Thursday afternoon inside Allen Fieldhouse and Devonte’ Graham was sitting before a handful of reporters, ripping into his own play. It was brief but blunt, a verbal hacksaw unleashed on his own recent string of performances.
Graham, the 6-foot-1 freshman point guard, wasn’t holding back. He describes his recent performances as “pretty bad.” He said that he had not been himself.
“I’m playing kind of soft,” Graham said.
Considering the circumstances, Graham is perhaps being overly harsh. He is a backup point guard in his first season of college basketball. On most nights, he is the fourth or fifth member of Kansas’ backcourt rotation. He is also still battling the remnants of a “turf toe” injury that sidelined him for six games in December and January.
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And yet, Graham believes he can — and will — be much better as No. 8 Kansas returns to Allen Fieldhouse to face TCU at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
“I haven’t been myself lately,” Graham said. “But it’s something that I can turn around, just making plays for others.”
When Graham returned from a sprained right big toe in early January, he provided a sudden spark off the bench for a team in the early stretches of the conference season. He racked up 28 assists against just three turnovers as the Jayhawks started 8-1 in the Big 12. As a part-time player, Graham’s energy and defensive intensity was infectious.
In the last four games, though, the production has waned. Graham has recorded six turnovers and just five assists as KU has gone 2-2 during the span — a stretch that included a three-turnover day at West Virginia on Monday. Like Graham, Kansas coach Bill Self believes the guard is capable of more.
“He’s a good player,” Self said. “But I didn’t think he was his best in Morgantown. “I do think we need a little bit more from him. That’s not being critical at all. That’s just factual.”
For the moment, Graham is playing just 15.8 minutes per game, but at times, he can feel indispensable. Coming off the bench, Graham can relieve pressure from starting point guard Frank Mason, who is averaging more than 33 minutes per game. When the two guards play together, it allows Mason the freedom to play off the ball and focus on attacking the basket and scoring.
“It was hard to take Frank out of the game in Morgantown when things (went) bad because Devonte’ had three quick turnovers,” Self said.
As a freshman point guard, Graham is still learning the finer points of running a team and playing the position at the Big 12 level. That can be a process. The Jayhawks do not depend on his offense, but Graham has provided little in his last four games, going just zero of seven from the floor with two total points. After practices, Graham says, he often confides in KU assistant coach Norm Roberts, soaking in extra wisdom about his role and what is needed. For the moment, those conversations keep coming back to one word.
“Coach has just been telling me that I haven’t been as aggressive as I was, when I first came back (from injury),” Graham said. “He thinks I’m being too passive. And I kind of agree with him.”
For now, though, with five Big 12 games remaining, Graham is focused on finishing the regular season right. The Jayhawks hold a one-game lead over Iowa State in the Big 12 race, and they will need a strong finish to clinch at least a share of an 11th straight Big 12 title. For Kansas and Graham, it begins on Saturday against TCU.
“I can play much better,” Graham said.