A rather anonymous award is the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Player of the Year. To this day, not one that is among those handed out (Naismith, Wooden, AP, etc.) has distinguished itself as the most prestigious. It’s awarded amidst the madness of March and early April, and by the time many have reason to care, we’ve moved onto the subsequent NBA Draft. Who’s staying? Who’s gone to the professional ranks? Are we going to top 1,000 Division I transfers this year?
College basketball’s highest, albeit unsung, individual honor still contains the game’s beauty, senior leadership. Fresh faces annually devour the attention as the season approaches, faces that almost never factor into the Player of the Year chase in the end. As a matter of fact, the past four recipients have been steady, monotonous seniors, marked by gradual progression. Doug McDermott, the coach’s son with the fluorescent green light, transformed from a second round evaluation following his junior year to a top 10 pick after a POY campaign. Frank Kaminsky, the gangly klutz that despised the paint, parked himself on the block more often, making him an indefensible superstar and a top 10 pick. Buddy Hield, the Bahamian gunslinger, became, you guessed it, a top 10 pick. Not one of us could have imagined the rise of Frank Mason, the undersized bulldog discovered in an auxiliary gym, in his last hoorah. Each of the preceding four entered school a three-star recruit, taking the avant-garde path to stardom. Devonte Graham, also a three-star, all but had his bags packed to play collegiate basketball at Appalachian State, and in an alternate universe he’s probably the Sun Belt’s Kay Felder. Instead, the late-blooming guard was reluctantly released by the university from his LOI following the contract expiration of head coach Jason Capel. He immediately became one of the hottest commodities on the market late in the recruiting process, eventually landing in Lawrence.
Conventional thought rightfully gives Michigan State’s Miles Bridges all of the Preseason Player of the Year love, but my mind still drifts to the “most valuable” conversation. No performance better illustrates Graham’s value to the Kansas program than one from his sophomore season involving a man in whose footsteps he attempts to follow. Buddy Hield exploded for 46 points in the Kansas-Oklahoma instant classic at Allen Fieldhouse in 2016. Hield was not Graham’s primary assignment the first go-round. The second meeting in Norman, however, saw Graham in Hield’s shadow for 40 minutes. The 2015-16 POY experienced fits he had not to that point in the season, going 5-15 and coughing it up four times. On the other end of the floor, Graham drilled six threes and led all scorers with 27 points. Graham, from that point forward, couldn’t possibly have been lost in the Jayhawks shuffle despite never being the primary option.
Of course, Graham has largely played off the ball his entire college career with the presence of Frank Mason. Resultantly, a heavy chunk of his production has come courtesy of catch-and-shoot opportunities. That all changes in 2017-18, as Graham, now a senior, is handed the keys to the Ferrari. The high school point guard as a prospect was most noteworthy for his offensive creativity, which is an element he hasn’t exactly had the chance to strut all too much as an off-ball guard in a spread-court offense. Graham owns shiftiness, quickness, straight-line speed, and explosiveness identical to his former backcourt mate, Mason. Bottom line, considering the ball will be in his control now, we should expect a lot more of this:
Graham will prove he is just as deadly off the bounce as he is off the catch, more deadly than Mason, as a matter of fact. He won’t attack the rim as often as Mason did for that reason, but Graham has everything in his back pocket to create space for his J: size-ups, hang-dribbles, stepbacks, and a cat-like ability to stop on a dime and spring upward. The shot distribution of the career 41% 3-point shooter has emphasized shots from distance further with each season (66% of FG attempts were threes last season), and it appears that trend might continue. In the Jayhawks’ first two exhibition games last week, 18 of Graham’s 20 attempts came from beyond the arc, including nailing 6 of 13 from deep against Missouri. But by no means is he one dimensional with his physical tools. This will be the same dribble-weave, drive-and-kick offense at Kansas we have seen in recent years as Bill Self is beginning to redefine “small ball” with plans to start Lagerald Vick, a natural point guard, at power forward. Cavernous driving lanes will be there for Graham, who will likely leave lingerie on the deck on plenty of occasions with defenders having to respect his range. Not to mention, Udoka Azubuike makes for an interesting PnR tandem. The system and surrounding personnel is catered to Graham having a Mason-type senior season. Yet, Graham’s aforementioned defense is what allows him to college basketball’s most valuable. The last freshman to be the consensus National Player of the Year was also the last to be recognized for his defensive impact. Anthony Davis blocked nearly 6 shots per 40 minutes, and his 58.3 individual net rating stands as the best of all time. Graham’s impact will not be that drastic, nor will it be reflected obviously in box scores, but his lockdown on Buddy Hield two seasons ago gives us a glimpse of the complete defender he is. A pest that knows how to defend without fouling (1.8 FC/40), his perimeter defense will at last come to the forefront of the national conversation. We generally think of two-way studs as wings, but Devonte Graham is here to debunk that myth.
Spearheading what is shaping up to be the nation’s most efficient offense 2017-18, the Devonte Graham/Malik Newman will have a similar dynamic to that of Graham and Mason. Once a program founded on traditional back-to-the-basket big men, Graham is next in the line of Kansas backcourt leaders this decade. Patiently waiting in the wings for three years, expect him to detonate in his final year in school.