Confident Devonte' Graham making most of his opportunity
Overlooked and overshadowed, Hornets' combo guard has been one of the NBA's biggest surprises so far this season
No formula exists for individual success in the NBA, which is to say, no single, simple equation that can carry an eager young player from Point A dreamer to Point B pro (or even more rare, Point C star).
If you tried to reduce Devonte’ Graham’s path from just last season to this in the Charlotte Hornets’ backcourt, you might come up with something like:
Opportunity + confidence = Graham in 2019-20.
But it would be sorely lacking, because if you backed up to the start of this decade and factored in every obstacle, hurdle and speed bump faced by Graham since his junior year in high school, the math quickly would get a lot more complex. As in:
Opportunity + (growth spurt x Walker/Parker mentoring)² – 4(G League + college snafu/child Mom-no Dad) ÷ confidence = Graham now and presumably into his NBA future.
The Hornets combo guard has been one of the surprise stories through the first quarter of this season. His early work off Charlotte’s bench put him in the hopper of potential candidates for Kia Sixth Man of the Year consideration, until his move into the starting lineup shifted Graham to the list of possible Kia Most Improved Player selections. Just Wednesday, he tied the Hornets franchise record with 10 3-pointers against the Warriors.
Not bad for a guy who, until a few months ago, might have been best known for the NBA’s most extraneous apostrophe. Graham is one of those overnight successes who has been years in the making. In his case, approximately nine.
“He’s got a confidence about him, and I think that comes when people may not believe in you,” Charlotte coach James Borrego told NBA.com over the weekend. “They may not think you’re the guy. You’re overlooked, overshadowed. You have to have an inner confidence that allows you to keep pushing forward.
“I think that’s been his journey. I appreciate that about him, because I’ve walked a similar journey along the way. You have to build from within — I refer to it as his swagger. ‘I am good enough.’ His run in Kansas was a major part of it, a four-year player at a major conference and doing well there. But I don’t think much of the NBA world expected this.”
“This” includes Graham’s production that has eased, on some nights anyway, the loss of both Kemba Walker and Tony Parker from last season’s team: 18.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 7.7 assists, while hitting 39.6% of his 3-pointers.
It includes the extra 13.3 points by which Graham’s scoring average has soared compared to 2018-19 (4.7), when he logged 46 games for Charlotte but kept a bag packed for his back-and-forths to G League Greensboro. He tops the NBA so far in scoring bumps, ahead of Dallas’ Luka Doncic (plus-9.5), Phoenix’s Aron Baynes (9.1), teammate Terry Rozier (8.3) and last season’s Most Improved winner, Pascal Siakam (8.2).
Some of Graham’s increased impact is due to his boost in playing time — Graham already has played more minutes (737) for the Hornets than he did all of last season (676) — but not all of it. Per 36, he is at 19.4 points compared to 11.6.
“I definitely didn’t expect to have this big of a start, this big of a role,” Graham said. “But sometimes you’ve got to live in the moment and accept it, and keep playing and being aggressive.
“I keep saying that it’s opportunity and confidence. Playing time, with putting in the work this summer, my teammates and coaches have a lot of confidence in me. And I do in myself, just coming out and being aggressive.”
He’s got a confidence about him, and I think that comes when people may not believe in you.”
Hornets coach James Borrego on Graham
Graham’s bosses and peers in Charlotte saw his approach last season, after he arrived as a second-round pick (34th overall) from Kansas via a Draft-night trade with Atlanta. They knew he would “sponge” on Walker and Parker, learning ways to walk the point guard’s line between creating for teammates and asserting one’s own offense. The way Graham blossomed after stints with the G League Swarm was apparent, too.
“He really embraced the assignment he had to learn under Tony and Kemba — I think you see parts of their game in Devonte’ this season,” Borrego said. “But there came a point where he realized, I want to make a mark on this team, on this league. When we sent him to Greensboro, that was really his team to shine and grow. He came back, that’s when I saw the spark of ‘I’m ready, I’m good enough.’”
The spark has been there for a while, long before the Hornets saw it. It was there when Graham was a 5-foot-6 junior at Broughton High in Raleigh, a player whose role for the Garner Road AAU team had been to deliver the basketball to allegedly more promising prospects. They were the ones who would be courted by the glamour schools from the power conferences, or so it seemed.
Which was why Graham, after a lone visit to Appalachian State University 190 miles to the West in Boone, N.C., signed the first letter-of-intent anyone offered.
