OMAHA, Neb. — As the final seconds ticked off the CenturyLink Center scoreboard, Devonte’ Graham raised his arms and gazed into a section of euphoric Kansas supporters.
Then he turned toward to his team’s bench to find walk-on teammate Clay Young already sprinting right for him. As has been the case all season, Graham’s timing was on point, and he leaped to meet Young for a midair embrace.
While Malik Newman and his career-high 32 points were the biggest reason Kansas toppled Duke in overtime Sunday, Graham and his combination of leadership, poise and big shot-making is the biggest reason Kansas is two wins away from a national championship.
That’s quite the triumph for Graham, a player who remarkably at one point doubted whether he was good enough to play for a program like Kansas — much less lead a team like the Jayhawks to a Final Four.
“In Graham, you have really one of the great leaders, not just players, in the country,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the Elite Eight win. “
It wasn’t all that long ago that Graham wasn’t even considered one of the five best players on his own AAU team back in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Playing alongside Isaiah Hicks, Ty Outlaw and Anton Gill, who would all sign with ACC programs (Gill transferred from Louisville to Nebraska in 2015), Graham spent much of his AAU career coming off the bench.
“Growing up, he was always the smaller kid,” said Dwayne West, who runs Garner Road AAU and has known Graham since second grade. “I guess the guys that were around him, they were a lot more dynamic at younger ages. Devonte’ could hold his own and he improved every year. But he didn’t have the stars and the height and all that other stuff.”
That’s why before his senior season at Broughton High School, Graham actually signed with Appalachian State, sending him on a circuitous path that would ultimately land him at Kansas. Graham and his family feared that while waiting for a scholarship offer to a better program, he would lose his spot at Appalachian State, so shortly after taking an official visit there he signed with the Mountaineers.
“I just wasn’t that good,” Graham said. “That was the highest offer I had at the time. So I felt I had commit to that. And then that’s when everything … that’s when I blew up.”
In turn, Graham’s self-confidence blew up too.
Capitalizing on a breakout summer with his AAU team, Graham propelled Broughton all the way to the North Carolina 4A state championship game, averaging 16 points and five assists along the way.
“He was killing people on the court and just decided with his mom that he didn’t want to go to App State anymore,” West said. “So, they called App State and said, ‘Devonte’ doesn’t want to come, please release him [from his scholarship].’ And [Appalachian State coach] Jason Capel proceeded to say no — and then that’s the way it started.”
Graham wouldn’t budge. But neither did Capel.
Unable to engage other programs because of his binding letter of intent with the Mountaineers, Graham, still just a two-star recruit, chose prep school and Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, where other Raleigh-area players had gone before him.
There, he met another then-relatively unknown now blowing up in the NBA, Donovan Mitchell. Together, Graham and Mitchell formed a monster backcourt that would terrorize both teammates and opponents alike.
“Nobody really knew who either of them were at that point,” Brewster coach Jason Smith recalled. “Normally, the guys that came to Brewster already had a big reputation, a national ranking or were committed to high-major programs.”
At the start of their first set of practices, two of Brewster’s returning players openly quipped how unremarkable the new guys seemed to be — right in front of Graham and Mitchell.
“I just remember that conversation and for the games that week I had Devonte’ and Donovan on the same team — they just kicked the crap out of everyone,” Smith said. “Every time they won a game, they would throw it back at the two returning guys. They definitely both fed off that.”
While Mitchell would go on to star for the Utah Jazz, Capel would eventually be let go at Appalachian State, clearing the way for Graham to open up his recruitment and sign with the Jayhawks.
“I knew then that I could play with anybody in the country,” Graham said.
He won a starting
With Jackson and Mason gone, this year’s team became Graham’s — especially after five-star signee Billy Preston left the team before the season even began while waiting to be cleared by the NCAA.
Over the course of this season, Graham has staked his claim alongside Jacque Vaughn, Kirk Hinrich, Mario Chalmers, Sherron Collins and Mason as one of the top point guards ever to pass through Lawrence.
“He’s one of the best leaders — if not the best leader — that we’ve ever had,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Graham is averaging 17.2 points and 7.4 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from 3. Without another viable point guard on his roster, Self has had to play Graham almost 38 minutes per game, including all 45 against Duke. Yet as prolific as Graham’s numbers are, it has been his knack for producing winning plays that has been the difference for a Kansas team that potentially doesn’t have another future first-round draft pick in its rotation.
Late in the regular season at Texas Tech, Graham made two critical baskets in the final 90 seconds, including an acrobatic, one-handed shot off the glass that sealed the victory and gave Kansas an NCAA-record 14th straight conference title.
In the Big 12 tournament championship game against West Virginia, Graham capped a 17-3 run in the second half with a fadeaway jumper over Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jevon Carter, then a 3 from the wing to ignite the Jayhawks to the tournament title.
Finally, on Sunday, down three points with 30 seconds remaining, Graham spun off a Duke steal attempt to find teammate Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk open on the wing. Mykhailiuk took one dribble, then drained a 3 to send the game to overtime, where the Jayhawks, who had lost in the Elite Eight the past two seasons, finally prevailed.
“I knew we were going to make the plays down the stretch,” Graham said. “You come here for those moments.”
Moments Graham once believed he’d never have. And yet ones he seemed made for.