Last July, it was no given Treveon Graham would make the Charlotte Hornets. This July, it will be no given the Hornets retain him.
That’s how impressively Graham has played this season, and there might be no better example than what he did in the second half of Sunday’s 115-110 road victory over the Phoenix Suns.
Frank Kaminsky, the fill-in starter at power forward with Marvin Williams injured, was awful; so bad in shooting 1-of-7 from the field that he played only 4 1/2 minutes of the second half. Hornets coach Steve Clifford turned instead to Graham, who is anything but the ideal size for an NBA power forward at 6-5.
But Graham is smart and tough, resourceful and versatile. At Virginia Commonwealth, coach Shaka Smart used Graham at every position except center. He bodied up on various Suns forwards and prevailed. Then, with about a minute left and the Hornets clinging to a five-point lead, Graham swished a 26-foot 3-pointer that secured this victory.
Graham was far from a lock to make the NBA. He went unselected in the 2015 draft. He is just a fair athlete by NBA standards. He went to the G-League to refine his skills, and managed to make the Hornets’ roster last season, playing bits and pieces of 27 games.
He showed up at Orlando summer league under contract to the Hornets, but with no guaranteed money. So he excelled in Orlando to such a degree Clifford’s faith in him grew, despite an abundance of other wing players with guaranteed salaries.
Now he’s a keeper, to such a degree a Hornets team with salary-cap troubles could find itself outbid when Graham becomes a free agent in July.
Graham doesn’t grade out great in the measurables. But he’s reliable in ways that transcend how tall he stands or how fast he runs.
“He’s going to play mistake-free,” Clifford said. “When you give him an open shot, there’s a great chance he’s going to knock it down. He doesn’t take bad shots. He plays in a way that his teammates trust him. He’s playing (power forward and small forward) and he’s tough as nails.”
Williams has mentored Graham throughout his time as a Hornet. The first word Williams thinks of when you ask him about Graham is “professional.”
“Guys have been talking about Tre all seasons long, and rightfully so,” said Williams, out with a left ankle sprain. “You can’t say enough about him as a teammate and as a person. He’s worked a long time to get to this point, and he’s proven he belongs in the NBA.
“He doesn’t know how much he’s going to play, or where he’s going to play. He could be the 2, the 3 or the 4,” Williams described, using basketball shorthand for shooting guard, small forward and power forward. “He’s always ready, and that’s the most important thing about him.”
As Clifford put it, Graham is focused regardless of whether he plays three minutes or 30 minutes in any given game. Adapting to that circumstance isn’t easy. Professional athletes typically perform better based on the certainty of their role game-to-game. That’s not possible for Graham right now, and he’s OK with that.
“You want to always pick up the team. Whatever you’re asked to do, you’ve got to be locked in, whether it’s defensive schemes or switching (assignments) or whatever,” Graham said.
It helped, Graham now realizes, that Smart asked him to fill so many roles at VCU.
“A lot,” Graham said of the carryover. “Coach Smart wanted me to know all the other positions. Now I know how to adapt.”
When Hornets associate head coach Stephen Silas was filling in for Clifford on medical leave, Silas said Graham is a great listener, and that’s an important trait that can be overlooked. He’s intellectually curious about basketball, constantly picking up tips from Williams and other veterans.
Williams said Graham isn’t just a good listener, he’s a good watcher, as well.
“If I were a coach, Treveon Graham would be on my team every single time,” Williams said. “I know Cliff has a certain level of comfort with him, and we do, too, as players.”
Recently, a friend who scouts pro personnel for another NBA team asked me what’s impressed me about the Hornets’ roster this season. I told him Graham has proven he can have a sustainable NBA career. The scout smiled knowingly, and said that’s no secret around the league.
That’s excellent news for the Graham, and not so great for a Hornets team needing to count pennies next summer.