People around him kept telling Devonté Graham how good he was, that the world of basketball was about to open up before him, with all of its bounty saved for the truly gifted and talented, and he couldn't believe it.
He wouldn't believe it. In his mind, he was still the sixth guy on a five-player AAU team in Raleigh full of college-bound stars, the skinny little kid with the big feet and big head whose body hadn't yet caught up with his jump shot, and even taking Cat Barber's lunch out from under him at a summer tournament – on Barber's home court, in the Tidewater – didn't change that.
Before his senior year at Broughton, Graham and his mother sat down with Dwayne West, who runs the Garner Road AAU program, over a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in West's office. And as they ate, West told them of all the power programs that were calling, from the ACC and SEC and elsewhere, 13 of them with serious interest. And then Graham told him he was going to take one of his five official visits to Appalachian State, which West had not even mentioned.
West figured, fine, get a sense of things, but he was pretty sure, in his heart, Graham was probably bound for bigger things.
He could see it. Graham, at that point, could not. Not yet.
“I think there was a point in time where he kind of questioned what he was,” West said. “I wouldn't say he feared it, but he at least questioned it. That was one of the primary reasons why he took the App State offer. They gave him whole deal, and he kind of just said, 'I'm going to take this.'”
So how did Graham go from signing with the first school he visited to being the senior leader of one of the truly elite programs in college basketball? When Kansas plays Clemson on Friday night, Graham will be the Jayhawks' unquestioned star, a consensus all-American point guard who has played all but 45 minutes this season -- breaking Danny Manning's single-season Kansas record -- and a media celebrity, the laughing, joking, smiling leader and centerpiece of Kansas' team.
“He's on a different level now,” said Boston College star Jerome Robinson, a teammate at Broughton. “He's worldwide 'Dtaé.' ”
Graham would come to regret signing with Appalachian State, and it took him two years to find a way out of that commitment. By the time he did, he was on his way to becoming the player everyone thought he could be. By then, Graham finally thought so as well.
Those around him say that while Graham's body and skills have blossomed into stardom, they still think of him as the kid who would do anything he could to help his bigger, more talented teammates win. It may have taken Graham a while to understand just how good he was, but he hasn't forgotten there was a time when he didn't.
“Devonté hasn't switched up on me or anybody,” said Steven Thornhill, one of Graham's oldest friends from Raleigh. “He stays true. He stays loyal.”
THE LITTLE GUY
Long before he became the most valuable player on one of the highest-profile teams in the country, Graham was playing on a rec-league team at Garner Road, not for any of the elite age-group teams. He was just another 9-year-old kid playing basketball at the gym, until the coaches on the travel team saw him outplay their own point guard.
Over the next few years, his Garner Road age cohort would eventually include ACC-bound players like Isaiah Hicks and Tyrone Outlaw and Anton Gill, but Graham's name didn't resonate on the recruiting circuit like theirs did. They were physical freaks, teens with the bodies of grown men, leaping and jumping and dunking and dazzling. Then there was Graham, who could always shoot, but didn't look like a college player.
“I was always small,” Graham said. “Height didn't matter to me, because I knew I was faster than all of them. I was just trying to outrun them.”
He looked like a rec-league player, except when he had the ball in his hands. But clearly, there were stars on the team, and he wasn't one of them.
“There was a period in time where he was just happy to be around,” West said. “He just kind of fit into the pecking order of things. He was still developing, still small but growing. Big feet, big head. Could still shoot the ball.”
Between his junior and senior years at Broughton, that team went up to Hampton for a big May tournament, where the powerful Boo Williams squad – the hometown favorite, led by future N.C. State star Barber – was expected to win easily. Instead, with Graham scoring 26 head-to-head against Barber and without Hicks and Gill, Garner Road won the title.
Suddenly, West was hearing from bigger schools – maybe not the ACC's North Carolina powerhouses, yet, but more peripheral schools like South Carolina and Florida State. Notes had been taken, eyebrows raised. They were curious, interested, eager to see what Graham did his senior year at Broughton. At Appalachian State, Jason Capel didn't need to wait.
“His body needed to fill out but the talent was always there,” Capel wrote in a text message. “He's a winner, man. He thrives on the underdog role. We sold him on being Dame Lilliard, guard from a small school that other people didn't recognize the gem he was. We knew how good he was and how much better he would become.”
So before anyone really saw what Graham could do, he went up to Appalachian State for the official visit and, in September 2012, signed with the Mountaineers.
It's easy to understand Graham's willingness to leap at that first real offer, and it had to do with more than basketball insecurity. His mother, Dewanna King, was only 14 when Graham was born, and she would say, later, that the two of them grew up together. With the help of her mother Doris, she raised Graham in Raleigh, getting her high-school diploma and a degree from Shaw while she did it.
“It was after he signed with App State, knowing he would be able to go to college,” Robinson said. “You could definitely see that transition. That's where it started to happen, when it was secure for him.”
Whatever happened next, signing with Appalachian State served as yet another springboard into the future for Graham.
“I felt like I had to get better,” Graham said. “I knew that I was going to be playing college ball. At the time I was just trying to get stronger and focus on a lot of the little things. That definitely helped me blossom.”
The idea of a scholarship, close to home but not too close to home, was tantalizing. After all the years of hard work, all the years of waiting for a growth spurt, the reward was finally here. If you honestly weren't sure Florida State and South Carolina were really interested, why not take the bird in hand? And once he signed, no one could take it away from him.
Graham would quickly find out that works both ways.
