Devonte' Graham
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Devonte’ Graham keeps exceeding expectations, including his own

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Devonte' Graham signed with Appalachian State.

It made sense at the time. His next-best scholarship offer came from Murray State. He didn’t view himself as an elite prospect bound to get better offers. Several of his AAU teammates had already committed. So, Graham pledged to play for the middling Southern Conference team that hasn’t produced an NBA player since the professional league’s infancy.

Seven years later, Graham hardly resembles that unconfident kid. He appears in complete control on the court, leading the Hornets and building a strong case for Most Improved Player.

But shades of the mindset that nearly drove Graham to Appalachian State persist and have helped him reach this point.

***

Charlotte’s prized acquisition this offseason was Terry Rozier, a hyped young point guard to replace Kemba Walker. The Hornets gave Rozier a three-year, $56.7 million contract.

Graham hoped to succeed retired Tony Parker as backup point guard.

Once again, Graham didn’t believe enough in himself. The minimum-salaried Graham has forced his way into the starting lineup, sharing the backcourt with Rozier. It’s a tenable, though unideal, fit. The Hornets often stagger the point guards. Graham is just too good to limit to backup minutes.

“We’re figuring that out on the fly,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said.

Graham is averaging 20 points and eight assist per game. He’s launching nine 3-pointers per game and making 43% of them. His real plus-minus (+3.13) ranks ninth among point guards.

If the Hornets knew Graham would be this good, they might not have signed-and-traded for Rozier.

To be fair, how could they have seen this coming?

***

Graham entered last year’s NBA draft looking like a prototypical college star who’d peak on that level. He was undersized (6-foot-1) and relatively old (23). Charlotte drafted him No. 34.

That itself was an accomplishment considering where Graham started.

He blossomed on the court his senior of high school and, finally realizing he could get bigger offers, decommitted from Appalachian State. But Appalachian State held him to his letter of intent. So, Graham enrolled at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, where he continued to impress.

Eventually, Appalachian State fired the coach who refused to release Graham. Jason Capel’s replacement, Jim Fox, set Graham free.

A premier recruit, Graham went to Kansas. It was a big stage for someone who originally didn’t want want to stray too far from his mother, grandmother and sister in North Carolina.

In Lawrence, Jayhawks coach Bill Self urged Graham to shoot more and told him not to worry about getting subbed out. After Graham came off the bench as a freshman, Self told Graham to expect to start the rest of his college career. To Self, it was a simple assessment. To Graham, it was an inspirational message that stuck with him.

Graham started all but two of his games the next three years (coming off the bench once because he overslept and once so a teammate could start on senior day). Graham became Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.

“He’s the sweetest, nicest, most popular kid on our campus, hands down,” Self said. “Hands down, the most popular kid on our campus. Everybody adored him. He ran this place as much as a college student could.

“We used to get letters in the mail all the time about what a great kid Devonte’ Graham was. ‘We saw him at Wal-Mart, and he walked out to the car and took pictures with everybody’ or just whatever. He’s just an amazing kid.”

From there, Graham joined a Hornets team with Kemba Walker and Tony Parker at point guard. Graham spent most of last season out of the rotation.

How did Graham handle going from Big Man On Campus to such a limited role?

“It’s something that a lot of people might not be used to, but I wasn’t always the best player on my team growing up,” Graham said. “So, I kind of already knew what that felt like, not being the man.”

Undeterred, Graham kept working

***

One of the NBA’s biggest surprises, Graham looks the part.

“He’s an assassin with a boy’s grin and looks like he’s about 14 years old without his hair out,” Self said. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you go back to wearing braids or whatever?’ He said, ‘Coach, do you see how young I look when I’ve got my hair short?'”

More importantly, he also plays the part.

Graham has increased his box plus-minus from -4.3 last season to +1.5 this season. That’s one of the biggest jumps in the league.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to this season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 500 minutes this season, 200 minutes in prior season):

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Player Previous high 2019-20 Improvement
Luka Doncic (DAL) +4.1 +13.2 9.1
Devonte’ Graham (CHA) -4.3 +1.5 5.8
Trae Young (ATL) -1.1 +3.5 4.6
Justin Holiday (IND) -0.8 +2.4 3.2
Jonathan Isaac (ORL) +0.1 +3.1 3.0
Brandon Ingram (NOP) -1.3 +1.4 2.7
OG Anunoby (TOR) +0.6 +3.3 2.7
Malcolm Brogdon (IND) +1.5 +4.1 2.6
Richaun Holmes (SAC) +1.7 +4.2 2.5
Will Barton (DEN) +1.0 +3.1 2.1
Jaylen Brown (BOS) -0.2 +1.9 2.1
Bam Adebayo (MIA) +3.0 +5.1 2.1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) +6.8 +8.8 2.0
Luke Kennard (DET) -1.5 +0.5 2.0
Markelle Fultz (ORL) -3.0 -1.0 2.0

Most Improved Players voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, but the usual argument – that highly touted players are bound to improve after a full season of adjusting to the NBA – doesn’t apply. Graham was just a second-round pick, and he didn’t play much last season. His résumé differs greatly from the players sandwiching him on the above leaderboard (last year’s No. 3 pick Luka Doncic and No. 5 pick Trae Young).

