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Devonte’ Graham a top candidate for NBA’s Most Improved Player award

Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte' Graham (4) drives to the basket past Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn (25) and forward Derrick Jones Jr. during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte' Graham (4) drives to the basket past Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn (25) and forward Derrick Jones Jr. during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The 2019-20 NBA season remains on a prolonged pause as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its return seems more in doubt than a certainty.

Regardless of whether he gets to play another game this season, former Kansas star Devonte’ Graham should find himself in contention for one of the NBA’s featured individual honors.

After bouncing back and forth between Charlotte and Greensboro, N.C., as a rookie, when he played 13 games in the G-League and 46 for the Hornets, Graham went from end of the bench contributor to Charlotte’s leading scorer and best player in his second season.

As ESPN’s Zach Lowe put it on a recent episode of his “Lowe Post” podcast, Graham is one of the ultimate “nothing to something” candidates for the Most Improved Player award. After averaging 4.7 points and 2.6 assists and shooting 28.1% on 3-pointers in his debut season, Graham was putting up 18.2 points and 7.5 assists and shooting 37.3% from deep when the NBA schedule was put on hold in March.

Two men who scrutinize NBA game footage for a living, Lowe and TureHoop’s David Thorpe, analyzed Graham’s breakout season while going through their lists of candidates for the M.I.P. award.

“His playmaking was way more advanced than I thought it was and I think than the Hornets thought it was,” noted Lowe of Graham, who was leading the Hornets with a 24.8% usage rate through the team’s 65 games played, with an assist percentage of 35.3%, compared to a 14.5% turnover rate.

Graham actually began the season as a potential 6th Man of the Year candidate, coming off the bench and producing big numbers for the Hornets in his first 10 games. But his impact was too big, especially on a roster so lacking in talent (Charlotte is 23-42 as of this moment in the suspended season) to keep him as a reserve. So head coach James Borrego moved Graham to the starting lineup to stay back in November.

There were enough questions about Graham’s game and how it would translate to the NBA when he graduated from KU that the 6-foot-1 point guard wasn’t selected until the 34th pick of the 2018 draft. Though he came into the league in a deep and talent-rich class, Graham now easily looks like one of the top 10 players from the 2018 draft.

Thorpe called the former KU All-American a “highlight level player” who has shown “monstrous” improvement.

“Another guy who we weren’t sure how good he would end up being,” Thorpe said. “This guy’s gonna be really good for a long time.”

Although Graham’s scoring and shooting dipped in February (15.2 points, 29.8% on 3-pointers), he seemed back on track through five games in March (24.2 points, 44% on 3-pointers). And Lowe pointed out the role change for Graham in his second NBA season came with challenges.

“These guys that have never played big NBA minutes before, there’s just a wall you hit sometimes,” Lowe said. “You’re all the sudden, from not playing, playing 35 minutes as the No. 1 option on an NBA team. So I can forgive Devonte’ Graham in his first year of that for kind of hitting the wall a little bit.”

Because Graham became Charlotte’s best scoring option, Thorpe added, opponents also began game planning to force him into situations where he was less likely to score or get fouled.

“He’s gonna win once in a while, but not as much,” Thorpe said. “And over the course of the season that book gets written tighter and tighter and it gets harder and harder.”

Strong as Graham’s case is for the M.I.P. honor, it won’t be an easy piece of hardware to bring home this year. Some of the other top candidates for the award include New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram, Atlanta’s Trae Young, Orlando’s Markelle Fultz, Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and likely frontrunner Luka Doncic, who went from Rookie of the Year in his debut season with Dallas to bonafide superstar. Doncic, Ingram, Young, Siakam and Tatum were All-Stars this season.

