RCW: Jayhawk 4 Life
Watch Devonte’ Graham play this season inside Allen Fieldhouse!
Every student-athlete has a story. Every student-athlete has a goal. The story helps define who you are, while the goal helps define who you are going to be. In the case of Devonte’ Graham, senior guard for the Kansas men’s basketball team, his unconventional story has given him a career that has exceeded his goals, and has even left him pinching himself.
Rewind to Saturday, January 27, 2018. The setting is Allen Fieldhouse, where the fifth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks are looking to win their fourth-consecutive Big 12/SEC Showdown match against the Aggies of Texas A&M. Just over five minutes into the game, the Jayhawks possessed a 14-10 lead over their former Big-12 counterparts. Kansas sophomore center Udoka Azubuike came up and barricaded an Aggie defender with a screen just below the underside of the beak on the Jayhawk logo centered on James Naismith Court. The screen gave Graham a sliver of separation between him and the defender— just enough space for two dribbles to his left. The senior guard gathered himself for a pull-up, 3-point attempt over the outstretched arm of Texas A&M’s Admon Gilder.
Just under a minute later, Graham put his head down and took Aggie guard DJ Hogg off the dribble, driving hard and confidently to his left, before getting fouled by Hogg while attempting a left-handed layup. Graham headed to the line.
Without context, these four points are nothing special— they are a miniscule portion of Graham’s team-best 456 on the year. However, these four points are historically rich for a program that is deeply rooted in the archives of the game of basketball. The three-ball and charity-stripe shot brought Graham’s career point total to 1,434— bumping the North Carolina-native into the top-25 career scoring list in Kansas history, surpassing the legendary Wilt Chamberlain.
“That’s extreme,” said Graham, with a laugh. When you’re told you’ve scored more than the man who went on to become the NBA’s fifth-best scorer all-time, it is no surprise to be a little taken back. “Wilt is the best player to ever come through here, so that’s crazy.”
Sure, Chamberlain scored his 1,433 points in two years at Kansas compared to Graham’s four, but any time a player can surpass Chamberlain in a statistical category, they must be a special player— and that is exactly what Graham has become. Aside from being inside the top-25 in career points in program history, Graham finds himself in third-place in 3-point field goals made (263), seventh-place in minutes played (3,990), 11th-place in 3-point field goal percent (41.2), and 10th-place in career assists (537) and steals (180). With only five regular-season games remaining in his Jayhawk career, Graham’s impact on the program is evident, but even he sometimes cannot believe what his Jayhawk legacy has turned into.
“He probably wouldn’t believe it at first,” Graham replied, when asked if his freshman-self would believe the successes he has managed in his four years donning the Crimson and Blue. “I was just a little kid when I got here… I definitely didn’t see myself having as big of an impact as I do now on this program. It’s crazy how things change.”
Graham took a rather unconventional road to KU. During his senior year at Broughton High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, Graham signed a National Letter of Intent (NLI) to play at Appalachian State University, in Boone, North Carolina. After his commitment, his success on the court skyrocketed, resulting in Graham wanting to reopen his recruiting. Being denied release from his letter of intent to Appalachian State, Graham turned to Brewster Academy, a New Hampshire prep school that is notorious for producing college and professional basketball players, including Donovan Mitchell, T.J. Warren and even former Kansas men’s basketball All-American, Thomas Robinson. After his success at Brewster and a coaching change at Appalachian State, Graham was finally granted release from his letter of intent, allowing him to be recruited by, and ultimately sign with, Kansas.
To Kansas head coach Bill Self, this wasn’t his first experience in landing a previously committed recruit who would turn into one of the all-time greats in Kansas history. Just a year before Graham came to Kansas, the Jayhawks landed a scrappy point guard recruit by the name of Frank Mason III, who was previously committed to Towson.
“Recruiting is an inexact science, but Devonte’ and Frank will always be special to me,” said Self. “I’ll group them together because to think that we won an awful lot of games with Towson and Appalachian State (recruits) as our two leading scorers is special.”
