The homemade T-shirts were black and red, always inscribed with the same two-word message: “Free D-Tae.” They made posters, hanging them on the wall of the Brewster Academy gymnasium. They said prayers, too, waiting for good news to come.
On certain nights, Dewanna King would exchange text messages with her eldest son, telling him to keep the faith. At some point, she thought, he would have a place to play college basketball. The long wait would be over.
It was early 2014, winter in New England, and Devonte’ Graham was not sure what would come next. Graham was a fifth-year point guard at Brewster, a prestigious New Hampshire prep school with a reputation as a basketball powerhouse. He was also in the dark.
One year earlier, Graham had been a mostly overlooked recruit at Broughton High in his hometown of Raleigh, N.C. He dreamed of playing for a big-time college program, running out of the tunnel in a packed arena, displaying his trademark energy. But few major programs had shown much interest in a late-blooming point guard who was still growing into his body by his junior year of high school.
So during fall of his senior year at Broughton High, Graham signed with Appalachian State, a smaller Division I school in Boone, N.C.
He soon realized this was a major mistake.
In his senior season of high school, Graham grew into one of the best guards in the state of North Carolina. But he was still locked into Appalachian State. When the school refused to release him from his letter of intent, he landed at Brewster for a post-graduate year, hoping to work out a solution. During the next year, as Graham started at point guard for Brewster, coaches from across the country began to take notice, including Kansas’ Bill Self.
But there was one problem: Graham still needed a release from Appalachian. As Graham waited, his mother helped spearhead a movement, drumming up support, using her son’s childhood nickname:
“For a while, I don’t think Devonte’ realized what level he could play at,” King said earlier this year. “Maybe it was just confidence. I think he had to prove a lot of people wrong — including himself.”
One year later, Devonte’ Graham is free. He is a freshman guard at Kansas, comfortable and content, all settled into a new home in Lawrence. For those who have met Graham during his first year on campus, it’s mildly surprising to hear that he ever suffered from any supposed lack of confidence.
On a Thursday afternoon in January, Self will tell you that Graham could be the most popular kid on the KU campus, a smiling, goofy, friendly, boyish ball of energy. His teammates say Graham is approachable and likable, the kind of disarming personality that can draw people in with a smile or a laugh. He is the kind of player who will throw a pass to teammate Brannen Greene on the wing, and turn around to start celebrating while the ball is still in the air.
He is the type of person who elicits the same daily questions from teammates — and even their families.
Dude, why are you so happy all the time?
“My family members say the same thing about him,” sophomore teammate Frank Mason says. “‘Why is Devonte’ always smiling?’ Like everyone else could have a serious face and he’s smiling.”
Graham laughs when he hears this story. In some ways, he says, this has always been him.
“I guess I’m just a big kid,” Graham says.
For Kansas, Graham has also been a quiet difference-maker, one reason the ninth-ranked Jayhawks are 5-1 in the Big 12 and sitting atop the conference standings as they travel to TCU on Wednesday. Graham is averaging just 5.3 points and 2.3 assists in 16.3 minutes per game, but his presence has re-invigorated Kansas on both ends of the floor. After missing six games because of a sprained toe in December and January, Graham has returned better than before, racking up 20 assists against just one turnover in five conference games.
His defensive ability makes him invaluable against quicker opponents. His ballhandling skills relieve pressure from Mason, who can play more minutes and focus more on scoring with Graham back in the rotation.
“One thing that’s helped tremendously is having Devonte’ Graham,” Self says. “Even though statistically, it may not show it. But he does some things that certainly take some pressure off.”
Seven weeks ago, as Graham sat in a doctor’s office and listened to the grim prognosis, Self wasn’t sure his freshman point guard would play another minute this season.
Graham has sprained the ligaments in his right big toe during a victory at Georgetown on Dec. 10 — suffering an injury commonly referred to as “turf toe” — and doctors offered only cautious optimism: There was no guarantee, they said, that his toe would heal in time to make an impact this season.
As Graham listened to the warning, he imagined himself missing the rest of his freshman season. But he never really believed that would happen.
