The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

James Graham III could still be in high school. Instead, he’s settling in at Maryland.

Maryland freshman James Graham III has played in four games since joining the team in late December. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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James Graham III had played college basketball for only a week. The early-enrolling 17-year-old had watched from the bench once and practiced with Maryland for a few days. But with a key player injured, Graham stepped onto the floor against Indiana. He missed a three-pointer and grabbed a defensive rebound. The only problem: He couldn’t feel the ball. Jitters had turned the familiar sphere into a foreign object.

For Graham, the past month has been packed with unfamiliarity and excitement. He left home earlier than expected to begin the next step in his career. Only a year ago, the 6-foot-8 forward had just a few scholarship offers. But then he sparked Maryland’s interest, and dozens of programs flocked into the picture, expanding Graham’s options. He became a top-100 recruit and signed with the Terps in their 2021 class. And then another opportunity arose in the fall: He could join Maryland’s program early.

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Initially, Graham’s mom shrugged off the idea, thinking it was a plan that entered her teenage son’s mind and would soon dissipate. But Graham kept mentioning the possibility. Academically, he was in position to graduate high school early. The NCAA’s decision to grant eligibility relief to athletes who compete this year means Graham will still have four more seasons to play. An Ohio State freshman guard, Meechie Johnson Jr., made the same decision this winter. For some athletes — especially with high school seasons and senior-year festivities affected or eliminated by the coronavirus pandemic — the benefits to enrolling early made the option attractive, even though it required a hectic entry into the college game.

“I really wanted to take the next step,” Graham said. “I was just so eager to play much better competition and see if I can handle high-major basketball.”

To his mom’s pleasure, Graham stayed home in Milwaukee through Christmas. But on Dec. 26, Graham’s dad headed to bed in the afternoon after watching a movie so he could wake up ready to drive at 2 a.m. They traveled through the night, and Graham’s parents, Monique and James, spent a few days in College Park helping their son move into an apartment he shares with three other players.

During an evening trip to Target, Graham received a FaceTime call from his teammates, whom he had never met in person, as they celebrated after defeating then-No. 6 Wisconsin. “It was a wild atmosphere in the locker room,” Graham said, and from afar, he enjoyed the win, the last one he had to watch through a screen.

Graham had warned his parents: When the time came to say goodbye, he didn’t plan an outpouring of emotion. There would be no dramatic parking-lot scene as his mom and dad left him in College Park. After the Terrapins returned home from Wisconsin, Graham’s parents met their son’s roommates and coaches. Graham hugged his parents and said he loved them, but they all laugh at his parting words: “I’m going to get something to eat. I’m hungry.”

As their oldest child walked away, Graham’s dad looked at his wife and said, “Well, should we get started?”

Graham headed to a cafe with senior guard Reese Mona, who answered questions and helped him settle in. Graham’s parents let the tears flow as they began the 12-hour drive to Milwaukee. His dad wondered whether they should turn back to stay a few more days near campus. But they continued on, eventually into a snowstorm. And Graham had finally made it, with his first college practices, Big Ten games and an entire career about to begin.

‘A willing learner’

In March, the pandemic dashed Graham’s opportunity to earn a second state championship at Nicolet High. He averaged more than 20 points that season, but he only had scholarship offers from Rutgers, DePaul and Wisconsin Milwaukee. Graham’s dad said the family was “green” to the recruiting process.

When talking with an assistant at a mid-major school, Graham’s dad realized they could send video all around and reach out to coaches. (NCAA rules set limits on coaches contacting players but not vice versa.) That assistant “gave me a few pointers, which was nice,” Graham’s dad said. “I sent him a highlight tape of James, and he basically said: ‘He ain’t coming here. He’s a high-major kid.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ We genuinely didn’t know.”

Graham found a gym where he could safely work out, and his dad filmed his progression. Graham sent that video to coaches all over, and scholarship offers followed. Graham’s mom kept track of the possible schools on a spreadsheet. She filled in notes for each: location, class sizes, whether players stayed in a dorm or an apartment, that living space’s distance from the practice facility, graduation rates and more. Essentially every part of the process was virtual, which added a degree of uncertainty.

Maryland was among the first to acknowledge Graham, and the fact that Coach Mark Turgeon’s staff believed in him before he climbed the recruiting rankings influenced his decision.

The first time Graham’s family watched the Terps this season, his dad said he was “sitting there with this goofy smirk, like, ‘Wow, my boy is going to be on TV.’ ” After that sunk in, he and his wife paid attention to how Turgeon reacted during the game, reassuring themselves he was the same person they met through video calls. Meanwhile, Graham tried to pick up his future teammates’ tendencies and favorite shooting spots. Weeks later, he was thrust into his first practices after the Terps had already begun the Big Ten schedule.

“He’s a willing learner,” Turgeon said. “He’s trying to figure it all out, but there’s a lot.”

It takes time, and he’s still 17. But everything Graham soaks in this season is a bonus because, under typical circumstances, he would still be in high school.

‘Everything was back’

Two days after Graham’s parents left College Park, he watched Maryland’s game against Michigan from the bench at Xfinity Center, the first time he was available for a collegiate game. He had only begun practicing the day before. The pace and the physicality of the college game seemed much different from the sideline. Graham remembers hearing the grunts of players when they cut. Emotion seemed magnified. In that moment, Graham hoped Turgeon wouldn’t call his name. He didn’t feel ready.

Senior guard Darryl Morsell fractured a bone in his face late in the first half, and Maryland let a lead slip away after halftime. Graham plays a similar role as Morsell, and before the Indiana game a few days later, Graham practiced some with the starters. Graham didn’t know for certain, but he thought he might play. He told his dad there appeared to be a chance. Graham’s dad thought to himself: “Dude, you’ve only been there at the school a week. You’ve only been with the team like four days. No way.” But he didn’t want to discourage his son.

When the Terps visited Assembly Hall on Jan. 4, Graham checked into the game. From hundreds of miles away, his family burst with pride. Graham’s grandfather had never seen his name on TV. Graham’s dad screamed through tears. It’s all captured on video, but Graham said his dad won’t show him until he’s older.

“Dreams don’t always work out,” Graham’s dad said. “And to see one work out, that feeling — I’m still smiling.”

Graham played 10 minutes in the next game against Iowa, grabbing four rebounds but missing both of his three-point attempts. The ball still didn’t feel right. But finally, last week, the Terps faced Division II Wingate, giving Graham an ideal environment to find his rhythm.

He ended up scoring 10 points and making a pair of three-pointers. During the second half, Graham found space in the paint and made an easy floater for his first career basket. Graham hardly noticed when he scored for the first time in high school, but this felt different. He knows so much is ahead, but he wants to acknowledge that moment. On Wingate’s next possession, Graham grabbed a rebound, and that’s when he realized something: He could feel the ball again.

“Everything was back,” he said. “I was grooving. It’s wild. It’s the craziest feeling — finally just being able to get comfortable.”