It was a decision that soon enough became a problem, but now, in hindsight, might be worthy of some credit in Graham’s trajectory.
It was, for instance, his first real taste of security. His mother, Dewanna King, was only 14 years old when Graham was born. Her mother Doris had her hands full raising a young woman while that young woman raised her son, with extended family — cousins, a nephew with whom they lived for a spell — all coming through.
So Appalachian State and then-coach Jason Capel stepping up for Graham? No way the teenager could say no to that.
Trouble was, by his senior year at Broughton, Graham had grown to 6-foot (on the way to his current 6-foot-2). His game and confidence flourished too, such that other, bigger programs now were interested. But Capel, sensitive to being elbowed aside by talent poachers, refused to release Graham from his commitment.
“Maybe they had seen something other coaches hadn’t seen,” Graham said, “so maybe they thought they had a diamond in the rough. … People do things to make them better, and sometimes they might hurt somebody else.”
Graham’s game by then was worthy of a greater stage. The hardball being played over his immediate future trickled to him, too. Choking off his opportunities made Graham, King and some trusted advisers seek out his own, which they found in Brewster Academy, a prep school in Wolfeboro, N.H., familiar to major college coaches.
Appalachian State’s insistence made Graham’s choice for him. “Right,” he said. “After I said I didn’t want to go and they wanted to force me to go. That made me definitely not want to go. I just wanted to re-open my recruitment process.”
Graham averaged 17 points at Brewster and with teammate Donovan Mitchell — yes, that Donovan Mitchell, now of the Utah Jazz — they led the school to the 2014 national prep championship. But it wasn’t until April, when Capel was fired at Appalachian State and replaced by coach Jim Fox that the Mountaineers released Graham from his letter of intent.
I keep saying that it’s opportunity and confidence
“It was tough, not being able to talk to college coaches,” Graham told NBA.com. “I was out there in New Hampshire in the middle of nowhere, which was a culture shock to me because I had never been out of North Carolina other than AAU. So being away from home and my Mom, some days it was rough.”
Finally free, Graham spoke with and narrowed his choices to Virginia, North Carolina State and Kansas. The first didn’t wow him, the second seemed too close to home and the third, well, Kansas coach Bill Self impressed the player and his mother immediately. The Jayhawks had had a roster defection and were in need of a point guard, so the timing was ideal.
The fit was, too. Graham teamed in the backcourt with sophomore Frank Mason III (now a two-way player for Milwaukee) and improved each year. As a senior, he averaged 17.3 ppg and 7.2 apg, helping the Jayhawks to the Final Four. In his four years, they went 122-27. Graham already was 23 when he reached the 2018 Draft, but whatever stigma he carried from age or spending four years in college was outweighed by the gains in his game and life. Even Capel has cheered him on from afar, in comments via reporters.
Said Graham: “It [the Appalachian State snag] ended up being maybe the best thing that happened to me. Being held out, going to Brewster, getting better, then ultimately going to Kansas, I feel like that whole situation made me better as a player, as a person.”
Graham no longer is a secret or surprise around the league. He gets game-planned for now, often drawing opponents’ best defenders and occasional help. He also has been serving as a nightly reminder of the divergent paths so many players follow, the varied equations, to reach the NBA.
Consider Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in 2014 out of Kansas who missed Graham’s arrival on campus by a few months. Wiggins played just one season for the Jayhawks, lusted after by NBA scouts in 2013-14 just like he’d been by college recruiters as a top prospect out of Canada, born to former pro Mitchell Wiggins.
Wiggins was traded for All-Star Kevin Love before he’d ever played a game and spent his first five seasons being scrutinized under the bright lights, earning a label as a low-motor finesse guy. Only this season have things seemed to fully click for Wiggins, his resolve finally catching up to his skills (24.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists) for a Minnesota team flirting with .500.
Graham, by contrast, had been a relative afterthought. Until seizing opportunities with the Hornets again and again – a 35-point game against Indiana, 9-for-16 3-point shooting vs. the Knicks, a 16-point, 15-assist game against Detroit – and putting himself in national conversations (tied for second in made 3-pointers with 72).
Graham was born on Feb. 22, 1995. Wiggins, on Feb. 23, 1995. Their journeys hardly could be more different.
“That’s the beauty in our league,” Borrego said. “You never know how or when guys are going to get it. Everybody develops at a different rate. Sometimes it’s the environment around you. Sometimes it’s a coach, a player, a system that allows you to get it. But that’s the beauty. You stick with it, you keep developing, you keep going.”
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