, Eugene German. The former 21st Century Charter School star led the school to its first regional title, which Johnell got to witness, and realized he could also use his basketball skills to get out of Gary.

“I was watching Eugene play my eighth-grade year, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I might want to do this,’” Johnell said.

With a reinvigorated love for basketball, Johnell excelled on the court for the Cougars, leading them to four straight sectional championships and a regional title as a freshman. As a senior, Johnell averaged 25 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.4 steals and 3.2 assists and was named to the Indiana State all-star team.

“So, Nelly was determined to change,” Jaunesia continued. “He was determined to break generational curses. And that’s what he’s doing. That’s why we’re sending him to ball in paradise.”

This success ultimately led Johnell to commit to the Owls. After two seasons as a mostly bench player, Johnell broke out this season at FAU averaging 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in 35 games with 14 starts. This helped Johnell earn the Conference USA Sixth Man of the Year award.

Now, Johnell has become a household name as he has helped FAU win their first three NCAA Tournament games in program history as a nine-seed and Cinderella team. During one of these wins against Fairleigh Dickinson, Johnell made history as the only player to score more than 25 points, grab more than 10 rebounds, have more than five assists and have five or more steals with 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and five steals.

While Johnell is now far from his Gary home, he doesn’t forget where he comes from. After the Owls’ Elite Eight win over Tennessee, Johnell made sure to shout out his family for their support.

“I’m always thinking about my people and I love them,” Johnell said. “We’re going to be good  one day.”