Devonte' Graham Isn't 'Supposed to Be Here'

Perhaps the NBA's most fearless scorer you never heard of wasn't a phenom, but with the guidance of a mom who had him at the age of 14, he learned there's no one in the game who can check him.
photo of Jonathan AbramsJonathan Abrams@jpdabramsSenior Writer, B/R MagIN CHARLOTTEDecember 20, 2019

"Why not you?"

It was a question Devonte' Graham was left to ponder from his agent, Ty Sullivan. The two had been talking last summer about what Graham hoped to accomplish during the approaching NBA season. Minutes had been scarce for Graham as a rookie. Plucked in the second round of the 2018 draft, Graham was stuck deep on the Hornets' depth chart, behind an All-Star in Kemba Walker and a future Hall of Famer in Tony Parker. So he spent his first year in the league shuttling between Charlotte and the Hornets' G League affiliate in Greensboro, North Carolina.

But after Parker retired last summer and Walker, the franchise's centerpiece, left for Boston in a sign-and-trade deal for Terry Rozier, Graham knew he'd find a less-crowded path to playing time. He told Sullivan that he hoped to average 12 points and six assists per game, which would be a sizable leap from a rookie season of 4.7 points and 2.6 assists in 46 games.

Hornets coach James Borrego had told Sullivan that Graham would get a decent look and that he would need Graham to play off the ball as well. But with the team's second-leading scorer from last season, Jeremy Lamb, also gone in free agency, Graham and Sullivan still saw an opening in the lineup. "Based on your roster make-up, Terry's probably going to be the leading scorer, but there needs to be a second guy," said Sullivan, "because you can shoot."

That's a bit of an understatement this year.

Only six players are launching more threes off the dribble than Graham's 5.8 attempts per game. He's converting them at 38.9 percent, virtually tied with Damian Lillard and Walker and better than those who attempt more, like James Harden and Luka Doncic.

The 6'1" Graham, who's increased his scoring average by more than 14 points per game and ranks eighth in assists (7.5 per game) is an early front-runner for the league's Most Improved Player award—and possibly a spot in the All-Star Game thanks to steadying a franchise that may surprisingly be in contention for one of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spots. As teammate Miles Bridges recently tweeted: "Tae world I'm just living in it."

Sullivan may not be a totally objective observer, but in Graham, he sees a client who is applying what he learned in his first season.

"People say, 'What did he do over the summer?'" Sullivan said. "Look, it's what he did last year. He sat there, and got his confidence up [in the G League]. He shadowed Kemba. He took all that and he put it into his own game this summer and now we're just seeing fruits of it. ... Kemba and TP, he'll tell you those guys really showed him the way. ... Because you see a lot of Kemba's game [in Graham's] now. That pull-up three off the dribble like that? Kemba does that. Finishing around the rim? That's a lot of Kemba. You know the floater? ... That's Tony Parker."


As Graham prepared to crisscross the country to audition for NBA teams last spring, he graduated from Kansas with a degree in Communication Studies. The weekend coincided with the birthday of his mother, Dewanna King, and Mother's Day.

The graduation, for King, presented a moment of reflection.

It had been only 14 years since she, herself, had walked across the stage at her high school graduation while carrying a then-four-year-old Devonte' with her. "You work so hard, you sacrifice so much and then to see all your work, it's like a complete picture," King said. "A picture's finished, so to speak. You know you have a long way to go, but this picture is finished. ... That's one of the moments when things started to come back and you remember that statistically, we're not supposed to be here. Statistically, I would be a high school dropout. He would probably be dead or in jail, and we beat the odds."

With help from her mother and sister ("and a lot of praying," she says), King earned a business administration degree at Shaw University while also working.

"She had me when she was 14," Graham said. "I couldn't ask for a better mother, better parent than her. Just everything she does to support me. Even when she didn't have the money to do it, she always found a way." Sometimes that meant traveling from their home in Raleigh to Charlotte and back so she wouldn't miss one of Devonte's games in between sessions of his sister's cheerleading competition.

Other times, that meant stressing about how much she wanted Devonte' to graduate from college. "Even in high school, she would tell me I couldn't do stuff until I knew what college I was going to," Graham said. "I wanted to get a tattoo, and she was like, 'Once you know what college you're going to, you can get a tattoo.'"

Her focus was impossible to miss for anyone who came in contact with the family.

"Her passion, her consistency in regards to not allowing any type of setback or any type of negative situation or anything like that ever sway her from her ultimate conviction which was, my child was going to have a good life," Dwayne West said.

West is the brother of former NBA All-Star David West, and the architect of Raleigh's famed AAU Garner Road Basketball Club, which features alumni such as John Wall and TJ Warren. Devonte' came to the club's attention at about the age of 8, when Clarence Coleman, a coach for the program, visited Raleigh's Roberts Park in search of a point guard. Coleman consulted with Sherri Hartsfield, the park's director, and she pointed him to a tiny kid commanding the court. "He was talented ... when we saw him, but he was a little big-headed, big-footed kid that was really small," King recalled. Coleman watched Devonte' for all of a quarter before he sought out his mother.