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After Hornets workout Dedric Lawson says he’d love to reunite with Devonte’ Graham

Kansas senior guard Devonte' Graham smiles with transfers Dedric Lawson and Charlie Moore after a missed chance by Mitch Lightfoot during an exhibition game Tuesday against Pittsburg State at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas senior guard Devonte' Graham smiles with transfers Dedric Lawson and Charlie Moore after a missed chance by Mitch Lightfoot during an exhibition game Tuesday against Pittsburg State at Allen Fieldhouse.

As Dedric Lawson’s pre-draft workout tour picks up steam following this past week’s excursion to the NBA Draft Combine, a trip to the southeast this week provided Lawson with a University of Kansas reunion.

A day after Lawson, as well as Jayhawks Quentin Grimes and Silvio De Sousa, worked out for the Bulls in Chicago on Monday, Lawson was in Charlotte, N.C., the current home of his former KU roommate, Devonte’ Graham.

During a post-workout interview, Lawson said a year ago around this time he talked to Graham on quite a few occasions just to see how life on the pre-draft circuit was going for the point guard.

“He always said, ‘Man, I’m working. It’s a lot of workouts, it’s a lot of grinding,’” Lawson recalled.

Lawson said he and Graham were able to reconnect before the Hornets workout at the team’s practice facility. It was there that Graham reminded Lawson he worked out for about 15 franchises before becoming a second-round draft pick of Charlotte in 2018.

According to the KU forward who is hoping to follow in his one-time roommate’s footsteps as a draftee, Graham’s advice for the whole process was, “Just do you.”

“That’s something that got him to the point he’s at,” Lawson said. “We’ve been through tough times at Kansas in practices and things like that. So he definitely knows what I’m capable of and he knows I’m ready for the moment.”

Lawson described his session with the Hornets as both “fun” and competitive. The workout also featured Iowa State’s Marial Shayok, Seton Hall’s Myles Powell and Georgetown’s Jessie Govan, among others.

After competing against other draft hopefuls, and trying to turn that work into a job in the NBA, Lawson described what he thought he was able to showcase in front of Hornets coaches and decision makers.

“I was able to show that I can make the NBA 3, make plays for others and play defense on smaller guys, as well,” Lawson related. “So I think it was an overall pretty good day.”

Lawson, who measured out at the combine as 6-foot-8.5 in shoes and 233 pounds, led the Big 12 in scoring (19.4 points per game) and rebounding (10.3 boards a game) during his debut season with the Jayhawks this past year.

He said he interviewed with some members of the Hornets’ front office at the combine, as well, and called it a “blessing” to be in Charlotte for the workout.

“(Graham) always tells me how great the city is and stuff like that,” Lawson shared, “so I’m glad to be here.”

In a mock draft from Michael Scotto of The Athletic, Lawson projects as the 57th pick, which currently belongs to the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Hornets possess two second-round picks in the June 20 draft: No. 36 and No. 52 overall.

A longterm reunion for Jayhawks Lawson and Graham in the Queen City, Lawson said, would be great.

“I never got the chance to play with him on the court,” Lawson said of redshirting during Graham’s senior season in Lawrence. “I loved playing with him at practice. He’s a great human being to be around, a great personality, high IQ for the game. And I think he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever been around, even though I didn’t even play with him.”

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Devonte’ Graham credits Bill Self for smooth transition to NBA

Kansas head coach Bill Self and Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) have a talk on the sidelines during a break in action in the second half, Saturday, March 31, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.

Kansas head coach Bill Self and Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) have a talk on the sidelines during a break in action in the second half, Saturday, March 31, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. by Nick Krug

Since joining the Charlotte Hornets as a second-round draft pick, former Kansas point guard Devonte’ Graham has encountered, and been accountable for processing, loads of information.

Learning how to best complement his new summer roster teammates and playing within new offensive and defensive systems is just the beginning for the rookie, who signed his contract with the Hornets on Friday.

Still, Graham told reporters earlier this week that he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by it all. He credited the man who spent the previous four seasons coaching him, Bill Self, for setting the stage for a smooth transition.