The duo of Graham and Mason were synonymous together for their three-year career. Although they eventually developed into one of the deadliest backcourt pairings in the nation, Graham spent his freshman year in the shadow of Mason on the score sheet. As a role player for the team, Graham averaged 5.7 points and 2.1 assists per game in just under 18 minutes per game. The freshman had breached double digits on only three occasions his freshman year, before a Feb. 21 game against TCU, when Graham’s 20 points (7-for-7 from the field) gave the Jayhawk faithful a brief glimpse of just how lethal No. 4 could be.
“He was great,” said Self after the game. “We had some starters not really produce and when you have three starters combine for seven points, we needed our bench to be good… We don’t win the game without Devonte’.”
The outbreak against TCU propelled Graham into his sophomore year, when he knew he would have to take on a larger role. In Graham’s eyes, understanding his role has allowed him to have as much success as he has managed over his four years.
“I could tell that I would have a more important role each year,” said Graham. “I think knowing that made me work that much harder on the court, especially in the offseason.”
The offseason adjustments proved well for Graham, as he saw himself change from a role player off the bench to a routine starter. After not starting a single game of the 2014-15 season, Graham found his name on the starting-lineup card for 36 of the 38 games in his sophomore campaign. The change in role resulted in an increase in statistical output in all facets of the game. Graham made 58 more 3-point field goals, pulled down 84 more rebounds, dished out 79 more assists, and was one-tenth of a point away from doubling his points-per-game output. Amongst all of the statistical leaps, one of the most eye-opening was in his field goal percentage, where he went from 39 percent as a freshman to an impressive 46 percent— which remains the best of his career— from the field as a sophomore. When asked about his statistical jumps, Graham is quick to credit the success to one primary cause: his teammates.
“They definitely helped a lot,” Graham explained. “A lot of my success was because of them. Guys like Frank (Mason III) and Wayne (Selden Jr.) helped when I wasn’t a big, household name. I would get a lot of my points because they would get me easy shots and make plays. Just being around guys like that helped with my skill development and really made me better.”
One of Graham’s most-memorable performances of the 2015-16 season was when the Jayhawks headed to Norman to face the third-ranked Oklahoma Sooners. Heading into the game, Graham was tasked with guarding soon-to-be Naismith Player of the Year and No. 6 pick of the 2016 NBA Draft, Buddy Hield.
Just two years before that game, Graham was supposed to be playing at Appalachian State. Now, he was faced with guarding the No. 2 scorer in the nation who went for 46 points against the Jayhawks just a month before. Many players would crumble at the situation, but Graham stepped up in a big way.
Hield was held to a mere 5-of-15 clip from the field, which was tied for his second-lowest field goal percentage in a game that season. Not only were Graham’s defensive efforts pivotal in the five-point Jayhawk victory, but his offense sealed the game— scoring or assisting on 17-of-24 Kansas points in the final eight minutes of the game to complete the comeback and end with a then-career-high 27 points on the night. His efforts contesting Hield and late-game heroics did not go unnoticed, and for Graham, going head-to-head with the greats is a challenge that he constantly looks forward to.
“Every year it feels like you’re playing against guys that are just as good, or even better than you,” said Graham. “You’ve got to play competitively night in and night out. When you get to practice against the best, it makes you better. You’ve just got to be on your best game each night.”
Graham’s sophomore-season efforts also came to fruition during the 2016 Big 12 Championship in Kansas City, where Graham totaled 52 points with tournament highs of 19 assists and 11 steals, earning him the title of Most Outstanding Player in the tournament.
With another offseason came another role change. After transitioning from role player to starter, Graham was now faced with going from routine starter to owning up to the title of “best backcourt in the nation” alongside Mason.
The upperclassmen tandem took the claim head-on, and wreaked havoc for opposing teams. The former Appalachian State and Towson commits combined for 1,234 points and 336 assists in the 2016-17 season, upping their total over three seasons together to 2,769 points and 739 assists. The duo also found themselves with (at the time) the third-most 3-point field goals (353) between two Jayhawks over a three-year period; a feat that would ultimately be surpassed by Graham and current Jayhawk senior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk’s 436 3-pointers from 2015-18, which is now the most in program history. At the end of the season, Mason was the consensus National Player of the Year, while Graham was named to the All-Big 12 Second Team, averaging a career-high 13.4 points per game.
