Charlotte Hornets

The long game: Charlotte Hornets rookie Devonte Graham couldn’t afford to skip steps

When Hornets’ Devonte Graham first thought he had an NBA chance

His sophomore season at Kansas, Devonte Graham started believing he could end up an NBA player. Now he’s a Charlotte Hornet.
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His sophomore season at Kansas, Devonte Graham started believing he could end up an NBA player. Now he’s a Charlotte Hornet.

For Charlotte Hornets rookie Devonte Graham, this has been a post-grad in point guard.

Example: Earlier this season, future Hall of Famer Tony Parker told Graham to pay close attention to the opposing big man’s foot placement in a pick-and-roll; that it’s a giveaway to the defender’s intentions and potential weakness.

“If his outside foot was more back, that gives you a path to the basket; you should attack that foot,” Graham recalled, “Or crossover, because it’s going to be harder for him to shift laterally.”

For most of this season, Graham sat and watched Parker, who won four NBA championships in 17 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs before signing last summer with the Hornets. Of late, it’s been Parker sitting and Graham playing. Parker signed with the Hornets to play behind All-Star Kemba Walker, but he was also expected and empowered to help coach Graham and other young players.

The exchange of knowledge is apparent. In his last six games, Graham has a remarkable 30-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio, the sort of efficiency coaches adore. Hornets coach James Borrego trusts Graham both to run the Hornets’ second unit and to pair with Walker in a two-point guard set Borrego often uses to finish close games.

On draft night last year, the Hornets gave up two future second-round picks to the Atlanta Hawks in order to get Graham 34th overall (four picks into the second round). The Hornets’ history with the draft’s second round hasn’t been good, but that’s turning with the recent impact of starting guard-forward Dwayne Bacon (40th overall in 2017) and Graham.

Between Walker’s free agency in July and Parker’s age, the Hornets’ future at point guard is uncertain. Regardless of whether Graham becomes an NBA starter, his development is one of the best outcomes of this season.

Delayed gratification

In a time when “one-and-done”’ college players are the norm in NBA drafts, Graham was an outlier: a player who needed all four seasons of NCAA eligibility at Kansas to be NBA-ready.

The long road isn’t a new one for Graham, who grew up in Raleigh. Before a growth spurt his junior year in high school, he was around 5-foot-8, far less than ideal for Division I prospects. He grew to 6-2 and played so well as a senior that his potential out-shot his original intention to play at Appalachian State.

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So he went to a New Hampshire prep school for a year (playing with now-Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell) and ended up at Kansas with coach Bill Self. Even at a top program such as Kansas, the idea of ending up in the NBA seemed more a fantasy than a goal. In his sophomore season, that changed.

“Coach (Bill) Self had a big, BIG part in that — instilling that confidence in me,” Graham recalled. “I started working way harder and believing in myself way more.”

Early in his college career, Graham was playing alongside another Kansas point guard, Frank Mason, After Mason, now with the Sacramento Kings, left for the NBA, Graham became more central to running the Jayhawks’ offense, particularly improving his pick-and-roll skills.

Grown-up

At 24, Graham is relatively old for an NBA rookie. For instance, the Hornets’ last two first-rounders, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges, each turned 21 in the past two months.

Nothing about how Graham carries himself suggests a kid; he’s mature physically, emotionally and intellectually. When the Hornets frequently sent Graham to their G-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm, he viewed that not as a demotion but as an opportunity to apply all the tips Parker and Walker provided and what he observed them doing in games.

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Borrego stayed in constant contact with Bacon and Graham when they were in Greensboro and watched videos of their games. General manager Mitch Kupchak and assistant general manager Buzz Peterson often were in Greensboro for Swam games.

Borrego’s message to Graham and Bacon was to experiment with the Swarm at things they’d be reluctant to try in a Hornets game. For instance, Graham noted, Bacon entered this season as a mid-range jump shooter and extended that range to the 3-point line with the Swarm.

Graham says he wasn’t the sort of player who could skip steps.

“If I hadn’t gone all four years (at Kansas) I don’t believe I’d be in the position I’m in right now,” Graham said. “Playing every one of those games at the highest level of college basketball taught me how to compete, how to get in the weight room, how to make winning plays.”

Borrego concurs about the training Graham got at Kansas. A former Spurs assistant, Borrego noted the contrast between how Graham entered the NBA and how Parker did as an 18-year-old Frenchman back in 2001.

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Parker had a prodigy’s talent, and was submerged in a locker room loaded with NBA experience. Graham isn’t the natural Parker is, but he entered the league with more preparation to absorb what he needed to know.

“He knows what to do. I feel he’s way more in control of what to do,” Parker said of Graham lately.

“He chooses better. That all comes with experience and confidence. Watching me and Kemba, he’s improved a lot.”

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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