TWO YEARS IN EXILE
Everything finally clicked for him as a senior at Broughton, and if neither college assistant coaches nor Graham himself could see the elite player inside for a long time, it didn't take a basketball savant to see it now. By the end of a dominant senior season, he decided he had outgrown Appalachian State. Capel, who had been able to spot the elite player before anyone else, refused to release Graham from his letter of intent, accusing other schools of tampering – N.C. State was identified, although then-coach Mark Gottfried denied it – with Graham.
Capel says he had and has no hard feelings toward Graham, whose game and personality he loved. But neither side would budge.
“It was kind of just like, 'Why y'all doing this? Why are you not letting this kid have his freedom?'” Thornhill said. “I know he committed, but he made a bad decision, like all kids make. He just made a fast decision. Once he realized he could go to a top program, it was kind of like, we need out of here. App State held him hostage. I wouldn't say it was a down moment in his life, but he didn't know what was going to happen.”
Because of the binding letter of intent, Graham couldn't even talk to other schools, but Capel and Appalachian State were irate over what they saw as bigger schools trying to poach one of their players and stood their ground. The opposing sides became entrenched. A “Free Dtaé” campaign provoked no movement.
At the same time, Graham's growth after signing with Appalachian State wasn't a coincidence. Robinson, a sophomore at Broughton at the time, could see the changes in Graham's game, day after day after day. They had played against each other on the AAU circuit, played against grown men together at the YMCA on Hillsborough, texted back and forth about where the pick-up game was going to be that weekend. But this was a different Graham than Robinson had ever seen.
Lacking other options, and unwilling to go to Appalachian State, Graham enrolled for a post-graduate year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, and the process that began his senior year at Broughton gained new speed there. Graham still didn't have the recruiting cachet of some of his new teammates. He would soon.
In his first few days at Brewster, Graham and Donovan Mitchell, who would eventually end up at Louisville, heard two of the returning players talking to each other about how some of the new kids weren't already committed to power programs and weren't five-star prospects like they were.
“This isn't a typical Brewster team,” one said, a disparagement.
Graham took offense, and if there was a moment where things clicked for Graham, really clicked and gave him the confidence to go with his talent, that might have been it. Graham and Mitchell spent the next few weeks tearing apart the returning players, always with the trash-talking comment of “not a typical Brewster team” thrown in at the end.
“He was more than just holding his own,” Brewster coach Jason Smith said. “That's when the light went on: 'I am as good as I think I am and as I want to be.' That confidence just continued to grow.”
Graham continued to grow as well: He had entered Broughton all of 5-foot-3. By the time he left Brewster, he was 6-foot-2.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
As well as he played at Brewster, there still wasn't much Graham could do about it from a recruiting perspective. His letter of intent with Appalachian State still barred him from talking to the schools that were suddenly interested in him, and Capel and the school weren't backing down. But in the spring of 2014, Capel was fired. His replacement, Jim Fox, released Graham from his letter of intent. And suddenly the world was open to Graham.
"We did not know of Devonté until he got with Jason at Brewster Academy," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "But we had recruited a number of players out of Brewster prior to him getting there. Obviously that's a school that we recruit, and we became very aware of him after watching Brewster play.
"But we could not engage in recruiting him because he had not been released from Appalachian State. So whenever he got his release from Appalachian State is when a scholarship became available, and fortunately for us the time was right."
Graham's choice came down to Virginia, N.C. State and Kansas. He eliminated Virginia first, then decided staying home with the Wolfpack – with all its distractions and baggage – was a bad idea as well.
“Just imagine Devonté Graham at State,” Thornhill said. “I just don't see the good out of that. Of course it's his hometown, but there were too many distractions.”
Graham chose Kansas. In the space of less than two years, Graham had gone from leaping at a Southern Conference offer to one of a handful of the highest-profile programs in the country.
“He made the right decision,” Capel wrote in a text message. “An opportunity to play for a Hall of Fame coach, at a place like KU and the Phog is a dream for any kid. Competing for championships, that's what he's all about, what he deserves. Unbelievable kid. Been cool to watch his maturation from afar.”
It took years, but Graham had become the player people like Capel and West, even his own friends, thought he could become. It was always there, inside him, even before his body finally caught up with this game.
Others could see it. Graham was the last person who came to believe it.
“He kind of figured out that he was what everyone who was in his inner circle at that time was telling him he was,” West said.
At Kansas, Graham emerged as a sophomore, earning Big 12 tournament MVP honors, then exploded as a junior. He went into his senior year as the Big 12 preseason player of the year and emerged from it with those honors as well, holding off Oklahoma's Trae Young for the award while averaging 17.4 points and 7.5 assists per game.
“I think it started probably once I got to Brewster and a lot of my confidence had went up,” Graham said. “And coach Self believing in me once I got here at Kansas, probably toward the end of my freshman year, when I really started to believe that I could do something special here at Kansas.”
A consensus first-team all-American this season, Graham became a star at Kansas after years of constant, consistent improvement. But Graham was also still the kid who had been the backup point guard on his youth team, who hadn't forgotten what it was like not to be a star, even when he became one.
“A lot of times you'll see kids in high school with an inflated sense of themselves from being courted at such a young age,” said Smith, his Brewster coach. "Devonté never had that.”
Accolades come easy to Graham now as his Kansas career winds down, a Naismith Trophy finalist who has accomplished just about everything there is to accomplish in his career short of a Final Four or a national title. These few days in Omaha – in a regional otherwise populated by ACC schools, one last reminder of home – represent his last chance at both. He is coming to the end of the long and twisted path that brought him from Raleigh to Kansas, win or lose, one way or another.
Graham, more than his teammates, would know that success does not always come quickly or easily, that sometimes it takes a while to really believe, and that it's better to be the best at the end than the beginning.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock