The glow came from the first-class aisle seat on American Airlines flight 5, an 11:10 a.m. nonstop from Dallas destined for Honolulu.
Indiana coach Tom Crean opened his laptop and placed it on the tray table in front of him; with eight hours to burn he’d already decided that studying the next opponent would be the best use of his time.
This was Nov. 8, 2016 — three days before Indiana’s season-opening game against Kansas — and Crean watched film so long over the Pacific Ocean that his computer battery finally gave out before the plane’s final descent.
By that time, though, the coach had detailed notes on the Jayhawks.
And that included an extensive scouting report of KU guard Devonté Graham.
Crean’s current views on Graham are not any secret.
The ESPN analyst said during a segment on SportsCenter recently that Graham, who is from Raleigh and could face N.C. State Saturday if both teams win their first-round NCAA games in Wichita on Thursday, was his sleeper pick for national player of the year. He told KU’s coaches before a game in late January that he couldn’t believe the guard’s growth from last year to now.
And when NBA contacts ask him about Graham? Crean is sure to speak up then, too.
“I think he has got an incredible future ahead of him, and I’m not sure if I would’ve said that at the beginning of the year,” Crean said. “I would’ve seen him as a potential NBA player, but maybe not to where I would see it now. From where I sit, in my opinion and experience I’m completely sold on what he’s done.”
What has happened with Graham this year isn’t common. It’s sometimes easy for fans to forget what a player looked like two or three years ago while not fully appreciating the small improvements that lead to a breakout campaign.
Crean is ready to tell you what he’s seen.
And perhaps it’s best to start with that scouting report from 16 months ago.
Indiana defeated KU in overtime, 103-99, on Nov. 11, 2016, and on the surface, Graham’s numbers appeared to be fine.
He scored 16 points on 3-for-11 shooting, adding three assists to go with two turnovers before he fouled out in 36 minutes.
Dig a bit deeper, though, and one can see subtleties of Crean’s gameplan working to expose Graham’s weaknesses that appeared on film.
Start with this: Graham wasn’t always the most aware defensively. Sometimes, he’d take unnecessary chances defensively that led to him being out of position, and Crean also saw many examples where he was caught ball-watching.
Graham also wasn’t the best at sensing when ball screens were coming, and Crean noticed that Graham played low on the floor when he was guarding a player in the corner. This left him vulnerable when there was a pick-and-roll run to his side, as it would make it almost impossible for him to help on a rolling big man before recovering to get back out to defend a shooter.
On offense, there were other limitations. Graham was a good shooter, but he sometimes rushed his shot and also had a leg kick that often left him off-kilter. Crean’s main defensive focus, then, was to crowd him, which would leave Graham uncomfortable without a secure spot to land. Graham also wasn’t as much of a threat in ball-screen situations, with teammate Frank Mason taking on most of the load there.
Knowing those deficiencies gives the proper context when talking to Crean about Graham now.
“Everything I just mentioned is totally gone now. Totally gone,” Crean said. “And there’s so many things that are added to his game.”
Crean saw Graham’s development firsthand while serving as an ESPN analyst in KU’s 83-77 victory at Iowa State last month.
Defensively, Graham made his way around the Iowa State screens without as much contact. He played higher up the floor defensively, allowing him to help with the roller before quickly recovering to defend his own man on the perimeter.
While shooting, Graham’s feet went up and down together in a more consistent motion that created better balance. And he also made solid decisions in ball-screen situations, which included finding open teammates on the perimeter after forcing help.
Crean sees other intangibles with Graham too. He’s said often that the guard plays as hard in the last three minutes as he does in the first three — something especially difficult with Graham averaging 39 minutes in Big 12 play — while not getting enough credit for the leadership he provides with his “contagious confidence.”
“I think sometimes ‘the will to win’ is overused. In fact, I really do believe it’s overused,” Crean said. “But I think in the case of Devonté Graham, it’s not said enough. He truly has that.”
This has all led Crean to one conclusion. It’s something he wouldn’t have believed a few months ago, and a thought that would’ve seemed far-fetched when he first scouted Graham on an eight-hour flight to Hawaii.
“I’ve not seen a guy who’s improved as much not only from his junior year to his senior year, but even December of this year to now,” Crean said.
KU fans have witnessed something exceptional from Graham this season, Crean says, even if that was difficult to see at times.
Sometimes incremental growth can be the toughest to appreciate.
“It wasn’t like he wasn’t one of the best guards in America when the season started,” Crean said. “But he’s taken it to a whole other place.”