By the summer of 2012, Broughton High basketball coach Jeff Ferrell was growing a little concerned. It was just days after another AAU tournament, and Ferrell picked up the phone and called his star player, a soft-spoken point guard named Devonte Graham.
“Are any new schools showing interest?” Ferrell asked.
In a long career of coaching high school basketball in North Carolina, Ferrell had seen some talented point guards. He was the coach, after all, who had once infamously cut John Wall from his varsity squad as a sophomore for a bout of disobedience. But Ferrell had rarely seen a player like Graham. And it made the following all the more curious.
Here they were on Tobacco Road, surrounded by prestigious programs and CEO coaches, and none of the blue bloods down the road were the least bit interested in this playmaking point guard from Raleigh.
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“I was baffled,” Ferrell says. “He would have schools talking to him. But they weren’t the type of schools that we thought.”
Two years later, after the Coach Ks and Williamses looked the other way, Graham is no longer the overlooked point guard. On this day, he sits in his home in Raleigh, waiting for a family cookout, looking out toward the future.
It is late May, and in a few days, Graham will pack his things and head for Kansas, a tradition-soaked program in a basketball-mad state. It feels real now, and his family bought a big Jayhawk cake to prove it.
“Wow,” he says. “It’s Kansas.”
Two years ago, his best offers came from Appalachian State and Murray State. Now he could be the most crucial recruit in a four-man class that features two McDonald’s All-Americans and a 16-year-old Ukrainian prodigy.
“Devonte’ will be an immediate impact guy for us,” Kansas coach Bill Self says.
Graham, a 6-foot-2 guard, may not be the most gifted player in a class that could quietly rank among Self’s best. Cliff Alexander is a 6-foot-9 brute from Chicago; Kelly Oubre Jr. is a sinewy small forward with NBA explosiveness; and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is a Euro-mystery with a textbook jumpshot.
But for all those qualifiers and descriptions, Graham is something else — a point guard for a program that needs one. For the past years, the Jayhawks’ point guards have been something like a centrifugal governor on a Lamborghini, limiting the potential of teams stocked with lottery picks.
Now Graham arrives on campus this week as a possible answer. And to think: Two months ago, he couldn’t even find his name among the top 150 high school seniors in America.
• • •
In the convoluted world of basketball recruiting, where hype is currency and ranking services are ubiquitous, there was a name for Devonte Graham:
He was, in the minds of coaches and talent evaluators, a JAG:
Just. Another. Guy.
Part of it was size. By his junior year of high school, Graham stood just 5 feet 11 and his confidence sometimes lagged. On the floor at Broughton High, Ferrell would often demand that Graham take over a game in the final minutes. But Graham was often either too polite or too deferential to dominate.
“He’s such an unselfish player, almost to a fault,” Ferrell says. “He was just that way.”
He was always that way. When Graham was a boy, his mother had noticed her son’s talent. He was always more bouncy than his classmates, more athletic than his peers. So Dewanna King, a single mother of two children, found her oldest son a spot on the Garner Road Basketball Club, a top AAU program in the Raleigh area.
But while Graham was always one of the club’s best players, it wasn’t enough to entice the local schools down the road. North Carolina certainly wasn’t interested. Neither was Duke. North Carolina State took a harder look. But by the fall of his senior year, Graham’s most attractive option was Appalachian State, a school of 17,000 down the road in Boone, N.C.
“I always had dreams of playing at a big level,” Graham says. “But at the time, I think a big deal was confidence. People always told me I was good. But I guess I was never the cocky type.”
When the fall signing period rolled around, Graham had two options: Sign a letter of intent with Appalachian State … or play his senior season and hope a bigger school took notice.
Graham chose to sign.
“In his heart, I could tell he wasn’t really sure that’s what he wanted,” Ferrell says. “He was afraid he was going to get shut out otherwise.”
College recruiting, of course, is often about timing. Sometimes a player is in the right gym at the right time. Sometimes a scholarship opens late. Sometimes, a player blossoms later than expected.
By his senior season, Graham had grown to 6-1. He led Broughton to the state title game in North Carolina’s largest class. In the mind of many, he was a ACC-caliber player headed to Appalachian State.
So in the spring of 2013, just months before he was to report to school, King and her son politely contacted Appalachian State. They wanted a release from his letter-of-intent.
The school refused.
It was late last winter, and Dewanna King was growing concerned. At the beginning of each week, as the basketball season wore on, King would pick up the phone.
From 800 miles away, she could hear the worry in his voice.
• • •
When Appalachian State refused to release Graham from his letter of intent, he opted to attend Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., one of the top prep school programs in the northeast.
Graham had grown to 6-2, and in his one year in New Hampshire, he would lead Brewster to a national prep school championship. He was, quite suddenly, one of the most coveted guards in the country.
The big schools were now calling, but they couldn’t talk to him. Appalachian State had dug in, declining to release him. If the school would not grant his release, Graham could still choose to attend another school, but he would have to sit out a year.
“There were a lot of sleepless nights,” says King, who works in the Wake County Human Services Department. “We just prayed.”
The college coaches could not officially recruit Graham, so instead, they would call Jason Smith, the head coach at Brewster. The message was always the same: If Devonte’ can get his release, we’ll be interested.
As the weeks went by, Smith would pass the news of each possible destination onto Graham. One day, Smith said Kansas might be interested.
“I just wasn’t sure how serious they were,” Graham says.
The release finally came on April 9. Two days later, Bill Self hopped on a plane for Brewster.
• • •
For anyone that watched Kansas play over the last years, the hole was obvious. Even to Bill Self. The Jayhawks were playing without a reliable point guard.
There are many ways to measure this, of course. From 2007 to 2012, the Jayhawks averaged just 4.8 losses per season and advanced to at least the Elite Eight three times. During the last two years, KU lost 16 times.
The advanced metric of Win Shares, designed to measure one player’s total value to a team, does a pretty good job of illustrating Kansas’ deficiency at point guard. In the last two seasons, the eight point guards who played in the Final Four averaged 5.6 Win Shares per season. During the same span, Kansas starting point guards Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe averaged just 2.8 Win Shares.
For two seasons, Bill Self’s teams have been a living, breathing embodiment of an old college basketball truism. You need elite guards to win in March. So when Graham sat down with Self in April, the Kansas coach made it clear:
“There would be an opportunity,” Graham says.
When Tharpe announced his transfer on May 1, Graham became even more interested.
“Once I found out he was leaving,” Graham says, “it made me more interested.”
Graham made his commitment official the next day, and now comes the future. He will have to compete with two returners — Frank Mason and Conner Frankamp — for the minutes at point guard, but his size and athleticism could allow Self to play multiple players with point guard skills, something he could rarely do with Tharpe, Mason and Frankamp.
“I think I’ll be able to (help) right away, definitely,” Graham says. “We’ll have to see what happens.”
Two years ago, Graham was waiting for coaches to call. Now he’s here, at Kansas.
“How many times have we seen some kind of phenom and they get all sorts of offers in the ninth or 10th grade, and then they never get any better,” Ferrell says. “And then you have somebody like Devonte’, who’s just the exact opposite.”
There was, of course, that day back in April, when leading recruiting service Rivals.com released its final rankings for the 2014 class. After being unranked in all its previous rankings, Graham suddenly appeared — at No. 36.
“I really don’t pay attention to it,” Graham says. “I went from unranked to 36th or something like that.
He pauses for a moment, then laughs.
“I don’t know how I made that jump.”