Let’s begin first with a spelling lesson. Devonte’ Graham: The apostrophe comes after the “e,” which comes after the “t,” and the only “a” in Devonte’ is the sound you make when you actually say his name. Google it, if you have to, every time before you tweet about his feats, like his career-high 40 points against the Nets on Wednesday night. You can call him “Tae,” like his teammate Miles Bridges does. Or just learn his full name, because if he continues to play this way, there will be no choice but to get it right every time. And Graham doesn’t look like he is going to let us forget about him any time soon.
Where did Graham come from? Though college basketball fans will remember him from his time at Kansas, Graham has been like a meteor unexpectedly smashing into the league for NBA fans. He’s been one of the biggest early-season surprises from an even more unlikely source: the Hornets. Charlotte was expected to barely make a ripple this season after losing star point guard Kemba Walker to Boston and fielding a lackluster roster with a dearth of talent. Most projections pegged the Hornets to not only inhabit the league’s cellar, but also be one of the more dull teams to watch this season. But almost 30 games in, it’s clear we were wrong. Graham’s breakout has been a charming out-of-the-blue story and a hypnotizing experience.
In his rookie season behind Kemba, Graham barely cracked the Hornets’ rotation. He played in 46 games and averaged 4.7 points and 14.7 minutes per game. His output was so minuscule that this kind of leap couldn’t have been anticipated by anyone, including the team’s front office. This year, Graham is averaging an eye-popping 20 points per game and 7.6 assists, and he owns an effective field goal percentage of 53.8, which is top-10 among guards with a usage rate above 20 percent (averaging at least 25 minutes per game). And how’s this for poetic: That’s the exact same effective field goal percentage that yep, you guessed it, Walker is posting in Boston.
While it would be convenient to credit the Hornets for not supermaxing Walker because they knew what Graham could do, there’s no way that was the case. Upon losing Walker, they quickly overreached and signed Terry Rozier to a massive three-year, $58 million deal to be their starting point guard. Relitigating the decision to let Walker walk looks a lot better for Charlotte when you suddenly have a burgeoning, younger version of him in tow (although the organization probably wishes it was the guy making $20 million this season). Is that what Graham could be? He’s certainly better at his age, 24, than Walker was then. And it was fitting that Wednesday night, as Walker lit up the Pacers for 44 points (including seven 3s) in a loss, Graham spearheaded the Hornets’ effort over the Nets with seven 3s of his own on his way to 40 points and a win.
Fourteen of those 40 points came in the fourth quarter, when Graham turned on flamethrower mode and torched the Nets to the finish line. Graham has a penchant for the dramatic. Last month, he walked into the other New York basketball arena and hit a game-winner in the closing seconds. If shades of old UConn Kemba in the Garden by his successor did not incite the proper nostalgia, it was only because the shot Graham used to beat the Knicks was not the type of shot Walker made famous in his college days. Graham’s dagger on that night, just like the dagger he doled out against Brooklyn on Wednesday, was a catch-and-shoot 3 and not one that took 10 seconds of dribbling to materialize.
Graham is not Walker Lite as much as he is the evolved, modern version of a young Walker. What Walker is doing now in his ninth season—shooting 9.1 3s a game at a 41 percent clip—Graham is doing already. At 24, Walker was shooting only 4.5 3s a game and taking a lot more midrange shots, while Graham is hoisting 8.9 treys a game and making them at a 43 percent clip in just his second season. He’s on pace to make more than 300 3s this year, a mark that has been reached only four times in NBA history, once by James Harden last season and three times by Steph Curry. It’s how the NBA has evolved in a nutshell: Graham’s personal leap has come at a time when the league is ripe for guards like him—slightly undersized, great handles, killer 3-point shot—to flourish. In college, he did shoot over 40 percent from 3, but he was a four-year player, which made him easy to overlook compared to younger prospects with higher projected ceilings. But the fact that the Hornets, especially head coach James Borrego, have given Graham space to operate and even played him over their pricey free-agent signing, is exactly what’s allowed him to sprout and the Hornets to stay afloat. They are 11-16, but only one and a half games back of the no. 8 seed, a race they know all too well. When Graham scores 29 points or more this season, Charlotte is 5-1.
This under-the-radar vibe that Graham carries is not novel. He was originally a two-star recruit headed for a mid-major school before he broke out and got himself to Phog Allen in Kansas. And so it’s perhaps no surprise that while most young players the Hornets have drafted in the lottery lately (uh, Malik Monk) have not panned out as expected, Graham has emerged with the fiercest appetite to prove he belongs. It’s a testament to how comfortable he is being overlooked (and perhaps an indictment of Charlotte’s front office) that the Hornets’ best player going forward seems to be a second-round draft pick. But for the Hornets, a franchise that was stuck in purgatory even with Walker, at least now there’s something that breeds excitement for the future. And yet, from a team-building perspective, the hope now is that no matter what Graham ends up being, the Hornets won’t repeat the past and fail to build something sustainable, resulting in them losing Graham. One thing is certain: He won’t be forgotten or overlooked anymore.