“I mean, I feel like coming from Kansas, with Coach Self, I feel like in the pre-season we put in so many plays early on that it kind of helped me get adjusted to this,” Graham said during the Hornets’ mini-camp, before the team left to play in the Las Vegas Summer League. “Coach Self putting the pressure on me to know what all five guys got to do in each play really helped me as a player with my IQ and stuff like that, which has really helped me pick up stuff here pretty well.”

Though still a rookie with a lot to prove at the NBA level, Graham explained why he can embark on this high-pressure journey feeling more comfortable than many of his fellow 2018 draftees might.

Calling him one of the nation’s best coaches, Graham said Self’s demanding style and the way the hall-of-famer trained the Jayhawks to “play together and fight every night” allowed the point guard to take on a professional approach before he ever joined the NBA’s ranks.

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“We would do stuff that you would do at this level. I feel like a lot of our guys leave there and come here to the league and adjust pretty well to it just because of the way he coaches and his coaching style,” Graham said.

The 23-year-old’s basketball upbringing hasn’t gone unnoticed by Charlotte’s first-year coach, James Borrego.

“Devonte’s come in, I see the maturity in him. I see why he’s played four years at Kansas,” Borrego told reporters in Charlotte. “This kid has played at a very high level, well coached, good head on his shoulders and I expect him to run the group at a very high level this week.”

As Borrego referenced, Graham will serve as the Hornets’ primary point guard during summer competition, as he teams up with fellow rookie Miles Bridges, second-year guard Malik Monk and various other prospects, many of whom went un-drafted and/or don’t have NBA contracts lined up.

His responsibilities likely will diminish considerably once the regular season begins months from now, as the Hornets already have an all-star point guard in his prime, Kemba Walker. Plus, reports surfaced Friday afternoon of Charlotte agreeing to terms with longtime San Antonio floor general Tony Parker.

But during Las Vegas exhibitions Graham will be trusted to make the same types of decisions he did at KU. The rookie doesn’t anticipate his obligations becoming burdensome.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) drives to the bucket past South Dakota State guard Tevin King (2) during the first half on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) drives to the bucket past South Dakota State guard Tevin King (2) during the first half on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

“It’s just different plays. We didn’t do like delay action and stuff like that (at KU),” Graham shared. “But pick and roll, coming off ball screens, coming off the 4-man or the 5-man, double-picks and stuff like that, we always did that. That was our main thing. I probably did 40, 50 ball screens every game, so it’s just about reading the defense and making plays based off that, which I’m pretty used to.”

Further adaptations await him on the defensive end of the floor, where the presence of more talented, versatile players than existed at the college level and a longer 3-point arc will inevitably ask more of him, just as it does every newcomer in the league.

“Defensively it’s just the spacing. Everybody’s so spaced out and it’s not all clogged up,” Graham noted of the differences he already has experienced at the next level. “You can’t just sit in the paint — defensive three seconds and stuff like that — so you’ve got to close out a little bit further than you would normally have at the collegiate level. But it’s something that I’ve gotta get adjusted to — getting in and out of the lane and jumping over to the nail and having to close out, just different things like that. But for the most part it’s the same.”

Borrego already has stated publicly he wouldn’t hesitate to insert Graham, the No. 34 overall pick in the draft, into the Hornets’ rotation.

According to Graham, the franchise’s general manager, Mitch Kupchak, said from the get-go he envisioned Graham, who now projects as the third point guard, doing a lot of the same things that made Graham successful at KU.

“Just play my game and when I’m in there, making the right reads. If I’m playing off the ball you’ve gotta be able to knock down shots — if I’m playing with Kemba or somebody off the ball — because those guys get a lot of attention, so they might leave me open and stuff like that,” Graham said of possible scenarios outlined by Kupchak. “But if I’m running the point just make the simple plays and get us in the offense. Don’t turn the ball over, just little things like that, which I’m definitely capable of doing.”

Graham makes his Hornets debut against Oklahoma City at 4:30 p.m. Friday (ESPNU).

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