Graham also has an attention-grabbing rise in the statistic that matters most to voters, points per game. Including 40 points in the Hornets’ win over the Nets last night, Graham is now averaging 20.0 points per game – a huge leap from the 4.7 points per game he averaged last season.

That 15.3-point increase from his previous career is one of the largest ever. The last time someone improved his scoring average so much: Dale Ellis who went from 7.1 points per game in 1986 to 24.9 points per game the next season.

Here are the biggest increases in points per from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to a later season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 10 games):

image

Player Previous high New high Improvement
John Block (1968 SDR) 2.9 20.2 17.2
Neil Johnston (1953 PHW) 6.0 22.3 16.4
Don May (1971 BUF) 4.3 20.2 15.9
Dale Ellis (1987 SEA) 9.3 24.9 15.6
Robert Hawkins (1977 NYN) 3.9 19.3 15.4
Devonte’ Graham (2020 CHA) 4.7 20.0 15.3
Cliff Hagan (1958 STL) 5.5 19.9 14.4
Bob Love (1970 CHI) 6.7 21.0 14.3
C.J. McCollum (2016 POR) 6.8 20.8 14.0
Reggie Lewis (1989 BOS) 4.5 18.5 14.0
Jerry West (1962 LAL) 17.6 30.8 13.2
Bob Kauffman (1971 BUF) 7.8 20.4 12.6
Bob McAdoo (1974 BUF) 18.0 30.6 12.5
World B. Free (1979 SDC) 16.3 28.8 12.5
Phil Smith (1976 GSW) 7.7 20.0 12.3

***

Graham will likely face another test of his confidence next offseason. He’ll be eligible for a contract extension that projects to be worth about $54 million over four years. That’s life-long financial security. The way he’s trending and the premium on point guards around the league, it’d be surprising if Charlotte doesn’t offer that highest-allowable amount.

However, if Graham forgoes an extension and completes his contract, he could fetch far more in 2021 restricted free agency. He’d be eligible for any salary, up to the league-wide maximum.

A guaranteed $54 million would be difficult to turn down, especially for someone getting just $150,000 above a minimum salary over his first three seasons. Risking waiting for more money would be a major departure in approach for Graham. At least he could still enter free agency a few years after signing an extension, maybe still in his prime.

Graham has shown, with the right determination, the safe route can work out.

Doc Rivers: Lou Williams expected to join Clippers for restart

Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Lou Williams
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers says Lou Williams is expected to join the team for the NBA’s restart in Florida.

Williams has described himself as “50-50” on whether he would finish out the pandemic-interrupted season because he didn’t want to distract from the ongoing push for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody.

“Obviously, up until we get on the plane, anything can happen,” Rivers said during a video conference with media Wednesday. “But I do expect Lou to be with us. I would be very surprised if he’s not.”

Williams, last year’s Sixth Man of the Year, was averaging 18.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.7 assists in 60 games before the league shut down in March due to the coronavirus.

Rivers said he doesn’t think any of the Clippers are opting out from resuming the season. The team heads to Orlando, Florida, on July 8.

“But listen, it is their choice and we support that,” the coach said. “There are so many reasons for everybody to play but there are also very valid reasons for guys to opt out. I don’t think many will. I think they are all invested in what we are trying to do. But again you don’t hold it against anyone on any team. This is extraordinary times and we just have to support each other.”

Guard Landry Shamet echoed other players’ feelings about traveling to Florida at a time when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in certain states.

“It’s obviously a concern, but we’re in the best possible situation and scenario to combat that,” he said. “If there’s a scenario where you feel more comfortable it would be being in a bubble. That’s as controlled as any environment can be, so that’s one positive that I’ve been thinking about.”

Rivers added, “I’m hoping when we get to the bubble it becomes the safest place in America.”

LeBron James’ voting rights group converting arenas into polling places

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ATLANTA (AP) — If basketball icon LeBron James gets his way, NBA arenas and other sports venues around the country will be mega polling sites for the November general election.

James and his voting rights group, formed this spring with other black athletes and entertainers, are joining with other professional basketball leaders and Michigan’s top elections official to push for mega voting sites to accommodate in-person balloting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

More Than A Vote, the James organization dedicated to maximizing Black turnout in November, shared its plans with The Associated Press on Wednesday after the Detroit Pistons became the second NBA franchise to announce plans to use its arena for voting later this year. In Georgia, Fulton County elections officials this week approved the Atlanta Hawks’ proposal to use State Farm Arena as a polling site. Plans call for the arena to serve as a countywide early voting site ahead of Election Day.

The idea, which comes after Kentucky used large facilities in its June 23 primary, is to use large spaces that allow for in-person voting while still enforcing social distancing guidelines. It also underscores the attention on the mechanics of voting amid the pandemic, with the intensity already reflected in both President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden warning that state and local officials have the power to “corrupt” the election.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called her “partnership” with the Pistons an “blueprint for other teams and leagues seeking to advance our common goal of protecting access to the vote for all.”

