Many games, the Charlotte Hornets’ bench is something to be tolerated, rather than applauded.
The pattern is well-established: The coach – whether it was Steve Clifford or his fill-in, Stephen Silas – would calculate how long he could trust the second unit before something falls apart. It could be five minutes, it could be eight. Sometimes it was all of two. Everything about the reserves has been fragile.
The Hornets need someone to lead a change in that. The people’s champion might be rookie Malik Monk. Or maybe Jeremy Lamb or Frank Kaminsky. A poll of the fan base probably wouldn’t draw much support for Treveon Graham.
Then Saturday happened. Graham played 28 minutes – more than starters Marvin Williams or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – and did so with savvy and execution. He finished with 14 points and made four of his five attempts from 3-point range.
Asked how the Hornets recovered from an 18-point deficit to beat the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday, Silas said Graham was the ignition to the comeback. That is no exaggeration.
Graham, a 6-5 forward from Virginia Commonwealth, went unselected in the 2015 NBA draft. He landed with the Hornets last season, playing occasionally in 27 games. Until he performed well in summer league in Orlando, it was no given he’d even make the 2017-18 roster.
Saturday, he was big, and that doesn’t surprise his teammates nearly as much as it might surprise fans. Williams says Graham is as professional as any player in the Hornets’ locker room. If you know Williams’ standard for professionalism, you recognize that as massive praise.
Graham will never make you swoon over his athleticism. But, according to Williams, he might be the strongest player on this roster other than center Dwight Howard. What Silas likes so much about Graham transcends basketball: That Graham is a great “listener.”
“He listens during the huddles. He listens during practice time, during shootaround time, when he’s over on the side,” Silas said. “That’s a special talent, because a lot of guys don’t have that same focus.”
Graham doesn’t have much choice but to be that way; he certainly can’t cruise at the NBA level on talent alone. I asked him postgame what keeps him so ready. He said it’s constantly being engaged on the bench; watching how power forward Williams and small forward Kidd-Gilchrist do their assignments, so he can mimic what succeeds at the positions he plays.
Graham missed the previous three games with back spasms. He did some sprints pregame in Milwaukee Friday to test if he could play. His back told him no, but he assured Silas he could be counted on for the rematch Saturday in Charlotte.
“Last night he was running up the sideline and I was like, ‘Are you ready?’” Silas recalled. “He was like, ‘No, I’m not ready yet, but I’ll be ready.’”
Graham demonstrated as much in the first half, hitting two corner 3s. He was the centerpiece of a rarity: The Hornets reserves outscored their Bucks counterparts 50 to 28 Saturday.
Williams said how Graham conducts himself can go a long way – as in a 10- or 12-year NBA career. Silas would agree.
“Super conscientious,” Silas concluded on Graham. “Doesn’t say much, just comes in and really pays attention.”
And stays ready. Always ready.