Season Recap: Devonte’ Graham Explodes for NBA MIP-Caliber Campaign

by Sam Perley

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There’s having a breakout year and then there’s doing what Devonte’ Graham pulled off in his second go-around in the NBA after serving as the Hornets’ third-string point guard and a frequent G League assignee throughout his rookie season.

A 23-point performance on 6-of-7 shooting from distance off the bench by Graham in the team’s Opening Night home win over Chicago certainly raised some eyebrows right off the bat. After notching another 24 points and six threes two days later against Minnesota, the excitement about Graham’s pending upward trajectory was here to stay.

Two weeks later, he dropped a then career-high 35 points and six assists in a home win over Indiana, setting a new single-game franchise record for scoring by a bench player. It took just 10 total games for Head Coach James Borrego to move Graham – who was averaging 18 points and over seven assists at the time – into the starting lineup for good.

“Devonte’ was a very pleasant surprise,” said Hornets General Manager and President of Basketball Operations Mitch Kupchak. “Obviously, we liked him and we thought he could be a good NBA player. Having said that, that’s a good jump for a player. Maybe I would have said he’d average 10-12 points [at the start of the year], a manageable number of assists and shooting percentage and so on. So, that was a pleasant surprise.”

The now 25-year-old assumed a large amount of the scoring load that was vacated with last summer’s departure of Kemba Walker. Graham’s overall game is largely predicted on his elite off-the-bounce and catch-and-shoot marksmanship, facilitating skillset and on-court leadership.

Amongst Graham’s many noteworthy performances this year included a career-high 15 assists in a win over Detroit on Nov. 27, a 33-point game against Golden State on Dec. 4 when he tied a franchise record with 10 three-pointers, a career-high 40 points at Brooklyn on Dec. 11 and a 30-point showing at Miami on March 11, which helped spark a 20-point comeback victory.

Surely though, it was a go-ahead, game-winning three-pointer against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 16 that became Graham’s signature play of the season. The spotlight never got too bright for the young guard at any point as he regularly took and often made many big shots in key moments when his team needed them the most.

Graham finished the season averaging just over 18 points in 63 appearances, ranking eighth in the NBA in assists (7.5), fifth in total three-point field goals (218) and first in increased scoring (13.5 PPG). During clutch-time situations (score is within five points with five-or-fewer minutes remaining), the Kansas product ranked eighth in scoring (3.1 PPG; mini. 25 GP), tied for second in total threes (15) and sixth in three-point percentage (40.5 percent; mini. 25 attempts).

“I think it’s probably the biggest surprise of the season – just the leap he made,” said Borrego. “We knew he was going to be better. We knew he had the potential and ability. He worked extremely hard last summer, but that’s the beauty in this business. You never know who’s going to make the jump. Devonte’ is one of those guys who made a significant jump. Not just for the team, but league wide.”

On top of being selected for both the Rising Stars Challenge and 3-Point Contest at All-Star Weekend in Chicago back in February, Graham is firmly in the conversation for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. And although his numbers rose substantially as a byproduct of more deserved playing time, this honor is about more than just getting increased minutes.

“It’s hard in this league to be a consistent performer,” said Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse, who provided insight on the award after coaching last year’s winner Pascal Siakam. “To go from an off-the-bench or rotational guy to a primetime guy every night and to consistency do it, it’s a really big leap. It’s maybe a bigger leap than people think it is.”

“I don’t really focus on individual accolades and stuff like that – I always try to put the team first,” Graham said. “Control what you can control and that’s my play and my work ethic. That’s what I try to do. Given the opportunity that I had this year without Kemba and Tony [Parker], I just tried to make the most of it. Thankfully, I stayed healthy and my teammates being who they are – helping me and pushing me – got me in that conversation.”

One of Graham’s primary focuses this offseason will be improving his mid-range and floater percentages, something that will also help both his three-point shooting and finishing at the rim. Uncertainty is a central theme in the league right now, but if Graham can make another jump even close to what he did this season, the Hornets future looks extremely promising.

“He’s put himself in this position,” stated Borrego. “It was a tremendous surprise, and where he goes from here, none of us know. What I do know is he’s a pillar for us. He’s a core guy and he’s going to take a step this summer. I believe he will. He’s already working hard – extremely hard – in the weight room, on the court. He’s going to come back better, smarter and I couldn’t be prouder of his growth and development this season.”

“I feel like we’ve got good pieces, young talented pieces that work hard,” Graham added. “It’s up to us. Everybody’s got to buy in, even with everything that’s going on. We can’t just take these next five, six months off. We have to start working towards what we want our future to be. If we want to be a winning organization, it’s going to start with the pieces that we already have. A big part of it is on us and who we have already to set that foundation.”

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