Devonté Graham was spotted tossing a football with a grade-school Kansas fan before the Jayhawks’ April 9 spring game outside Memorial Stadium. A few hours later, he could be seen lobbing a baseball with another wide-eyed youngster before a KU-TCU contest at Hoglund Ballpark.
“I think I’m maybe too friendly, as my teammates would say. I’ll speak to everybody,” Graham said. “I just try to have fun with people ... anybody. You could say I’m one of the biggest kids on the team.”
Graham, who values his interactions with KU students, alums and kids alike, is merely fulfilling a prediction that Jayhawks coach Bill Self made when he was recruiting the 6-foot-2 playmaker point guard from Raleigh, N.C., several years ago.
“When he visited, I told him, ‘You’ll own this place if you come in and just try hard and act right,’” Self said. “(It’s) because I love his personality as much as any kid we’ve ever had. And I think that’s accurate.
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“He’s played so well for us, but his mindset and attitude ... he’s one of those guys that actually looks forward to getting up and going to class and just being a kid. I mean, it’s not one of these things, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do this again.’ It’s one of these things: ‘We get to do this again.’
“I would think everybody would want to have what Devonté has. He enjoys life. His attitude is just a ‘10,’ and I think it’s rubbed off on others.”
Self would go so far as to say Graham “has not only the best (personality), but the most personality on the team. He and Carlton,” Self said of sophomore forward Carlton Bragg. “Devonté does so much to lighten the mood with our guys.”
This fits with the description offered by Graham’s mother, Dewanna.
“He’s silly, the class clown,” she said.
Yet Graham, a junior, maintains that he’s actually the second most popular Jayhawk.
“Carlton took my spot,” Graham said, smiling. “He goes on campus and plays the piano. He got a lot of fans off that. Instruments aren’t really for me. I could try playing the guitar or something. I probably wouldn’t be too good.”
No matter. KU fans have given their collective stamp of approval to his play as a lead guard.
As a sophomore, Graham averaged 11.3 points a game on 46 percent shooting. He hit 44.1 percent of his threes (75 of 170) and had 140 assists against 84 turnovers for the 33-5 Jayhawks.
Graham, who already was having a good season, burst upon the national scene during a Feb. 13 win at Oklahoma by scoring 27 points on 8-of-13 shooting — including a remarkable 6-of-9 from three-point territory. Graham also helped “hold” Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield to 24 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
Graham hit a pair of late threes to help save the day after backcourt partner Frank Mason fouled out with 3:18 left and KU down by three.
“There’s no deferring with him,” Self said of Graham. “He’s confident. He’s had some great games for us, but I really think the OU game down there ... that gave him confidence to know he doesn’t need to hunt it (shot), but if it comes to him he needs to take it, and he’s certainly done that.”
Graham played 39 minutes that day and finished the season averaging 32.8 minutes per game, second to Mason’s 33.5.
“He was unbelievably well conditioned,” Self said of Graham. “In that game, he didn’t get tired. It doesn’t seem possible to me. His defense was excellent. He still put his head down (and drove the ball). The last five minutes of the game, he split ball screens. He did everything that requires energy.”
Graham also scored 27 points in KU’s Big 12 Tournament title victory over West Virginia, earning tourney MVP honors.
“There are so many good players in our conference. For me to win that was a big deal,” said Graham, who also had 14 points against Baylor and 11 against Kansas State while totalling 19 assists against eight turnovers in three tourney games.
Self said Graham’s style of play has been similar to one of his favorite guards of all time.
“He reminds me of, and I say this to Aaron ... to me he reminds me of an Aaron Miles who can shoot,” Self said. Miles worked on KU’s staff last season, giving pointers to Mason and Graham. Miles has since joined former KU coach Joe Dooley at Florida Gulf Coast.
“Aaron was a better passer,” Self said. “Aaron wasn’t a great shooter until game point. Aaron was an unbelievable shooter the last five to eight minutes of the game. In those minutes, it seemed like he shot 60, 70 percent. He was such a winner. Aaron will go down as one of the special guards who played here.
“I think Devonté is a little quicker. Aaron had such feel for the game and was such a great leader. Devonté has similar qualities. He keeps getting better. He’s scratching the surface of what he can become.”
Self believes Graham is poised to have an even better year this season than his breakout campaign of 2015-16.
“We want him to just continue to keep doing the same things but even on an elevated status,” Self said. “Just getting stronger and probably becoming a little bit better scorer. He’s done great so far.”