People ask Devonte’ Graham all the time: did he expect to be playing like this?
As of this writing, he’s the Hornets’ leader in points (18.2) and assists (6.9) per game. He ranks second in the entire NBA in three-pointers made, trailing only James Harden. On multiple occasions, he’s been asked to take the big shot in crunch time and delivered. Head coach James Borrego moved him into the starting lineup to orchestrate the offense alongside Terry Rozier. He’s been among the most effective pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the L. He recently became just the fourth player in NBA history to record 50+ threes and 100+ assists in his team’s first 15 games.
The honest answer is no, Devonte’ Graham didn’t expect this. After being drafted 34th overall in 2018, he spent a good chunk of his rookie season bouncing back and forth from the G League. He knew a greater opportunity was coming this year, but just how much of an opportunity, and how well he’d thrive in it, has come as a complete surprise.
Well, maybe to Graham.
“I’ve been a fan since he was at Kansas so I wouldn’t say I’m surprised,” Rozier says. “I’m happy for him. He put the work in so he’s getting out what he put in.”
“To be honest, I’m not surprised because there’s opportunity here,” says assistant coach Nate Mitchell, who trained with Graham over the summer. “I also saw this last year—he just didn’t make shots. He struggled a bit, going up and down. But if you go back and look at his G League games, some things are transferable, and the way he shot the ball percentage-wise off the bounce in the G League, it’s the same thing he’s doing right now. Obviously there are bigger, longer, more athletic guys at this level, but if you can see the reads it doesn’t matter. With the time that he put in over the summer, it makes sense.”
“We don’t really talk about everything he’s doing on the court,” Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist says, alluding to the fact that no one treats Graham’s success as anything out of the ordinary. “We want him to stay even-keeled. We don’t want to be like, Oh yeah, you were killing last night.”
About 45 minutes after Kidd-Gilchrist spoke with SLAM, the Devonte’ Graham show began at Madison Square Garden. The 24-year-old exploded for 29 points, including nine threes, and he knocked down the game-winner to lift the Hornets over the Knicks.
Graham has dropped 20 or more in five of Charlotte’s 15 games. He had 23 on 78% shooting on opening night against the Bulls. He posted 35 in a comeback win over the Pacers and calmly sunk the winning free throws. He’s also notched double-digit assists in four outings.
“I feel like [the opportunity] is the biggest thing, if you ask me,” explains Graham. “Just trying to make the most of it. I put in a lot of hard work this summer. Didn’t know what to expect with the team this year with losing Kemba [Walker] and Tony [Parker]. I knew my role would increase, but not this much. My teammates, like I always say, do a good job of just telling me, ‘Keep shooting the ball. Keep being aggressive.’”
His teammates aren’t the only ones who’ve passed on that message. Franchise owner Michael Jordan has consistently preached it to Graham as well.
“He just told me to keep going and keep being aggressive,” Graham explains. “He said that sometimes I pass up some open shots that I should take, but you know, that’s just MJ being MJ [laughs].”
With the aid of Coach Mitchell, Graham devoted his offseason to preparing for this kind of role. They focused on expanding his range well beyond the arc, shooting off the dribble, making on-target pocket passes and overall pick-and-roll decision-making.
“[You see] guys like Damian Lilllard, Kemba Walker—obviously [Devonte’] got to see that firsthand last year—and Steph Curry. Coming off pick-and-rolls and making threes is a big thing and can change coverages,” says Mitchell. “So for him, it’s understanding how to change the other team’s coverage, and then when they do, becoming a really good passer in these pick-and-roll situations, which he’s doing a really good job of.”
Throughout his rookie campaign, Graham paid close attention to the two PGs ahead of him on the depth chart. He took note of Kemba’s effectiveness coming off those high screens—how he was able to lose defenders and seamlessly get into his shooting motion. It’s something Mitchell emphasized over and over again in their training. The goal for Devonte’ heading into this year was to create as many open looks as possible from deep, relying heavily on that skill set. He’s currently averaging 2.1 pull up threes a game—good for seventh in the League, per Second Spectrum.
Graham also studied Parker’s elite floater, a necessary tool for small guards (he’s merely 6-1) trying to finish in the paint. Parker was adept at releasing them unpredictably off of either foot. Graham continues to refine those types of unconventional shots with Mitchell.
When he was coming off the bench to begin this season, Graham actually watched film on Lou Williams. He mainly observed how the three-time Sixth Man of the Year would check into games immediately in attack mode. It influenced his own mindset to see someone so fearless.
“It’s really unique,” says Graham. “You come off the bench. You’ve been sitting for however many minutes and then you come off and he’ll take the first shot that comes to him like he’s been in the game and already made five shots. I think that’s a talent. You got to be able to have that confidence in yourself.”
That confidence quickly landed Graham in the starting lineup and has him among the early candidates for Most Improved Player. He believes spending four years at Kansas made a huge difference in his transition to the NBA. The Jayhawks ran a pick-and-roll heavy offense so Graham got used to assessing schemes and making quick adjustments. He filled various roles during his time in Lawrence so he’s comfortable playing on and off the ball as well—a key factor when it comes to developing chemistry with Rozier. The initial plan wasn’t to mix them together so frequently. Rozier was going to be the team’s primary point guard and Graham, his back-up. Devonte’s play through the first 10 games left the coaching staff with no choice but to adapt. He’s been flourishing in his brief position as a starter, averaging 18.8 points and shooting 40% from three.
“I guess he turned that corner of being a rookie to noticing he belongs,” says Kidd-Gilchrist. “You can see that.”
This opportunity may have been unexpected, but that doesn’t mean Graham wasn’t ready for it. Truth is, he’s been preparing for it forever.
“You got to be ready whenever. That’s what [Hornets veteran] Marvin Williams is always telling the young guys,” Graham says. “You just got to be ready, that’s what the NBA is about—being ready when your name is called. Even if you don’t play 10 games, that 11th game, if your name is called and you’re ready and you perform, then you might go from there and play the next 15 games. So you just always got to be ready no matter what.”
At this point, little else Devonte’ Graham does should come as a surprise.
“It’s been really good for us and surprising for a lot of people,” Mitchell says. “But for me, the work that he put in, this is expected.
“And I only expect more.”
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Photos via Getty.