King allowed him to join, somewhat surprised that her child, who previously did not have a care in the world, now suddenly hurried her out the door to every practice out of concern that the pair would be late. "But because he loved basketball so much, it was something he wanted to do," she said.

He held his own on the court, even as he was surrounded by kids pegged as phenoms. "Just from a strictly physical standpoint, he just matured a little bit later than most kids," Coleman said. "We say this about a lot of kids: 'If he gets around 6-feet, he's going to be something.' But he was always good, always had significant playing time, but it was one of those things where he had to catch up physically."

Graham was 5'3" by the time he entered Raleigh's Broughton High School. "He always used to wear his hair up because he said it made him look taller," said Jeff Ferrell, his coach at the school. Ferrell and his staff often implored Graham to be more selfish. "He was very conscientious about his teammates, and he didn't want to come across being ... a ball hog," Ferrell said. "I think that he and the coaches and his teammates finally said, 'Dude, you got to take these shots a little bit more, shoot to score.' And he did, particularly his senior year he really started to come along. But he was very smart, he understood what everybody was supposed to be doing ... just a smart leader."


Graham's path to a larger profile was a bit clunky, to put it nicely.

For a long while, only smaller schools showed a faint interest in Graham. In late 2012, he signed a letter of intent to attend Appalachian State.

"A lot of my teammates around me were already committed," Graham said. "Big, high-major schools—UNC, Louisville, places like that. It was getting late ... in my career and I really didn't have no big-time offers. I was comfortable with the coaches there at the time. I felt like that was the best option for me at the time, so I just went ahead and did it."

It wasn't long before he began having doubts about his decision. Though the school was close to home, he wasn't thrilled about the relatively isolated atmosphere. And then came his senior season at  Broughton, when he averaged 15.7 points and 5.4 assists and led the school to an appearance in the state title game. Larger schools beckoned, and Graham tried to get out of his commitment to Appalachian State.

"It was a nightmare," King said. "I was reading stuff on Google, doing the appeal myself ... I sent it to the NCAA. They denied it. Sent them something else, they denied that as well. And I'm going against people who have lawyers, who know what they're doing, who have the school and the system behind them. So, it was tough."

Jason Capel, the school's coach at the time, refused to budge. ESPN.com reported that Appalachian State suspected NC State (which Graham would later consider attending) of tampering.

"It was never his doing in my eyes," Capel told the Kansas City Star last year. "I've always stated that. In recruiting him, we were as surprised as anyone that we got a player of his talent. But we worked our (butts) off, and made everyone believe and feel comfortable. And got lucky because he was severely under-recruited."

Unable to get his release from the school, Graham opted for a post-graduate year at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire that churns out NBA talent such as Warren, Thomas Robinson and Will Barton under coach Jason Smith. 

Smith knew that Graham had promise, but he didn't have the recognition or the ranking that most players who go through the school have. Nor did another teammate at the time, Donovan Mitchell. "This isn't a typical Brewster team," one of Graham's new teammates said.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Graham asked.

Smith placed Mitchell and Graham on the same team during intrasquad scrimmages.

"They absolutely kicked the crap out of everybody, and every time they won a game, they would just regurgitate that back, 'Not a typical Brewster team. Not a typical Brewster team,'" Smith said. "Because at that point, I don't think Devonte' or Donovan was really on anybody's radar."

Graham averaged 17 points and helped Brewster to the national prep championship in 2014.

"Once he realized, Hey, I can play with anybody, he was our most important player on the floor when he was at Brewster," Smith said. "Basically, I couldn't take him off the floor because he ran our team and spaced the floor, and was just a true leader. I think that as the year progressed, he realized, Wow, I can definitely play with these guys who are going to Syracuse, Oklahoma State, etc. He just got better and better."

Norm Roberts, a Kansas assistant, had arrived to see recruits like Mitchell but couldn't help but notice Graham. "Who the heck is that?" he asked Smith before being told of Graham's standoff with Appalachian State and that he couldn't communicate with other coaches. "If he does get out of the letter of intent, please let me know," Roberts said.

Eventually, Graham did get his release. Capel had been fired after a 9-21 year, and incoming coach Jim Fox agreed to release Graham following a year-and-a-half of being stuck in limbo. Graham committed to the Jayhawks.

Coleman figured that Graham would fit nicely into Bill Self's offense. "They run some weaving actions and ball screens and put it in the hands of the guards to make good decisions and have the ability to score, have the ability to set up other people," Coleman said. "And as it turned out, that turned out to be really true. He really thrived in Kansas' system. And the beauty of it is, he thrived off the ball playing with Frank Mason. And then when it was time for him to kind of take the reins as a point guard, he showed the ability to score and set up other people as well."

