Rock Chalk Weekly: The Emergent Leader
Written by Andrew Ginzel, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Emergent leaders are those who are not necessarily assigned a leadership role, yet they carry the characteristics of what a true leader is. They can be described as having a contagious personality, excellent communication skills and they tend to be persistent. Emergent leaders are well respected by their peers and are often liked the most.
Kansas sophomore guard Devonte’ Graham, undoubtedly, fits the definition of an emergent leader for the Jayhawk basketball squad.
The only surprise that stems from this sentiment is the fact that Graham is becoming a leader so early in his collegiate career. However, if you ask Graham if he is surprised by it, his answer would be a stern “no.”
“It’s just something that kind of came up, just happened the way it did,” Graham said. “I’m told that I have the personality that leaders have; I was just born with it. The guys actually look up to me and listen to the things I say.”
Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, Graham was destined to be a leader at an early age. He began playing basketball on a hoop attached to a tree in his grandparents’ backyard. As time evolved, Graham’s grandfather built a basketball goal so he and the neighborhood kids had a place to gather and play. If you couldn’t find the youngster hooping at his grandparents’ house, he was down the street at the park. Graham remained persistent.
The backyard pick-up games advanced to recreation league games where Graham would soon be recognized by his Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) coach. AAU ball led into his high school campaign at Needham B. Broughton High School, where he led the junior varsity team to an undefeated record as a freshman point guard.
Starting for the varsity squad the next three years of high school, Graham developed into a leader for the Capitals of Broughton.
“I kind of emerged as a leader because I was one of the best players on the team so my guys looked up to me,” Graham said. “I wasn’t a very vocal guy, but I led by example by doing the little things—trying hard, etc.”
Graham’s basketball saga continued when he signed his national letter of intent with Appalachian State University, an in-state school, during his senior year at Broughton. As the end of his high school playing days approached, Graham realized that playing at Appalachian State was not the right fit for him. Instead of immediately transferring and honing the risk of having to sit out a year for eligibility concerns, Graham decided to enroll at Brewster Academy, a preparatory school in New Hampshire, to continue evolving his basketball game.
“It was difficult at first because the situation was up in the air and I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Graham said. “I definitely didn’t want to sit out an entire year doing nothing, so going to a prep school was the only option I had at the time. I figured I would make the best of that year by working hard, getting better and it ended up helping me a ton.”
In his lone season at Brewster Academy, Graham anchored the Yolefs to a national championship win that concluded their season at 34-2. The combo guard averaged 17 points and five assists a game and once again, emerged as a leader on a team full of basketball talent.
Upon being granted a release from Appalachian State, Graham’s next step to showcase his leadership qualities would come at the University of Kansas. He jumped to the number 36-rated point guard in the country, and he knew that Kansas was looking for a true point guard to supplement then freshman guard Frank Mason III’s unique skill set.
“Out of all of my options, I knew I could come here and play, contribute to the team, and I knew the fans were great,” Graham said. “It is a big-time program and there was a chance to do something special here.”
Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend alluded to the fact that the Kansas coaches were looking for a point guard around the same time that Graham was released from Appalachian State. They were looking for a guard who could play alongside Mason III which would alleviate some of the ball-handling pressures from him.
“We were looking for a backup point guard at the time,” Townsend said. “Although we had Naadir (Tharpe) and Frank (Mason III), we knew we needed somebody else. We always saw him as a guy who could create plays for us so we’ve kind of taken Frank off of the ball and put him on the ball more. It has been really good for us.”
“The coaches were telling me the same kind of things they are telling me now,” Graham continued. “They need a point guard because Frank Mason is kind of a combo guard, even though they still believe he can be a true point guard. He was more of a scoring guy, so they wanted someone who could come in and lead and be the guy to control the team like that. They just wanted someone who was going to do the little things to help the team win.”
The position of point guard in basketball is often related to the position of quarterback in football. They are the captains, the floor or field generals, and the team leaders. Graham knew he could come to KU and fulfill the expectations the coaches placed upon him while in the recruitment phase. He had always been a true point guard, someone who took care of the ball and led by example. The only issue that one could think of would be that he had never led a team of this magnitude.
Graham played sparingly behind Mason during his freshman campaign. Given his minutes, the freshman was extremely efficient, a sign of what was to come. Remaining confident was the most important idea he retained as he prepped for his sophomore year.
“I learned to remain aggressive and confident at all times,” Graham said. “There were times last year where I wasn’t as confident. Wayne (Selden), Frank, Brannen (Greene), Jamari (Traylor), Perry (Ellis) and all the guys continued to build confidence in me.”
Confidence is an integral characteristic that a true leader possesses. Given his impressive basketball resume and IQ, it was a matter of time before Graham would become a leader for a Kansas team seasoned with veterans and experience. As the 2015-16 season unfolds, it is apparent that Graham has developed into the leadership role, something he knew would happen eventually.
“I would say that the confidence that he has in his game has improved,” Ellis said. “He is not worrying about making mistakes and he is playing through the hard times. That is a key for us.”
Graham agrees with his senior teammate’s sentiment and said, “It just kind of came upon me, and someone had to take the leadership role over. I just try to do the little things to help the team win. Every team needs a leader, so I was happy to step up and do it. I might as well take on that role.”
Townsend has seen the leadership personality that Graham possesses firsthand both on-and-off the hardwood since Graham’s arrival in Lawrence. He attributes those qualities to Graham’s strong work ethic, high character and good morals, all attributes instilled in Graham by his mother.
“We was raised very well by his mother,” Townsend said. “We think he is the guy who will be our leader for the next few years.”
“I try to do things that the guys will notice and follow in my direction,” Graham continued. “For example, getting to weights on time, going to class—just the small things. If a freshman sees me not going to class, they think that they don’t have to go to class either. When they see us going to class, they understand the importance of it so they’ll go to. It’s just the little things like that that leaders do. I feel like I am a leader both on-and-off the court.”
Anyone who has followed the Kansas program since the arrival of Graham knows that he brings energy to the court. Whether he is tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player, attacking the basketball for easy kick outs, or getting out on a fast break for a dunk, he can always be seen with a big smile on his face.
“He is one of the more vocal guys on our team and he brings a lot of energy when he speaks,” Ellis said. “He is definitely one of the leaders for us.”
“You can’t be serious all the time,” Graham added. “It is important to have different intangibles like smiling, laughing and joking. I take pride in the intangibles I bring to the team. I’m a goofy dude. I like to make people laugh. I just play around all the time but when I’m on the court, I’m focused.”
Whether you find him on-or-off the basketball court, Graham has become an emergent leader through his past experiences and his infectious personality, an intangible that no coach will ever be upset about.
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