Heading into the 2017-18 season, the role was clear: This was Graham’s team. After Mason’s departure and Graham’s preseason recognition of Big 12 Player of the Year, his role during his senior year was much larger, and much more individualized. The departure of a player like Mason is one that could gut nearly any program, but Self knew that Graham had the mentality and the grit to step up.
“There are a lot of similar qualities when you look at them,” said Self, when asked to describe the qualities of a successful point guard. “They are great leaders, good athletes, they care an awful lot about winning. Devonte’ is probably as complete as we’ve had when you throw in intangibles, talent, experience and toughness, and he’s asked to do so much this year. Last year, Frank was the beneficiary of playing with Devonte’, but this year Devonte’ hasn’t been the beneficiary of playing with another guard who can get him shots like Devonte’ could for Frank last year. So, I’m really proud of his talent, but more importantly, I’m proud of his development and how much he cares.”
While Graham might not have a beneficiary to get him open shots, he has poured all he can into his senior season at the reigns of the team. Graham has 15 games where he has played at least 39 minutes, contributing to his 37.2 minutes per game this season, the highest of any Jayhawk coached under Self. Within those 37.2 minutes per game, Graham has career highs in points per game (17.5), assists per game (7.2), rebounds per game (4.0) and steals per game (1.7). Graham’s career year has led him to become the only player in NCAA Division I averaging 17.0-plus points, 7.0-plus assists, 1.7-plus steals and fewer than 3.0 turnovers per game. Along with his per-game numbers, he has tallied more 20-point games (8), 30-point games (2), 5-plus assist games (25), 10-plus assists games (4) and 5-plus rebound games (10) than any of his three seasons before.
Along the striking numbers of his grand finale season, Graham was named to the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25, Wooden Award Late Season Top 20, Oscar Robertson Trophy Midseason Watch List and Lute Olson Award Midseason Watch List. Graham also received the National Player of the Week award by NCAA.com, ESPN.com and the United States Basketball Writers of America (USBWA) on Dec. 4 for his back-to-back 35-point outbursts against Toledo and Syracuse. His efforts leading the team have also resulted in him being one of 10 point guards in the nation nominated for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year.
The senior year explosion has rocketed Graham up the all-time Kansas leaderboards, and will see him finish as one of only 22 Kansas players to score over 1,500 career points. Along with a top-25 spot on the all-time points list, Graham has solidified spots in the top-10 in career assists, 3-point field goals made, steals, minutes and possibly 3-point percentage. The records, stats and accolades go on and on, but something the Jayhawk faithful will remember Graham for is his personality. With all of the weight of role-changes, expectations and pressure to perform, it is still rare to see No. 4 without a smile on his face.
“I feel like my personality has gotten way better,” said Graham. “Just being here, with the fans, with the kids, and all the support we get, I just feel like I owe it to them to have that smile on my face every game and go out there and give it my all.”
“He’s probably been just as impactful as anybody who we’ve had here,” added Self. “Devonte’ is different. He’s tough, but he’s also got the best smile. He’s personable. He’s the most popular kid on campus. He has impacted our university, not just our basketball program, and he should be very proud of that.”
While Graham’s name and legacy are forever engraved into the Kansas basketball program, to him, the program will forever be engraved in his name and legacy as well.
“It means a lot (to play for Kansas),” said Graham. “I can’t even put it into words how special it is. There are a lot of players who would die to play here. Just coming through the locker room and realizing that I get to be in a special place like this every day is a blessing. I’m just trying to enjoy it; I only have a few more months to enjoy all of it, so I’m going to live it up and soak it all in.”
Some players come into programs with the expectations to be remembered by fans forever. In Graham’s case, not everyone expected this type of legacy — not even Graham himself. Regardless of what is written in the past and what the future holds, Graham’s hard work, strong mentality and unforgettable smile to go along, have made him a Jayhawk for life.