Graham's pairing with Mason, also an undersized and overlooked prospect, made for one of college basketball's most dynamic backcourts. "Either one of us could make the plays whenever we needed it," Mason said. "We really fed off each other. I made plays for him. He made plays for me, and I was always the older one, so I was the leader of the team, but he was a leader, too." By the end of his senior season, Graham was a first-team All-American and the Big 12 Player of the Year.

Devonte' Graham's ability to play with or without the ball in the backcourt gave Kansas one of the most flexible backcourt pairings in the country when Graham played alongside Frank Mason from 2014-17.
Devonte' Graham's ability to play with or without the ball in the backcourt gave Kansas one of the most flexible backcourt pairings in the country when Graham played alongside Frank Mason from 2014-17.Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Despite the distance, King would still make the drive from Raleigh to Lawrence, Kansas, as often as she could.

"And the joke is Dewanna doesn't let anyone take the wheel," Sullivan said. "So, grandmother, sister, she won't let anyone else drive."

Graham played four seasons at Kansas, leading the Jayhawks to the Final Four in 2018. Though he earned the degree his mother had always wanted for him, the NBA wasn't as impressed.


On draft night last year, Graham, his family and close friends bunkered in at the JB Duke Hotel in Durham, North Carolina—far from the site of the draft in New York. "I didn't want to go to New York just in case I didn't get drafted and I'd be having my family out there and stuff like that," Graham said.

The draft creeped into the late twenties. "That's when I started really getting nervous," Graham said.

The first round ended without his name being called.

"Then, the anticipation started to weigh on us," King said. "Like, 'Hey, check your phone. Did your agent text you? What's going on?' And by that time his name was called [we had] a room full of people screaming and yelling."

The Hornets had offered two future second-round picks to the Atlanta Hawks to secure Graham 34th overall.

"Transitioning from college to the NBA is hard, you know?" King said. "I think he makes it look easy because he's always smiling and doesn't seem like he has a bad day, but I'm on both ends of it, I know there's hard days."

Graham wasn't new to evolving in a basketball sense, and with the Hornets, he tried to absorb what he could from the veterans in front of him in the rotation. Parker would offer bits of wisdom, telling him, for example, to pay close attention to the feet of the opposing big during a pick-and-roll, that their placement would often unmask their intentions on whether to switch or stay. Or how important it was to ice after games if he wanted a career that could stretch decades, like that of Parker.

From Kemba, "I watched how [he] was just a dog," Graham said. "He had the biggest heart. Not the biggest guy ever, but you wouldn't tell by the way he played he feared nobody."

With the veterans gone, Graham quickly understood that a bigger role for him not only was available, but necessary.

"He came from practice one day, and he told [teammate and fellow second-year player] Dwayne Bacon, 'In order for us to win, we're going to have to take more shots this year,'" King said.

Graham's three-point shooting has the Hornets, unexpectedly, in position to grab a playoff spot early in the season.
Graham's three-point shooting has the Hornets, unexpectedly, in position to grab a playoff spot early in the season.Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

"For last year, you're not sure whether you take the shot or don't take the shot. This year, he had to get to the point where it's, OK, I have no choice, take the shot. Somebody has to take the shot."

The results have been eye-opening. But in leading the Hornets in scoring, Graham is fast becoming the opposing team's defensive priority.

"We've seen different looks for Devonte'," Borrego said. "They're blitzing him, the bigs help at times, they're back at times. They're switching his pick-and-roll, he's basically seeing the whole package right now ... He's just reading the defense right now; if he can get downhill, he gets downhill, when they bring the big up he knows he's got to pocket pass, so this is just him learning on the fly right now."

Graham is also still learning to play with Rozier, who is averaging a career-high 17.0 points. "If I get tired, I'll tell him you get the ball and bring it up or whatever the case may be," Graham said. "When one of us gets going, a lot of times coach has that feel, we can call a lot of plays, but in a flow of a game, Terry hits two or three shots, I'll call a play that's drawn up for him, that he can catch and shoot it or come up off a screen or something like that."

In a lot of ways, it's a style Graham has already played, when he teamed with Mason at Kansas.

"That's exactly what I could compare it to," Graham said. "Just having two guards that can score the ball and facilitate and make plays for other people—did that for three years with Frank.

"I learned how to play on the ball and off the ball. I think that's helping me for here playing with Terry ... being the 1 and the 2, being able to guard bigger guards."

No matter where, or with whom, he's playing, there's always Dewanna, acting as everything from sounding board to amateur trainer. She's an avid watcher of every game. "She texts me during the game, like I can see it," Graham said.

King said they are reminders for her not to forget. Good or bad, she often moves onto the next play and needs reference points for reminders. "I'm texting at the moment when he's doing something, like, boy, you should've made that layup," she said. "Then it'll also come back to him later and he'll be like, OK, well that was the layup she's talking about."

She would have said the same thing when he was that tiny boy. She has always been at his side.

One thing has changed about their relationship, however: She's relented on the tattoos, which allowed Graham to get one across his chest that reads:

Forever grateful.

   

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter, @jpdabrams.


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