Devonte’ Graham undeniably is Kansas Jayhawks’ leader

Devonte’ Graham is pushing hard and he can’t stop. Not now, not after three years of living his dream of playing for powerhouse Kansas basketball and working tirelessly to become one of the best players in the country to lead the Jayhawks to the Final Four.

After playing somewhat in the shadow of star players, like Perry Ellis early and National Player of the Year Frank Mason III last season, this is Graham’s time, to fully embrace being the go-to guy and true team leader — both on and off the court.

“I definitely think it’s my team,” said Graham, the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year. “I’m a senior, senior leader, senior guard, been starting three years. It’s definitely my team. You got to take ownership with the ups and down. If we win, it’s on me. If we lose, it’s on me. I believe it’s my team.”

KU coach Bill Self agrees.

“Devonte’ is the face of our program,” Self said. “There is no question about it, probably as much right now as anybody we’ve had. Devonte’ Graham has been a pretty consistent performer for three years. But in order for us to be really, really good he has to play at an All-American type level for us, and we think he’s very capable of doing that and certainly he’s got the personality that will draw people to him by watching him play.”

Devonte’ Graham has indeed been playing like an All-American. Entering January, he ranks fifth in the Big 12 in scoring at 16.8 points per game, second in assists at 7.6 (sixth nationally), third in steals (2.0), tied for fifth in free throw percentage (86.8), tied for fourth in three-point field goals made (3.2) and fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.9).

After struggling to find his shot, Devonte’ Graham was never better offensively when exploding for 35 points in consecutive games against Toledo at Allen Fieldhouse on Nov. 28 and Syracuse in Miami on Dec. 2. Graham, who was named Big 12 Player of the Week and National Player of the Week by numerous outlets, became the first Jayhawk to score 35 or more in back-to-back games since Dave Robisch in 1970.

After Devonte’ Graham lit up the Orange for his 35 points with 7 threes on 13 attempts, including several from NBA three-point range, Miami Heat president Pat Riley told Self at American Airlines Arena that the senior put on a “show.”

Self certainly thought so, and for the second straight game.

“I don’t know if we’ve had anybody ever score the ball that well when the game was still in balance, so to speak,” Self said.

Teammate Clay Young was also awestruck.

“He shot lights out,” Young said after KU’s 76-60 victory over Syracuse. “It was impressive to watch. Him just rising up and shooting over people and hitting tough shots was pretty impressive. He had 35 (against Syracuse) with like seven or eight minutes left in the game. He only shoots when he has to. He never forces anything that he doesn’t need to. He does what he has to do. We needed him to score and he did. That’s the sign of a leader.

“He really took charge. His shot wasn’t falling at the beginning of the year, but these two games, he’s been great for us. Him out there taking so much charge and initiative to get our offense going, he’s shown great leadership.”

Whether it’s scoring when the team needs offense, feeding the open man to get him going, lifting a teammate up with encouraging words when he’s down, flashing that constant, contagious smile and pounding his chest after a big play that gets everybody’s spirits jacked,

“I do think we have a more natural leader than we’ve had in a long time, maybe ever since I’ve been here as far as by example and verbally in Devonte’,” Self said.

Devonte’ Graham is clearly KU’s best player, just like Mason was last year. But Mason was never a verbal leader.

“I’m not sure we pass the torch from Frank to Devonte’ from a leadership standpoint. I think we passed the keys to him,” Self said. “But I think that Devonte’ has always been a great leader. I think potentially he’s as good a leader as we’ve had because people respect his talent, they respect his work ethic. He’s got personality, and he can talk. If you go back and look at Frank, everybody respected his talent, everybody respected his toughness, but that dude never said anything. So I really think Devonte’ has the potential to be as good a leader as we’ve had.”

Devonte’ Graham knows his leadership role has expanded this season.

“Just coming every day in practice with a positive attitude trying to have that energy and get us going,” Graham said. “Off the court, I just be myself, talking and having fun with (everyone). I just feel like we really do get along with each other and really like being with each other. This team, we love each other. It just reflects on the court. I don’t try to go overboard with being a leader. It’s just something that comes.”

Devonte’ Graham, a Raleigh, North Carolina native, said he gets his natural leadership from his mom, Dewanna King, whom he calls his “hero.” Dewanna had Devonte’ when she was just 14 years old and didn’t even know she was pregnant until the seventh month. It was a fearful and unknown time for the teenager, but her mother Doris told her daughter she would definitely have the baby and make the most of motherhood.

Dewanna tirelessly worked two jobs while graduating from high school with 4-year-old Devonte’ walking across the stage with her holding her hand as she received her diploma. With help raising Devonte’ from her mother, Dewanna continued to work and was graduated from college. Seven years after Devonte’ was born on Feb. 21, 1995, Dewanna welcomed a daughter Shamaria.

While the three weren’t blessed with much money, they had a house and unconditional love. Dewanna was an extremely strong, determined and inspirational woman who shaped Devonte’s upbringing.

“She’s a single mom,” Devonte’ said. “She’s a real good leader in my life, and my grandmother. Just being around them and seeing how they lead me and my little sister and just in the family, I think it stuck with me.”

Dewanna King taught her son about responsibility, to do his chores, to always be grateful for all his blessings in life. It was a hard lesson at first for young Devonte,’ but he ultimately grew to appreciate his mom’s priceless teachings. He has a tattoo across his chest that reads: “Forever Grateful.” It is a daily reminder of the profound influence and impact his mom has made in his life.

“She means the world to me,” Devonte’ Graham said. “We talk every single day — facetime. She just raised us, her and my grandmother. All three of them mean the world to me. I just go out and play every game for them. Just love them to death.”

This proud son, grandson and older brother is embracing all it means to be a true student-athlete. Self simply calls Graham the most popular student on campus, something he said early about Graham’s during his freshman season. In this one-and-done era, Graham truly enjoys college, taking pictures and signing autographs, attending KU volleyball games, participating in class discussion, and even in his down time, this communications major can be found in the student union sitting and talking to his fellow classmates.

“You don’t see many college athletes doing stuff like that,” Self said.

In the closing months of his swan song, his last shining moment, Devonte’ Graham is seizing every opportunity to make this the best season ever.

“It is kind of surreal, like man, it’s my last year, it went by so fast,” Graham said. “You just got to enjoy every moment, every day, because once you’re gone, you’re gone and you can’t play here again. So every practice, every workout, every game, every road game, you just got to enjoy it and remember it’s really your last one.”

The “last one” and Graham’s final chance to give the KU program and his mom and family the greatest gift of all this March —  a trip to the Final Four.

“I trust Devonte’ as much as I’ve trusted any guard that we’ve had here,” Self said.

Graham ranks No. 33 all-time in scoring, No. 13 in assists, No. 5 in three-point field goals made and No. 19 in steals. Graham ached after two consecutive Elite Eight setbacks to Villanova and Oregon. They hurt immensely. The pain lingered. After pushing so hard for so long, he knows no other way to finish his magical career than to be one of the last four teams standing.

“It’s really important to me,” Graham said. “I’ve been right there two years in a row. I feel like it’s right there in arm’s reach and you just got to go get it. I think it would mean a lot to, to a lot of people, especially for us. It’s a lifelong dream to be in a Final Four.”

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Article by David Garfield

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