Rock Chalk Weekly: Timing is Everything

Written by Kyle Charles, Kansas Communications Student Assistant

Timing, like many things in life, has so much impact with so little control. Devonte’ Graham can tell you about timing. He can tell you how it is unfortunate, how it can be unfair – and how it can be the best thing to happen to him. The recruitment process for high school athletes is strenuous and nerve-racking, but choosing a school evokes a sense of relief and excitement. Few athletes are forced to navigate that process more than once, but Graham endured the recruiting saga twice. While many fans might be familiar with how the University of Kansas pursued and eventually signed Graham, few people know the circumstances that allowed him to enroll at KU.
College scouts did not show Graham much attention coming out of high school, even after leading Broughton High School to the 4A State Championship game. In fact, Appalachian State University was the only school to recruit Graham. The short trip from Graham’s hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, to Boone, North Carolina, was Graham’s only campus visit. He signed his National Letter of Intent with Appalachian State in September of 2012.
Upon finishing high school, Graham was a little unsure that Appalachian State was the right fit for him and faced two options: he could play junior college basketball, which would cost him a year of his eligibility, or put off college for a year and play basketball for a prep school. Graham chose the latter, enrolling at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, to play for head coach Jason Smith.
Many players would view sitting out for a year between high school and college as potentially harmful to their careers. However, Graham used it to his advantage. As the season progressed, recruits began to take notice of Graham’s talents.
“My teammates went to Georgetown, Syracuse, San Diego State, Rhode Island, places like that, so just playing against that high-level competition every day helped me get better,” Graham explained, “Coach Smith knows a lot of people which helped me get recruited. That year definitely helped.”
While most of the nation’s top recruits of the 2014 class completed their campus visits in the fall and chose a school to attend by early winter, Graham was still busy leading his Brewster Academy team to a prep school national championship, uncertain of his commitment to Appalachian State the following year. During that season, Appalachian State’s head coach was relieved of his duties.
Bad timing, indeed. Graham had already endured the stress of choosing a school and was grateful to Appalachian State for its belief in him. Without the head coach that he committed to however, Graham used the opportunity to reopen his college search after finishing his prep school season. This time around, top-basketball programs were vying for his talents, but Graham did not have much time to make a decision.
“It was getting late so I did my visits back-to-back-to-back. I left Kansas and went straight to NC State and then I left there and went straight to Virginia. It was definitely hectic,” Graham recounted.
It would have been easy to panic considering it was already April. Graham didn’t have time on his side, but he did have experience and a better idea of what he was looking for in a school. He knew he wanted to make an impact right away on the court, while feeling safe and comfortable away from it.
Despite the added pressure of having to make a quick decision, Graham took advantage of the second chance he was given.
“I just enjoyed myself the second time around. I didn’t stress myself out,” Graham recalled. “My mom and I sat down and talked and felt like we made a great decision.”
That decision was to attend the University of Kansas. Looking back on why he chose Kansas, Graham cited the connection he immediately developed with sophomore guard Wayne Selden Jr. Selden told Graham about the chance to get instant playing time, the opportunity to be a star, Kansas’ need for another point guard and the history and traditions of Kansas basketball.
“I just remember [Selden] taking me under his wing like a little brother which I didn’t really feel with the other schools,” Graham said. “That stuck out to me.”
In addition to his fondness of the players and coaching staff, the opportunity to see immediate playing time was a major attraction. Timing now favored Graham, who stepped in to fill the roster spot that opened up after Naadir Tharpe left the university.
Spending a year at Brewster Academy motivated Graham to find a school where he could earn playing time. He explained that the obvious hope for freshmen is to not join a program just to sit on the bench.
The 2014-15 season began and Graham’s impact was immediate, averaging 15 minutes per game behind sophomore point guard Frank Mason III. Graham proved to be instrumental in the comeback win at home over top-25 Florida, sinking nine-of-10 free throws and dishing out three assists.
Eight games into his rookie season, Graham suffered a sprained right toe. It was suspected that the injury would keep Graham out at least one month, but the prospect of surgery was possible, which would result in having to sit out the remainder of his freshman season.
“Facing the possibility of missing the season didn’t really sit well with me, but everyone surrounding me helped me keep my head on straight and stay positive,” Graham said.
For the second time, Graham was faced with the fear of sitting out his freshman year. He was figuring out his role with the team, learning the offense and gaining confidence – but was relegated to rehab, and the bench. He and assistant coach Jerrance Howard lamented the situation, but wouldn’t let it get Graham down.
Instead, Graham continued to remain patient, absorbing all of the information he could during his time off of the court.
“When I was out, I was always paying attention on the sideline, seeing the mistakes that my teammates made that the coaches would get on them for, watching film and just trying to prepare myself mentally for the comeback,” Graham explained. “I worked hard in practice before I actually went out there, just to build more chemistry.”
Exactly one month after suffering his injury, Graham took to the court in Allen Fieldhouse against Texas Tech. The chemistry he developed with the team during his injury was evident and he appeared not to miss a beat. Graham connected with his teammates to contribute a career-high six assists and zero turnovers to a dominating performance in the team’s Big 12 Conference home opener.
Upon his return, Graham learned that it wasn’t just his teammates the he had built a connection with.
“When I checked in and everyone started clapping, it made me even more nervous,” Graham said. “It’s nice, though, because you see that the fans really care about you, especially when you get hurt. It’s a good thing.”
The timing of Graham’s return gave the Jayhawks a crucial boost as they entered an incredibly challenging slate against Big 12 foes. After nine points and three assists to help lift Kansas past No. 24 Oklahoma State in a hard-fought game, Graham contributed 10 points, four assists and two steals on the road against No. 11 Iowa State.
Head coach Bill Self took notice.
“You can tell, at least I can, regardless of if [Graham] is scoring or not, we’re a totally different team,” Self said after the Texas Tech game. “We are doing some things we don’t do nearly as well when he’s not with us.”
Bouncing back from KU’s disappointing result in Ames, Iowa, Graham added two three-point field goals and four assists to the devastating Kansas offense that lit up Oklahoma at home on January 19. Timing has certainly become his friend and is now visible on the court, throwing lob passes to the big men and hitting teammates for open three-point shots.
It may even be a little too good.
One of his assists in the Oklahoma game was on a three-point field goal from sophomore guard Brannen Greene, a play in which Graham celebrated the three before the ball left Greene’s hands.
“I knew it was going in before he even shot it,” Graham said, “[Greene] and I do that all day in practice.”
Over the course of Graham’s basketball career, he has patiently waited out every negative circumstance and used each of them to better himself as an athlete and as a person.
“That whole year having to sit out and play at Brewster, not knowing if I was going to be recruited, that taught me a lot about patience,” Graham remembered. “You have to stay positive and wait for the opportunity. When it presents itself, you just have to take advantage of it. Even with my injury this season; it was bad timing, but in the end it helped me to understand things better. It strengthened me mentally.”
With Graham now healthy and making major contributions, timing is to his advantage. Since his return this season, Graham has tallied 20 assists and only one turnover. He has the opportunity to write his name in the history book of Kansas basketball. The Jayhawks are competing for their 11th-straight Big 12 title, a feat that would put the program in elite company. UCLA earned 13-straight titles during the John Wooden era, from 1967 to 1979. The only other program to win 11-straight titles is Gonzaga, who made its run from 2001 to 2011.
This Big 12 schedule may be the toughest that the Jayhawks have faced in years, but the chance to make history is within reach. After overcoming so many past barriers, Graham is now equipped with experience and poise. He’s not looking to rush a thing.
After all, timing is everything.

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