There were less than 40 seconds left in the game when Devonte' Graham carried the ball up to the Brooklyn Nets logo. The score was 108-106.
Spencer Dinwiddie was tightly guarding him, and the rest of the Nets were on alert about the six-foot-one guard who already dumped 37 points on their heads. There was no way they would let a man who was taken in the second round run them over.
However, the Charlotte Hornets trusted their new man. They let him milk the shot clock, then made a screen to get Joe Harris on him. He made a bit of a stutter step to get the Team USA shooter off-balance, resulting in a launched three a couple of feet away from the line. The ball went in, and the former Kansas standout had all the confidence in the world, as he celebrated his 40-point game with his overjoyed teammates.
Devonte' Graham definitely caught everybody by surprise, and his 40-point outburst isn't the only reason for everyone's shock. He's one of the reasons why the Hornets — a team expected to stink over the next couple of seasons — are actually playing entertaining basketball. In fact, they're playing so well with him quarterbacking the team that they're 10th in the East, far better than their preseason predictions.
Graham's rise to relevance wasn't something that came out of nowhere, though. It wasn't like the Hornets were desperate to get things going and James Borrego just picked him the way Mike D'Antoni was forced to field Jeremy Lin during the start of Linsanity. The story of his rise into relevance in the NBA was a slow, patient simmer rather than a ripping-hot sear.
Graham spent all four years of his collegiate eligibility with the Kansas Jayhawks. He was a stud for the Jayhawks, averaging 17 points, 4 rebounds, and 7 assists on 40% shooting in his senior year. However, the fact that he didn't make the jump to the pros until his graduation definitely hurt his draft stock, explaining his selection as the 34th pick in a stacked 2018 Draft.
Moreover, there wasn't a lot of positive vibes sent his way when they looked at his potential ceiling in the NBA. Given his short stature and inability to score on one-on-one situations during his collegiate years, Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman had his future in the NBA as a backup point guard in the mold of Shabazz Napier.
However, the man obviously didn't take long to cope with the speed and intensity of the professional game. He quickly credited Bill Self, the man who coached him for four years, for his growth as a player. According to KU Sports' Benton Smith, Graham believes that the culture was fostered in Kansas, helping him become more accustomed to the NBA lifestyle.
He spent most of his rookie season watching how Kemba Walker and Tony Parker play while averaging 5 points, 1 rebound, and 3 assists on 14-minute bursts. He absorbed whatever he could from the two terrific guards he was playing with.
“I think the thing that impressed me the most last year was his patience — his willingness to listen and learn and watch,” Marvin Williams said about Graham, per CBS Sports' Jack Maloney. “He was constantly watching Tony, constantly watching Kemba. If you watch those guys and then watch him today, he does a lot of things that those guys were doing.”
During the offseason, the Hornets lost their two veteran guards: Kemba Walker (cough) walked all the way to Boston to have a better shot at an NBA title, and Parker hung up his sneakers for good. Team owner Michael Jordan brought over Terry Rozier on huge amounts of money to become the team's floor general for the future.
However, he took everything he learned from Kansas, as well as his rookie voyage, and showed the team his worth as a player. He's playing really good basketball at the moment, and the Hornets are playing as if Kemba never really left. He's facilitating the offense with ease, and his three-point shooting is deadly to the point that defenders have to respect it.
It would be foolish for the Hornets to not try and build a team around Graham. It's not every day that a team gets a talented, polished guard in the second round of the draft. Graham deserves every bit of praise that comes his way as he constantly toiled to get to where he is today.