KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As the Big 12 player of the year, Devonte’ Graham plays an interpretation of basketball that qualifies pretty much as beautiful, which would make him one of the foremost players to watch this March Madness. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to insist you watch him.
He’s not. He can preen with the best of them after a big shot, stalk back down the court as the crowd roars and the premises rattle, but he does not crave attention. His reasoning for not craving it is crucial in the atmosphere of 2018. It’s not because he’s showing false modesty, and it’s not because he’s shy, because he isn’t. Coach Bill Self has named Graham’s personality one of the best on all of Self’s 15 Kansas rosters.
“Lights up a room when he comes in,” teammate Malik Newman said.
It’s because Graham, 23, aims to practice an art that has never been more essential: that of limiting the voices in one’s head in an era when there have never been more available voices, when coaches lament how players might be altering themselves to suit the voices from all the analysts and the draft experts and the Twitter and the whatnot.
So to the question of whether people should watch the player who just had 18 gorgeous points and 13 lovely assists in the eye-pleasing Big 12 tournament final against West Virginia on Saturday, Graham said: “I mean, naw. I feel like, if anything, they’ll watch us, just because it’s Kansas. I know I probably get a lot of the TV promo and stuff like that, but as a team we can be really unstoppable sometimes. If everybody’s head’s right, we’re a good team.”
So he’ll participate in the TV promos because he’s generally agreeable, even as he said: “See, I’m not really into it. I don’t really pay much attention to it. A lot of times when we’re about to play, I don’t even watch ESPN and stuff like that, because they’ll just be promoting the team and saying whatever they want to say. And it’s a lot of opinions that, sometimes, it can get in your head and how you’re thinking a certain way, so I just try to stay away from it and stay off social media and stuff like that.”
While we seldom know what’s going on in the minds of the players we watch, we do know Graham has followed a long trail to here. He signed with Appalachian State. He helped usher his Broughton High team in Raleigh, N.C., into a state final in 2013. He wanted to alter his college decision. Appalachian State wouldn’t let him, so he went on for a year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.
By the next spring, he had it narrowed to Virginia, North Carolina State and Kansas. In May 2014, after a new coach at Appalachian State granted him his release, and after another Brewster player, Naadir Tharpe, transferred out of Kansas, Graham stepped in as the highest-ranked unsigned prospect at that moment, 36th in the land according to Rivals.com. Self called the 6-foot-2 point guard a “late bloomer” to Kansas reporters back then, and Graham has made his way through four college seasons, reaching second-team all-Big 12 in 2016-17, then spending these past 12 months becoming, he said, more aggressive, more talkative and a better screen-reader.
By Saturday night, he was a basketball symphony. Already he had left a late mark on the first half with his fur-flying, fast-break, sideways lob to freshman Angolan big man Silvio De Sousa, fetching a bit of momentum six seconds before halftime.
Then, starting from the 13:32 mark when Kansas trailed 51-47, Graham had a three-point shot, an audaciously long three-point shot, an assist for Newman’s three-point shot, another assist, yet another assist, his own jumper, then another assist. He then managed to tuck into that mix a rare experience for a viewer, a sight unseen even after watching an unhealthy amount of basketball: He scored after removing an article of clothing during play.
It came with 4:34 left and Kansas ahead 68-66. Graham held the ball out in the hinterland between the key and midcourt when suddenly he took on this agitated expression, then rather clunkily ripped off his shooting sleeve from his non-shooting arm and hurled it upward over the scorer’s table and into the crowd. “He had held my arm and pulled it down,” Graham said of his attentive defender. “So it was kind of just on my hand, so I just took it right off.” He followed that immediately by dribbling down to the left baseline, fading and hitting a delicious 12-footer. He then added another three and another assist, and the Jayhawks led 76-68 with 3:17 left.
Within moments, a man who knows as much about defense as anyone, West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins, was explaining the impossibility of guarding Kansas when its shots are singing, and when De Sousa shoots 8 for 8 largely as a result of all the space. “Then we tried to double the ball screen,” Huggins said. “Then you double the ball screen. You’ve got two guys chasing. And if y’all haven’t figured it out, Devonte’ Graham is pretty good!”
Appropriately, Graham ended the 81-70 win with a steal, which led him to dribble around the premises and under the basket while taking pains not to score so as to just drain the clock. Kansas would enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, and Graham would be a leading reason to watch Kansas — but you can feel free to watch Kansas and not him, if you prefer.
“I don’t feel like I need all that attention,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of a low-key, under-the-radar type of player. So all the attention was never really my thing. I just went out and hooped and, you know, coach always keeps saying he’s glad — ‘You’re finally getting the attention you deserve.’ But at the end of the day, it’s not really big to me.”
“You don’t care,” a reply came.
“Naw,” he said. “Individual stuff, it’s not my thing.”
That might sound like modesty, but in the cacophony of 2018, it’s more so a strategy.
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