“I’m a fast healer,” Graham told Self.
For close to three weeks, Graham wore a walking boot, his only physical activity coming during rehab sessions in the pool. There was no running, no biking, no dribbling, and no real idea if the ligaments would cooperate. On Jan. 10, exactly four weeks after his injury, Graham finally returned in a home game against Texas Tech. Self figured Graham would play spot minutes, his return starting slowly.
Instead, Graham played 19 minutes, dishing out six assists with zero turnovers.
“He was totally out,” Self says. “He couldn’t even ride a bike for three weeks … and then he comes back and he’s got 20 assists and one turnover in the league.”
The timing was close to perfect. It was early last April, and Appalachian State was poised to finally give in. The school would release Graham from his letter of intent, allowing him to accept a scholarship from another school. And two days after the paperwork went through, Self was on a plane, traveling to New Hampshire to see about a point guard.
Self needed help at the point, a persistent issue for Kansas during the previous two seasons. Graham wanted the opportunity to play for a power program. For both parties, the decision was easy.
Eight months later, KU’s point guard position has gone from major question mark to an unquestioned strength — a position that could set a solid foundation for the next two to three years. Mason has grown into Kansas’ most valuable player while the reliable Graham has proven himself as an ideal complementary piece.
“Certainly,” Self said, “I can see him continuing to play more and more.”
In other words, Self says, the emergence of Graham is just beginning. Back in October, as the Jayhawks took the floor for preseason practices, Self compared Graham to Aaron Miles, the former Kansas standout point guard. It was, in that moment, a jarring juxtaposition. Miles is KU’s career assists leader; Graham had never played a minute.
But for Self, the comparison was always about the intangible as much as the talent of each player. Miles, Self says, is one of the most natural leaders he has had during his tenure at KU. He was likable, he was approachable, he was friendly and he was a winner. As the season approached, Self was confident with him on the floor.
It was a description that could fit Graham, too.
“Nobody could be in that good of a mood all the time,” Self says. “He is a great teammate, and he’s a happy-go-lucky kid.”
Kansas at TCU
When: 8 p.m.Wednesday
Where: Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center, Fort Worth
Records: KU 16-3, 5-1 Big 12; TCU 14-5, 1-5
Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM
Kansas at TCU
Kansas: Four days after notching a key road victory at Texas, the Jayhawks return to the Lone Star State. Kansas needs a victory to maintain sole possession of first place in the Big 12. After six Big 12 games, the Jayhawks rank second in scoring offense (75.0 points per game), fourth in scoring defense (65.3 per contest) and first in margin of victory (9.7 per game). Kansas has continued its solid outside shooting during conference play; the Jayhawks are first in the Big 12 in three-point shooting, hitting 39.6 percent from long distance in Big 12 play. One reason: After hitting four threes at Texas, sophomore Brannen Greene is now shooting 48 percent for the season from three-point range. For now, the KU rotation also appears to be shrinking. Bill Self played just eight players at Texas, with Greene, freshman guard Devonte’ Graham and freshman big man Cliff Alexander coming off the bench.
TCU: In his third year at TCU, coach Trent Johnson has the Horned Frogs on the rise. After recording a 20-43 record over the last two seasons, TCU began the year 13-0. The Frogs have stumbled in Big 12 play, starting 1-5, but the numbers back up the improvements in Fort Worth. TCU ranks 18th in the country in defensive efficiency, holding opponents to just 36.6 percent shooting inside the three-point line. That’s the second-best mark in the country. Sophomore transfer Chris Washburn is a capable shot-blocker, while 6-foot-10 sophomore Karviar Shepherd provides length on the inside. Wednesday’s game will be played at Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center, a district high school gym in Fort Worth that seats 4,750. TCU is renovating its home gym, Daniel-Meyer Coliseum, and playing off campus this season. Kansas coach Bill Self said he didn’t anticipate the smaller environment being an issue. “I haven’t said a word to our players about it yet,” Self said. “I don’ think it’s a big deal.”
RPIs as of Tuesday: KU 1, TCU 131