Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets rookie Devonte Graham’s journey from runt to grinder to keeper

Charlotte Hornets rookie Devonte Graham

Hornets point guard Devonte Graham on how four seasons at Kansas helped prepare him to contribute as an NBA rookie.
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Hornets point guard Devonte Graham on how four seasons at Kansas helped prepare him to contribute as an NBA rookie.

Basketball hasn’t always come easy for Devonte Graham. In the long run, that’s been more for the good than the bad for this Charlotte Hornets rookie.

He didn’t get wide-spread recruiting interest growing up in Raleigh because for most of his youth he was never taller than 5-foot-7. He had to attend prep school in New England to re-route his college destination, then was never so good at Kansas that it made sense to turn pro before exhausting his college eligibility.

The plus in all that is he showed up in Charlotte last summer mentally, physically and emotionally mature. The guy simply doesn’t act like a rookie.

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Charlotte Hornets rookie Devonte Graham, right, made his first NBA start Wednesday in place of injured shooting guard Jeremy Lamb. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“He’s just solid,” said teammate Tony Parker, in his 18th NBA season. “The way he makes decisions, the way he plays, you feel like you can trust him.

“He played four years in college, and it shows: He plays very mature.”

So mature that when Hornets coach James Borrego had to replace injured Jeremy Lamb in the starting lineup Wednesday against Dallas, he chose Graham. That, despite it meaning point guard Graham would have to defend bigger, stronger shooting guards. Borrego passed over more NBA-experienced options in Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon to start Graham.

The Hornets were blown out by the Mavericks in Graham’s first start, but Borrego liked how Graham handled the experience, calling it “gritty.” It says something about Graham’s poise that he made two 3-pointers in the game’s first quarter.

Graham has played 22 or more minutes in each of the Hornets’ past three games; it’s clear Borrego’s faith in him is growing, and that Graham is a keeper on this roster.

“He makes good plays, winning plays,” Borrego said. “There’s a confidence about him, and I feel very good about him out there on the floor.”

Too small to be noticed

It would have taken great vision when Graham was a high school sophomore to imagine him an NBA player. He was headed to Appalachian State for college before a growth spurt his junior and senior years shot him up from 5-7 to around 6-1.

After it became clear Graham could play at a higher level of college basketball, Appalachian State declined his request for a release from his commitment. So he deferred college for a year, going to prep school at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. There, he played with Donovan Mitchell, now a star with the Utah Jazz, and reinforced with his performance he could play at an elite program such as Kansas.

“I’ve been through a whole different situation” from most NBA players, Graham told the Observer. “I haven’t always been one of the top guys. I had to work for that all my life. I’ve always been on the grind.”

The Hornets traded two future second-round picks (2019 and 2023) to the Atlanta Hawks to select Graham four picks into the second round in June. Immediately in summer league in Las Vegas, Borrego saw a presence about Graham that was encouraging. He could occasionally do the spectacular - a 20-foot bounce pass to J.P. Macura to set up a flashy transition basket - but more it was the measured way he ran an offense, probing for opportunities without silly risks.

In Charlotte, he has two exceptional resources at point guard in Parker, a likely future Hall of Famer, and Kemba Walker, a two-time All-Star. Graham constantly monitors how Parker and Walker do their jobs, whether it’s through direct contact or just observation in games and practices.

“It’s had everything to do with how I treat everything I do,” Graham said of modeling himself after those two. “Like keeping my body right from watching (36-year-old Parker). And on the court, watching Kemba and Tony attack the pick-and-rolls. The shots they take, the passes they make, I watch so closely.”

The first six weeks of the season, Graham frequently shuttled between the Hornets and assignments with the G-League’s Greensboro Swarm. He embraced playing with the Swarm as an opportunity to refine things he was learning from Walker and Parker.

“It’s been tremendous confidence-wise and conditioning-wise,” Graham described of G-League games “It’s taking what I learn here and taking it down there to test it. And then it’s translating that up here when I get minutes.”

Forgettable second rounds

The success rate of Hornets second-round picks since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004 is less than illustrious. Ryan Hollins didn’t establish a career until he played elsewhere. Jeff Taylor had a few fill-in starts in Charlotte before a domestic-violence charge ended his time in the NBA. Bacon shows potential that hasn’t yet been realized in a crowd of Hornets wing players.

Graham shows lots of promise. Between him and first-rounder Miles Bridges, it appears general manager Mitch Kupchak’s first Hornets draft was a success.

In 20 years overseeing the Los Angeles Lakers, Kupchak was often picking so late that there had to be extra emphasis on selections outside the first round. Kupchak found some very good ones, like Marc Gasol, Luke Walton and Jordan Clarkson in the second round.

For now, Graham looks like more of the same.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

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