Justin Holiday

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.

Victor Oladipo says Pacers ‘definitely’ a playoff team; East more wide open

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With a number of new faces — Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell, Justin Holiday, T.J. Warren — and star Victor Oladipo out until mid-season, predicting where the Indiana Pacers will land in the East next season is difficult.

Oladipo himself has a good idea where, as he told J. Michael of the Indy Star.

“Playoffs, for sure. Definitely.”

And maybe more.

After Milwaukee and Philadelphia at the top, the East is wide open. Last season the Pacers were an impressive defensive team — third-best in the NBA, anchored by Myles Turner — but a middle of the pack offense (before Oladipo tore the quad muscle near his knee and was out, after that they fell off to bottom 10). The challenge was that after Oladipo the Pacers did not have a lot of shot creation options on the roster (Bojan Bogdanovic did well picking up the slack, he’s good but not elite in that role).

Ths season Brogdon can create, Lamb can create for himself, both can play off the ball, and there are just more options, especially once Oladipo returns and everyone gets on the same page.

A team that had difficulty with execution because it had a dearth of ballhandlers should score more on offense and be able to switch more on defense…

“We have the ability now to play that way. We have the personnel to play that way,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who can do things with the ball. Not only me. I don’t think we’ve had that before. It’s going to be a lot of opportunities for guys to go out there and make things happen.”

That kind of team could be very dangerous in the East.

Before that, however, there are a lot of new pieces to fit together in Indiana. Then mid-season their best player in Oladipo returns and there will be another round of adjustments, with guys needing to accept changing roles.

If it all comes together for Nate McMillan and crew, the Pacers are a playoff threat, but there are a lot of “ifs” to get to where the Pacers want to ultimately be.

For now, get to the playoffs, get healthy, and then we will see just what this team is capable of.

Pacers deconstruct playoff team to build similar-level playoff team

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The 2018-19 Pacers built a strong identity.

They were balanced and persistent despite relying on numerous players with expiring contracts. Indiana won 48 games, showing no signs of internal strife while deal with Victor Oladipo‘s injury. In a situation where many players would’ve turned toward individual goals, the Pacers stuck together.

But Indiana came undone this summer.

The Pacers lost four playoff starters: Thaddeus Young (signed with Bulls), Bojan Bogdanovic (signed with Jazz), Wesley Matthews (signed with Bucks) and Darren Collison (retired). Cory Joseph (signed with Kings) and Tyreke Evans (banned) also departed.

This is only the second time in since 1985 (as far back as Basketball-Reference tracks postseason starts) a team lost four players who started every playoff game the prior season.

In 1999, the Magic signed-and-traded Penny Hardaway to the Suns, traded Nick Anderson to the Kings, traded Horace Grant to the SuperSonics and traded Isaac Austin to the Wizards. Orlando was clearing salary for 2000 free agency and eventually landed Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. Between, the Magic even went a surprisingly strong 41-41 in 1999-00 behind scrappy additions John Amaechi, Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins and rookie coach Doc Rivers.

Indiana is making no such willing step back.

The Pacers added several helpful players this summer: Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday and T.J. McConnell. The goal is clearly to build on consecutive 48-win seasons.

Indiana got much younger in all the roster turnover.

The big prize was Brogdon, but he came at a substantial cost. The Pacers guaranteed the 26-year-old with a history of foot trouble $85 million over four years. They also sent the Bucks a first-rounder and two second-rounders in the sign-and-trade for the restricted free agent. Brogdon is a good player, but that’s a lot.

Warren arrived via trade from the Suns in a much easier call. Phoenix sent Indiana the No. 32 pick just to take the 25-year-old forward. With $35.25 million and three years left on his contract, Warren is probably slightly overpaid. But he might not be. The high second-rounder (which the Pacers flipped to the Heat for three future second-rounders) more than covers the difference.

Signing Lamb to a three-year, $31.5 million contract looks like good value. A 27-year-old wing with his offensive talent is usually much more expensive.

Another helpful wing, Holiday came even cheaper. He settled for the room exception after the market dried up.

McConnell ($3.5 million guaranteed next season, $1 million of $3.5 million guaranteed the following season) will fill a role in the backcourt. The size will depend on second-year Aaron Holiday‘s readiness for the rotation and Oladipo’s return from injury.

A healthier Oladipo was always bound to make the Pacers better. The new younger talent – including No. 18 pick Goga Bitadze – gives Indiana a chance to create something for the long haul.

Still, the Pacers had a winning formula the last couple years. They’ve disrupted it. That’s uneasy, even as there’s no guarantee the departed veterans would’ve maintained their production as they aged.

I’m also not convinced the new lineup has staying power. Indiana plans to start Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, both players who should primarily play center. Those two work together fine for now, but they’re better off apart.

That said, the big-man pairing can also help the Pacers maintain their culture of toughness and defense. Coach Nate McMillan can work with this group.

Only Indiana’s roster has changed. The reasonable expectation for this team hasn’t.

Offseason grade: C+

Justin Holiday reportedly reaches deal with Pacers, will join forces with brother

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The Pacers just added the wing depth and some defense at the position they have been looking for.

It’s through someone they have long had their eye on, Justin Holiday, the six-year NBA veteran who split time last season between Chicago and Memphis. He has reached an agreement to join the Pacers — and his brother, Aaron Holiday — for a season in Indiana. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news.

The Pacers have been in touch with Holiday for a while, reports J. Michael of the Indy Star.

Holiday averaged 10.5 points a game last season, shot 34.7 percent from three, and played solid wing defense.

Victor Oladipo is the team’s best wing player, once he returns from injury (the Pacers are hoping around Christmas or a little after). Beyond him there is Jeremy Lamb, C.J. Wilcox, T.J. Warren, Doug McDermott, and Brian Bowen. Holiday can find minutes in that group.

This also sparks the dream of an all T.J./Holiday lineup. The Pacers have two Holidays, Justin and Aaron, as well as three un-related players named T.J. — T.J. McConnell, T.J. Warren, and T.J. Leaf. We need to see those five on the court together next season, if only for a few minutes.

Report: Pacers signing Justin Holiday to one year, $4.8 million contract

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It’s Christmas in July for the Pacers.

Well, it’s at least some Holiday.

Indiana is signing Justin Holiday, brother of Pacers point guard Aaron Holiday.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Beyond the sibling connection, Justin Holiday should help the Pacers.

Bojan Bogdanovic left for the Jazz. Victor Oladipo is injured.

But Indiana found depth on the wing with Jeremy Lamb (three years, $31.5 million) and now Justin Holiday both incoming on team-friendly contracts. Likely starting point guard Malcolm Brogdon can also play on the wing when T.J. McConnell or Aaron Holiday runs the point.

The 30-year-old Justin Holiday is a solid defender and 3-point shooter. He’s not the most dynamic player, but he’ll fit in well.

The Pacers have resiliently earned a middling playoff seed the last two years. Expect the same next season.