Lloyd Pierce, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, said the arrangement in his city ensures “high turnout” in a safe environment. Benson, Pierce and David Fizdale, former New York Knicks head coach, will advise NBA franchises and arena management entities around the country on how to replicate the existing deals.

The Milwaukee Bucks also confirmed they are willing to use their home arena as a voting site in the most populous city in the key battleground of Wisconsin.

The coordinated push is a turnabout, of sorts, in the often-partisan jousting over voting procedures.

Some Democrats panned Kentucky elections officials for limiting in-person June primary voting in the state’s two most populous counties to Louisville’s Exposition Center and the University of Kentucky football stadium in Lexington. Voting rights advocates argued in federal court that the plan, part of culling voting sites statewide amid coronavirus concerns, would harm minority voters.

A federal judge rejected their claims, and voting proceeded without the melee that some advocates had forecast.

Now, Benson, a Democrat, is pushing the arena model not as an example of potential voter suppression, but a way to fight it. “One of our greatest challenges in protecting voters’ access to democracy this November is identifying accessible locations where citizens can safely vote in person,” she said.

Amid COVID, that could outweigh potential logistical difficulties of large sites. Lines for such venues can still be long — just as with normal polling locations — as was seen in Lexington at some points on primary day. Voters also could face traffic jams or public transit hiccups given the number of people involved. General elections also have considerably larger turnout than primaries.

Nonetheless, there’s a growing bipartisan push for large-venue voting. NFL executive Scott Pioli last week presented the National Association of Secretaries of State a plan for widespread use of professional and college sports facilities.

James’ group is officially nonpartisan. But the NBA star has been open about its emphasis on the Black community, where Trump faces intense opposition for his white identity politics. James has not endorsed Biden, but he endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.

In Milwaukee, meanwhile, the Bucks owners, the Lasry family, are major Democratic Party donors. Bucks executive Alex Lasry helped lead the effort that landed the Democratic National Convention in the city.

Missouri man freed from prison with help from WNBA’s Moore

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A Missouri man was freed from prison Wednesday after a county prosecutor declined to retry his case, punctuating years of work by WNBA star Maya Moore and other supporters who argued he was falsely convicted of burglary and assault charges.

Moore was on hand when Jonathan Irons, 40, walked out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center. She clapped as Irons approached a group of people waiting for his release. She then dropped to her knees at one point before joining a group hug around Irons.

He had been serving a 50-year prison sentence stemming from the non-fatal shooting of a homeowner in the St. Louis area when Irons was 16. But a judge threw out his convictions in March, citing a series of problems with the case, including a fingerprint report that had not been turned over to Irons’ defense team, according to The New York Times.

The Missouri attorney general’s office unsuccessfully appealed the judge’s decision, and the lead prosecutor in St. Charles County decided against a retrial.

Moore and Irons became friends after meeting through prison ministry, according to the Times. The 31-year-old Moore, a Jefferson City, Missouri, native who starred at UConn before helping lead Minnesota to four WNBA titles, put her career on hold last season to help Irons.

Moore said in January she planned to sit out a second season and miss the Tokyo Olympics. After Irons’ convictions were thrown out in March, she told the AP her plans hadn’t changed.

“’My decision to take another year was bigger than this case,” she said at the time. “But obviously this case was in the forefront of my mind. I’m looking forward when this is done to finally getting some rest and time with my family.”

Adam Silver: Restart broadcasts may need delay to keep cussing off air

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NBA players trash talk and swear more during a game than a Samuel L. Jackson character.

That’s not exactly insider knowledge. However, most of what is said is covered up by the ambient crowd noise and in-arena music at a traditional game. Nobody at home can hear Patrick Beverley‘s stream of consciousness.

But what is going to happen at the NBA’s restart in Orlando? With no crowds and less noise, and courtside microphones can pick up everything. Including language some fans may not want to be brought into their homes.

This is why the league many need a broadcast delay — similar to the seven-second delay used on some live broadcasts — so it can drop any offensive language, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at the Time 100 interview.

“I think often players, they understand when they’re on the floor, they’re saying certain things to each other because it’s so loud in the arena, they know a lot of it is not being picked up. They may have to adapt their language a little bit knowing what they say will likely be picked up by microphones and in all seriousness, we may need to put a little bit of a delay.”

One solution would be to have a live stream available to fans where nothing is dropped. There are those of us — hard-core NBA fans — who want to hear the trash talk, want to listen to the coaches call out the play as the defenders call out what is coming and talk about set picks, etc. We all what to hear what LeBron James is going to say to J.R. Smith on the court. That should be available to fans, along with the video game look and other customizable streams.

The league may have fan’s faces on video boards around the court and music pumped in, but this is just not going to look and feel the same. There may need to be a delay to keep some of the language off the air (that happens at sporting events anyway), but it would be fun to give the viewers the option, as ESPN did with The Last Dance.