Amid Significant Role Change and Injuries, Devonte’ Graham Still Makes Major Impact

by Sam Perley

Despite taking on a far less ball-dominant role than he did during his breakout year in 2019-20, Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham proved to be not only the team’s most impactful player on the court this season, but from an analytical standpoint, one of the NBA’s top performers as well.

Across 55 appearances this season – 44 of which were starts – Graham clocked in averages of 14.8 points on 37.7% shooting, 2.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 0.9 steals, while shooting career highs from both three-point range (37.5%) and the free-throw line (84.2%). The additions of both Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball forced Graham off the ball a bit more initially and although it was an adjustment at first, the now 26-year-old adopted relatively quickly.

“At the end of the day, everybody has a role and you just have to go out, maximize it and bring what you bring to the table,” he said during exit interviews. “Whatever role it is that I have to play, I can play that role. People who know me know that I’m not a big ego guy, that I have to be starting or this and that. I feel like I’m going to be on the court playing meaningful minutes regardless and helping the team. I don’t let my ego or pride get in the way. It’s all about winning.”

He added, “From the outside world, everyone was saying we weren’t going to do this, or do that. Like I always said, it’s all about what’s inside these walls. We weren’t worried about any of that and still aren’t. I feel like we had a solid season. There’s things we have to get better at, but obviously being healthy would have helped all of that.”

As he mentions, another significant obstacle Graham and other players were forced to endure this season was an all-too-often visit from the pesky injury bug. He averaged 17.0 points and 5.4 assists over 13 starts from Jan. 11 to Feb 5 before sitting out all but two of the team’s next 12 games because of a lingering knee issue, an ailment that also forced him to the sidelines again for five contests in early May.

Obviously, there were ups and downs dealing with injuries,” Graham stated. “For the most part, there was a lot of growth from everybody top to bottom. We played hard, had great flashes, great games and defensively, we had flashes. We just have to figure out how to put it all together. It was fun to be around everybody, [but] the way the season ended, it just wasn’t the result [we wanted].”

Adversity aside, there was little doubt that the Hornets were at their best when Graham was on the floor, as evidenced by his team-leading 2.1 net rating this season. He also finished 15th amongst all NBA players in real plus-minus (3.88), an ESPN-generated metric that estimates “on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possession, [while taking] into account teammates, opponents and additional factors.”

And although Graham will be hitting restricted free agency this summer – meaning the Hornets reserve the right to match any offer sheet he receives on the open market – the talented guard hadn’t yet thought too far ahead about the process back in May. “I really haven’t sat down and wrapped my mind around it to be honest with [the season ending] so fast and abruptly. We just have to figure out if I’m going to be here or whatever the case may be. I’m not too sure and haven’t thought too much about it.”

One major focus for Graham regardless of whatever NBA jersey he’s donning next season will be on the physical front and making sure he’s doing everything he can to stay healthy for a full 82-game schedule.

“I think that’s one of the biggest, most underrated things,” he said. “You can do all the skill work you want to, but if you’re not healthy, you can’t produce. Whether it’s little things like working on my feet, strengthening my toes so that my feet are stronger and taking less pressure off my knees and hips – all that stuff people don’t really think about, I need to focus on a lot more.”

For now, though, and until free agency is decided, it’s back to work for Graham as he looks to take another step forward as a versatile and play-making two-way guard. “Last summer, we were playing against each other, playing one-on-one, trying to get in the gym as much as possible through COVID. Whether we take trips and go work out in Miami as a team, we’re going to find ways to get in the gym because that’s just all we know and all we do. I’m not really too worried about us putting the work in because that’s all we really know.”

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