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Devonte’ Graham Is Ready for His Close-up

Kansas’s junior guard has never been as well-known as his All-American, lottery-bound teammates, but he’s as important as anyone to the Jayhawks’ 2017 title hopes

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Kansas junior Devonte’ Graham is used to being overlooked. Before the guard took the floor alongside All-Americans and future NBA draft lottery picks in Lawrence, he was a two-star recruit committed to mid-major Appalachian State.

Oddly, being a lesser-known prospect wound up briefly putting Graham in the headlines: He blossomed in prep school, improving to a four-star prospect and earning attention from power-conference teams in turn, then found himself in a public dispute with the Mountaineers over terminating his commitment. Graham wound up securing a release from his letter of intent so that he could sign with Kansas instead, but as soon as his Jayhawks career began, he found himself in the familiar position of fading into the shadows, outshone in a freshman class that included eventual one-and-dones Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre Jr.

In Graham’s sophomore season, he was again overshadowed, this time by veterans Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden Jr.. And this season has played out true to form: As Kansas has marched to its 13th consecutive Big 12 title and a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Graham has found himself playing sidekick to Naismith Award front-runner Frank Mason and freshman star Josh Jackson.

Yet while Graham lacks the star power of his Jayhawk peers, he’s proven over his collegiate career that he’s instrumental to Kansas’s success. This season, Graham has averaged 13.1 points and 4.3 assists, both career highs. That production has stemmed from his even play, as he’s only scored in single digits five times this season. His true value, however, comes outside of the box score. I’m a Kansas grad, and I’ve watched every game Graham has played for Bill Self: The Raleigh native plays with confidence, energy, and leadership. After last season’s Big 12 tournament final, Self told media Grahams “attitude is just a 10, and I think it’s rubbed off on others.”

Graham’s disposition is particularly crucial at this time of year, because he never shies away from big moments. “I like playing in close games anyway,” Graham recently told the Topeka Capital-Journal. “Blowout games aren’t really that fun.”

That desire to compete came in handy for the Jayhawks when they found themselves down 14 points with only 2:58 against West Virginia this February. Graham scored 14 of his 18 points in the final 2:14 of regulation and overtime, including two clutch 3s late in regulation to force OT.

It was far from the first time Graham had stepped up in a crucial spot, though. In his very first regular season game at Kansas, he scored a team-high 14 points to prevent a near-upset against UC–Santa Barbara. Last season, Graham scored 27 points against Oklahoma, outplaying eventual 2016 Naismith Award winner Buddy Hield. The KU stalwart scored 27 again a month later in the conference tournament final against West Virginia, a performance that propelled him to tourney most outstanding player honors.

Even when Kansas loses, Graham tends to find a way to excel. During last season’s Elite Eight loss to Villanova, he led the team with 17 points while posting seven rebounds.

Graham can impact the game in numerous ways. He’s averaging those 4.3 assists per game despite not being Kansas’s primary ball handler, and he’s shooting 78.7 percent from the free throw line despite playing on a team that historically struggles from the stripe.

He’s also no slouch defensively. Last season he earned Big 12 All-Defensive honors, and he has excelled at creating turnovers this season, averaging 1.5 steals per game this season, including a four-steal outing against Georgia in November. He also has the ability to break out the occasional LeBron-esque chase-down block.

In the aforementioned Topeka Capital-Journal article, Self noted that Graham has been Kansas’s Robin as opposed to its Batman. That’s been true throughout Graham’s collegiate career, but the role has always suited him. Self also praised Graham’s play despite fewer looks amid breakout campaigns for Mason and Jackson, and Graham’s history proves that he has the ability to take his game to another level when called upon to do so. He won’t earn as much buzz as his more famous teammates entering Kansas’s first tourney showdown, but the Jayhawks’ success hinges as much on his play as anyone’s. He’s not just Kansas’s Robin; he’s the glue that binds.