Devonte Graham overlooked out HS, develops into KU starter

Devonte Graham KU

JANUARY 2016 – Devonte Graham can still close his eyes and remember those wonder years growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and dreaming of competing at a big-time college and playing in Final Fours and national championship games.

And sure, Graham can also recall those holiday tournaments watching teams playing in Hawaii. He hoped one day that could be him in paradise.

In November before the 6-2 KU sophomore boarded a plane with his teammates and coaches to Hawaii for the prestigious Maui Invitational, Graham talked about living his childhood hoop dreams.

“It’s definitely surreal, just growing up watching it every day and now being to actually play in it, it’s a great feeling,” said Graham, who ranks 10th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.4. “Just got to keep working. Stay humble, stay hungry, and good things will happen.”

“Good things” happened for Graham and Kansas in Maui as the Jayhawks claimed the tournament title. For Graham, though, playing for KU and in the Maui Invitational didn’t seem possible when he was an overlooked prospect at Broughton High School.

As a high school junior, the only schools interested in him were Appalachian State and Murray State. Graham signed with the former school in November 2012 at the beginning of his senior year while still honing his skills and eyeing the prize about better opportunities.

All Graham did during his senior season was expand his game and average 15.7 points and 5.4 assists while leading Broughton High to the 4A state championship game and a sparkling 26-6 record. He then came up big with 20 points in the North Carolina Coaches Association All-Star game.

With his success, Graham kept clinging to hope of playing for a major Division I school. However, Appalachian State wouldn’t release him from his letter of intent. So Graham opted to attend prep school at powerhouse Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where he elevated his game even more and averaged 17.2 points and 5.0 assists while leading his team to the national prep championship and New England championship.

Major colleges were now deeply interested, but Graham was still in limbo since ASU showed no signs of releasing him. Graham and his family prayed daily. They wondered what the future held. They hoped for the best.

Those were difficult and trying times for the teenager. He knew the harsh reality he’d have to sit out a year at another college if Appalachian State wouldn’t cut ties with him.

“It was one of the lowest times because of the situation I was in and not knowing where I’d be,” said Graham, who added he “really (didn’t) want to bring it up” when a reporter asked him how low he actually became.

Brewster coach Jason Smith was always there to support his star point guard.

“Coach Smith from the beginning helped me out a lot,” Graham said. “He talked to me about things. He had a plan for me the whole time. He told me it was all going to work out and it ended up working out.”

Graham was released from his national letter of intent on April 9, 2014 after ASU had a coaching change and Jim Fox replaced Jason Capel. It was simply one of the greatest moments in Graham’s life.

“?? wow officially released !!!! Thanking God right now ???? !” Graham tweeted that day.

After his national ranking jumped to No. 36 by and courted by many big-time colleges, Graham narrowed his choices to North Carolina State and Kansas. He signed with KU a day after last year’s starting point guard Naadir Tharpe declared he was leaving the program.

“I went on both of my visits back-to-back, came here (KU), went there (N.C. State),” Graham said. “I just felt like KU was the best place, best fit for me. The opportunity to play right way and winning and being a part of something special.”

After achieving his dream of playing for an elite program, Devonte Graham had a solid freshman year off the bench.

Graham, who missed six games with turf toe from Dec. 13-Jan. 7, averaged 5.7 points in 17.8 minutes per game while shooting an impressive 42.5 percent from beyond the arc. He boasted a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio against Big 12 foes, came on strong during the stretch run in league competition, scoring a career-high 20 points against TCU on Feb. 21 and led KU with 17 points in its loss to Wichita State in the NCAA Round of 32.

“Towards the end of the season, I gained a lot of confidence,” Graham said. “It kind of came over to the beginning of the summer and then I got injured. But I still remain confident, of course. The coaches just talk about being confident in all of us. I think we’re all pretty confident.”

A knee injury prevented Graham from playing for Kansas and representing Team USA in the World University Games last summer, but he is healthy this season and starting with junior Frank Mason III, also a point guard. Mason and Graham have revved up the offense to a faster pace than any KU coach Bill Self team.

Mason enjoys teaming with his buddy in the starting five.

“He’s a great point guard,” Mason said. “He adds a lot of different things. He can push the ball in transition, he makes great decisions, he can shoot the ball and he’s a good leader. I love playing with him. He’s got a year under his belt. Now, he’s a sophomore so he understands a little bit more.”

Entering January, Graham was averaging 10.2 points, 3.5 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals in 29.9 minutes per game, while shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from three-point range.

He believes he is an improved player in several facets.

“I feel as far as my knowledge of the game, that’s one big area, there’s a lot more to it than people actually realize,” Graham said. “I think I’ve gotten stronger, faster and I’m feeling good right now. I also feel like my jump shot has improved.”

Self compares Devonte Graham to former Jayhawk standout point guard and current KU assistant director of student-athlete development Aaron Miles in leadership and doing “whatever it takes” to help the team.

“Hey, the kid can play,” Self said. “He’s a point guard playing off the ball a lot. I love watching him and Frank playing together. To me, it adds a dimension we haven’t had in the last two years as far as having two little playmakers out there. He’s not quite as fearless as Frank, but he’s not far off as far as making big people guard him and trying to make big plays over big guys. He’s probably become our best perimeter defender and maybe as solid a kid as we have. I’m real pleased with Devonte’ and his progress so far.”

This is a genuine and happy kid who plays with joy and a smile on his face. But don’t mistake that with being soft; Graham is a fierce competitor who gets juiced to lock down the opponent’s top perimeter player.

He held UCLA star guard Bryce Alford to six points on 1-of-6 shooting on Nov. 24 in the Maui Invitational, and then swiped the ball three times from Oregon State standout guard Gary Payton II on Dec. 12 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, where Graham helped lead the comeback charge in the second half and was arguably KU’s best player the final 20 minutes during the Jayhawks’ 82-67 victory. He scored 10 points in the victory at San Diego State.

For Graham, he’s driven to succeed at the highest level and to prove doubters wrong that snubbed him out of high school.

“Of course, you always have that chip on your shoulder,” Graham said. “You don’t come out of high school as a McDonald’s All-American or a top recruited player and you still have that chip. I don’t feel like that will ever go away from me. I think about that all the time when people ask me, ‘where were you getting recruited by, what schools were you looking at?’ I just say ‘I was a mid-major prospect coming out of high school.’ I’m happy with how far I’ve come and hard I’ve worked, so I’ll always keep that chip on my shoulder and it’s going to make me work hard.”

Devonte Graham is overjoyed at how adversity a few years ago has transformed into a magical experience with Kansas.

“It is an amazing place. I am glad I have the opportunity to be here and glad I chose this school. Every time I think about it, it’s a blessing. Oh, it’s big. Just to be here and be around this coaching staff and the people that support KU basketball, it’s crazy. I never thought I’d be here. You can’t really put into words when you go from a mid-major school to one of the top programs in the country, the best fans and stuff like that, so it’s definitely a blessing.”

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Article by David Garfield

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