Last Saturday afternoon, in the moments before Kansas took the floor against Harvard, Devonte’ Graham sidled up to Frank Mason inside the locker room at Allen Fieldhouse.
As the Jayhawks prepared for another nonconference game in early December, two KU point guards shared a moment. Graham had a message. The Jayhawks had started the season 5-1, and Graham, a sophomore guard, had been partly responsible, stimulating the KU offense with a blend of quickness, dribble penetration and lock-down defense. But there was one thing that eluded him in six games. This, he told Mason, would change against Harvard.
“I’m going to get me a dunk this game,” Graham said.
Two hours later, Graham had checked off the task, putting down a two-handed dunk off a fast break. Four days later, he had accomplished one better, elevating in traffic and slamming home another two-handed jam (with ease) in a blowout victory over Holy Cross on Wednesday night.
“Nothing flashy,” Graham said. “I just wanted to get me a dunk.”
For No. 2 Kansas, 7-1, Graham’s dunking prowess is a luxury, an entertaining subplot in a couple of nonconference victories. But in other ways, the Graham slams are illustrative of a more important point: Graham, a 6-foot-2 guard, is playing bigger than his listed size, allowing Self to go small and the Jayhawks’ revitalized offense to thrive.
“I love watching (Devonte’) and Frank playing together,” Self said. “To me, it adds a dimension we haven’t had in the last two years.”
In eight games, Graham is averaging 10.4 points, 3.6 assists and 2.1 steals, but Self believes his value can be measured in other ways. Take, for instance, the Jayhawks’ tempo numbers: After eight games, the Jayhawks rank 15th in the country in adjusted tempo. For perspective: In 13 seasons, no Self team has played faster. Take, for instance, the Jayhawks’ improvements in forcing turnovers. With Graham and Mason piling up the steals, the Jayhawks are forcing more turnovers than they have since the 2006-07 season. Take, for instance, the improved play of Wayne Selden, who is shooting 59.5 percent from three-point range while relishing the open looks provided by Graham and Mason.
“I’m just trying to do what I can, just to help the team,” Graham said. “I just try to make easy plays (and) not turn the ball over.”
In the offseason, as Self crafted a plan to return to a backcourt with two play-making guards, he had one general concern: The Jayhawks needed either Graham or Mason to be capable of guarding bigger shooting guards. To this point, Graham has stepped up to the challenge.
“It’s a sight to see,” senior forward Perry Ellis said. “I see him really improving on that. And he’s willing to take the best player and try to take them out of the game. That’s definitely a good attribute."
On Saturday night, as Kansas plays its annual game at the Sprint Center, Graham will likely face his most daunting challenge to date. When the Jayhawks take the floor against Oregon State, 6-1, at 7 p.m., Graham will find himself matched up against Oregon State senior Gary Payton II, one of the nation’s most complete guards and the son of the NBA Hall of Famer. Payton, who is listed at 6 feet 3, is averaging 16.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.3 steals per game.
“On paper, it seems like (Selden) would be the best matchup because of size,” Self said. “But you put Wayne on him, you take away pressure in a lot of ways. I’m not nervous to put Frank and Devonte’ on him. I can see Devonte’ guarding him a lot.”
For the moment, Graham says he can still do more. A year ago, he arrived at Kansas after a season at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. He was joining a program that already featured Mason, a standout lead guard with a bright future, but that did little to deter Graham. Self sold him on playing in a system that could handle multiple combo guards, a system that would accentuate his strengths. After adjusting to the system during an injury-plagued freshman season, Graham appears to be finding his legs — and the occasional dunk.
“He gets after it,” Ellis said. “So he definitely plays bigger than what he is.”