Brooklyn Nets' Treveon Graham Takes on the Tough Defensive Assignments

Free agent pickup moved into starting lineup after being sidelined by hamstring injury

A week ago, Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson credited swingman Treveon Graham for his defense on Sacramento's sharp-shooting guard Buddy Hield. Two days later, he was referencing the way Graham muscled up against Orlando center Nikola Vucevic in the post.

About the only thing the 6-foot-4 Hield and the 7-foot, 260-pound Vucevic have in common is that Atkinson doesn't mind sending Graham after either one of them.

"Oh man, I told somebody yesterday he's Lawrence Taylor. He's LT for us man," said Atkinson. "That guy's like a middle linebacker. That's the ultimate. He probably doesn't even know who LT is. I joked, VCU is our rival at Richmond. Bitter rivals. I know it's not Knicks-Nets, but the fact that I'm starting a guy from VCU, that's the biggest compliment he can get. We're putting him on the best player. And his versatility, to defend 4s, 3s, 2s, 1s. He gets Vucevic in the post last night, stands him up. It's a great find by our organization. Just thrilled to have him."

For much of this season, that wasn't an option. Signed as a free agent known for strong 3-point shooting over two seasons in Charlotte, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Graham impressed Atkinson in the preseason with his toughness, defensive versatility and rebounding. He earned a spot in the rotation -- and then went down with a hamstring injury in the home opener on Oct. 19.

It was a blow for a player who had spent the last three seasons climbing the professional ladder and looked to have made another breakthrough. Undrafted out of VCU, Graham spent a year in the G League, won a roster spot in Charlotte with limited playing time, then earned a role in the Hornets' rotation.

But three months later, Graham is Brooklyn's improbable, unorthodox starter at the forward position described as the 4 spot.

"Rollercoaster, ups and downs," said Graham. "My whole career's just been always staying ready for whatever's thrown at me. Getting injured second game of the season, out two-and-a-half, three months, with the staff here they let me know that it's going to be a long process but I would come back better than I was when I got hurt, and I did. Now it's just being prepared for whatever; starting or coming off the bench and helping the team that way."

Graham ended up missing 37 games, but one of the things that kept him upbeat and motivated throughout that time was watching his teammates turn the season around, beginning with a seven-game winning streak in December. They had won 10 of 13 when Graham returned on the road at Memphis on Jan. 4.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was out with an adductor strain when Graham returned, and four games later, Jared Dudley injured his hamstring. When the Nets went to Toronto on Jan. 11, Graham was in the starting lineup. He's started Brooklyn's last seven games, though he's listed as questionable on the injury report for Monday night's game at Boston.

For a team that tends to play small at the 4 -- Hollis-Jefferson is 6-7 and Dudley is 6-6 -- Graham pushes the envelope further. But earlier this season, Dudley made the prescient point that, "your position is who you can guard." And for the versatile Graham, that opens up possibilities.

Against Sacramento last week, the Nets were down 60-55 at halftime with Hield having scored 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting. The Nets tasked Graham with slowing down Hield in the second half and he went scoreless on four field-goal attempts as the Nets held the Kings to 33 points in the half and nine in the fourth quarter.

"TG, he’s a guy, you give him an assignment he’s going to do it to a T," said Atkinson. "Then his physical abilities, right? His strength, his toughness to get through screens, he’s kind of the perfect candidate to carry out those instructions and he did a fantastic job.”

"I'm going to do whatever it takes to stop him because stopping him helped us pull out that game," said Graham. "If he comes out and plays like he did in the first half, it might be a whole different ballgame. So my mindset was, that's what the team needed for me to do. They didn't need me to score that particular game. They needed me to try to stop him best way I could, so I put all my energy towards it."

In the first three weeks back, Graham's defense has been ahead of his offense. With other players coming back from injuries this season, such as Hollis-Jefferson and DeMarre Carroll, Atkinson has stressed that it takes time to get in rhythm. The coaching staff even gave that message to Graham before he returned.

His offensive highlight in these past three weeks was Brooklyn's 145-142 win in Houston, when the Nets needed every contribution they could get in coming back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter and seven in overtime.

With the Nets trailing 142-135 in OT, Graham hit a 3-pointer to get them going again. After Jarrett Allen scored but missed a free throw, it was Graham with the offensive rebound to set up Spencer Dinwiddie's three-point play for the lead.

He finished with 21 points and five rebounds, shooting 7-for-9 overall and 3-for-4 from 3-point range.

"Every game I go in just trying to see what I can do to help the team," said Graham. "I was able to make my shots that game. I was off the first couple games back. To be able to, one, do the little things I normally do but offensively be able to knock down my shots and help the team get a great win, it's real satisfying to go through the game like that, to get that confidence back. Knowing that you can have a game like that just helps you move forward throughout the season."

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