Long before his name was announced, well after he showed off his dance moves on the floor, senior guard Devonte’ Graham was showered with love from the adoring Kansas basketball fan base that packed Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday night for the 33rd-annual Late Night in the Phog.
Remember, these are folks who, just a handful of months ago, became awfully used to reserving all of the feels for then-senior-leader Frank Mason III, who led the Jayhawks to another monster season in 2016-17 and picked up a truckload of national player of the year trophies while doing it.
Following in those kind of shoes might not be for everybody, but it’s clear that Graham was born for a moment like this.
Part of it, of course, is his ability on the floor. And Graham flashed plenty of those skills during Saturday’s scrimmage, leading all scorers with 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting during the 45-45 tie between the Crimson and Blue teams, each made up of seven Jayhawks.
But for this fan base, and even this team, Graham’s ability to step into the spotlight and shine when the moment is at its biggest and brightest makes him the perfect player to pick up where Mason left off. And Graham showed Saturday night, during his first official act as the leader of the Jayhawks, that he was more than up to the challenge.
“Yeah, I thought about it,” Graham admitted after the scrimmage that capped a three-hour Late Night extravaganza that featured a little bit of just about every kind of entertainment you could imagine. “Being my last one, I just wanted to go out, have fun, make sure everybody had fun, stuff like that. And I think I had a pretty good time.”
Comfortable in any role Kansas basketball put him in — from team leader and top dancer to talk show host during a skit dubbed “Between Two Hoops with Devonte’ Graham," in which he interviewed the KU coaches — Graham appeared well on his way to enjoying every second of his senior season the way Mason did a year ago. But instead of doing it with that stoic vibe that was Mason’s signature, Graham’s happy to do it with an electric smile.
“The fans just show us so much love,” he said, smiling. “And I just appreciate it and enjoy it.”
Graham was far from the story of the night in terms of the basketball that was played. Although he did assert himself much more in Saturday’s scrimmage than he did during the team’s four exhibition games in Italy back in August and throughout much of the 2016-17 season, as well.
After Blue team guard Marcus Garrett (three points, three rebounds, two assists) opened the scoring with a 3-pointer that followed a few turnovers by both teams, Graham scored seven of the game’s next nine points, twice driving hard to the rim and once reminding everyone in the building that he’s still an assassin from downtown.
By the time it all ended, Graham had drained 50 percent of his 3-point attempts, all five of his free throws and also dished two assists and three rebounds. He would have had at least one more assist if fellow senior Svi Mykhailiuk (seven points, four rebounds on 3-of-7 shooting) had flushed the alley-oop attempt on the scrimmage’s opening possession. And he might have had a couple of more points had he not thrown up a wild shot from just inside mid-court with five seconds remaining.
The unexpected heave gave the Crimson team one last shot to tie it, which it did after Dedric Lawson (six points, five rebounds) grabbed the rebound and fired it down the floor to sophomore Malik Newman (eight points, two rebounds on 3-of-7 shooting), whose 3-pointer that fell through as the buzzer sounded to end the game in a 45-all tie.
Although the building’s public address announcer quickly spun the end result by saying, “And everybody goes home a winner tonight,” Graham later explained the reason for the long-range chuck.
“I got fouled,” Graham said. “I would’ve got that in a game.”
Instead, he got big boost — even if it was from the other team — from another impressive performer, who figures to help the Jayhawks make up for the loss of Mason and Josh Jackson throughout the upcoming season.
Junior Lagerald Vick, whom Self said had “been our best player so far,” kept the Crimson team close by knocking in 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, including 2-of-3 from 3-point range and adding four assists in a scrimmage that, at times, became Vick’s personal highlight showcase.
“He’s way more aggressive, shooting the ball, dunking the ball,” Graham said of his running mate. “He’s super-athletic and he’s gonna be a big, big part of the team this year.”
Kansas coach Bill Self said this summer, in no uncertain terms, that this was Graham’s team. And the 15-year KU coach has done nothing to shy away from that stance since then. He praised his point guard in Italy, playfully teased him during his segment on “Between Two Hoops” on Saturday night and clearly feels comfortable with Graham running the show.
But Self also knows the senior from Raleigh, North Carolina, is going to need help if the Jayhawks are to get where they want to go, and he got that on Saturday night, which Self referenced twice.
“This year can be a special season just like the previous year,” Self told the frenzied fans in a speech at midcourt. “We’ve knocked on the door. We’ve beaten on the door. It’s time for us to kick the door in.”
After the game, he added a little more.
“I heard Bum Phillips say that one time so I was copying him,” Self joked. “But we have knocked on it a lot. And we’ve beat on it and we’ve got close and everything, but we haven’t quite finished the way we wanted to and hopefully this year will be the year we get where we want to go.”
Marcus Garrett 1-5 0-0 3, Devonte’ Graham 7-12 5-5 22, Svi Mykhailiuk 3-7 0-0 7, Udoka Azubuike 3-4 1-2 7, Mitch Lightfoot 3-8 0-0 6, Sam Cunliffe 0-4 0-0 0, Clay Young 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-40 6-7 45.
Dedric Lawson 2-6 2-2 6, Lagerald Vick 7-9 1-2 17, K.J. Lawson 0-2 0-0 0, Malik Newman 3-7 0-0 8, Billy Preston 3-7 1-2 9, Charlie Moore 2-4 0-0 5, Chris Teahan 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-35, 4-6, 45.
3-point field goals — Blue 5-17 (Garrett 1-4, Graham 3-6, Mykhailiuk 1-4, Lightfoot 0-2, Cunliffe 0-1), Crimson 7-21 (D. Lawson 0-4, Vick 2-3, K.J. Lawson 0-2, Newman 2-6, Preston 2-3, Moore 1-3). Rebounds — Blue 26 (Azubuike, Cunliffe 5), Crimson 18 (Preston 6). Assists — Blue 8 (Garrett, Graham, Cunliffe 2), Crimson 8 (Vick 4). Blocks — Blue 0, Crimson 2 (D. Lawson, Preston). Turnovers — Blue 6 (Azubuike 3), Crimson 5 (Preston 2).