A year ago, the prevailing countenance of Kansas basketball was stoic senior Frank Mason, who with a certain grit and grim fury became the national player of the year.
He was well-complemented in the backcourt by the animated Devonté Graham, in many ways the epitome of contrast to Mason between his demeanor and enjoyment of the spotlight.
While Mason was apt to be as low-profile as could be, Graham seems to bask in the attention.
“It’s just all love,” Graham said, smiling, on Tuesday during Big 12 media day at the Sprint Center.
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“Got to,” he said. “Not going to last forever.”
If Mason was reluctant to meet with the media even after a great game, Kansas coach Bill Self said, Graham is eager to even if he scored two points.
Whereas Mason preferred to lead by example and his idea of a pep talk was, “Hey, we ain’t losing,” Graham can be counted on to vocalize constantly.
For that matter, he’ll also spend his spare time sitting in the KU Memorial Union mingling, happily pose for selfies with others and, heck, once signed an autograph for someone who asked in a bathroom.
“Not in the bathroom,” though, he quickly noted.
Between his sheer game, with recognition as the Big 12 preseason player of the year and on watch lists for national player of the year, and his temperament, Self figures Graham is the most visible and popular kid on campus and the undisputed merry face of the program.
“There is no question about it, probably as much right now as anybody we’ve had,” Self said. “Even with Frank last year we still had Devonté or we had Landen (Lucas) or we still have Josh (Jackson) or whatnot.”
Accordingly, his role is all the more significant given that KU has back only a handful of seasoned players to go with high-profile newcomers like Billy Preston and transfer Malik Newman.
“In order for us to be really, really good, (Graham) has to play at an All-American-type level for us,” Self said. “And we think he’s very capable of doing that. And, certainly, he’s got the personality that will certainly draw people to him by watching him play.”
The fascinating thing about all this is to what degree Graham now needs to remain himself yet channel more of Mason, whom Self once called Batman to Graham’s Robin.
After three years of scrutinizing their obvious differences, now it’s about how Graham assumes Mason’s role as Kansas pursues its 14th straight Big 12 title and a deep NCAA Tournament run.
In fact, Self would tell you that Graham often deferred to Mason, and now has to morph into doing more of what Mason did, from becoming the primary ballhandler to working harder to go to the hoop and get to the free-throw line and focus more on just making everybody else better.
But just because he hasn’t had to do those things at KU yet doesn’t make this a shapeshifting exercise, either.
Graham demonstrated that on Sunday with 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in Kansas’ 93-87 exhibition victory over Missouri at the Sprint Center.
“I’ve been a point guard my whole life,” he said. “So me taking over the ‘one’ spot isn’t like something I’ve never done before.”
The chance to resume that role, enhanced by the influence of Mason’s testimony from last season, was much of the impetus for his return.
Even though he projected as a second-round NBA Draft pick, Graham said the decision-making process was grueling.
“One day, I was like, ‘I want to go; I think I should leave,’” he said. “The next day I was like, ‘Nah, I’m just going to stay.’ The next day I’m like, ‘Nah, I’m just going to go test the waters.’ …
“I don’t know what one thing it was, but something just told me that I needed to stay.”
It was no doubt a fusion of things: to go out on a more inspiring note than the depressing 74-60 NCAA Tournament loss to Oregon; to further enjoy the college experience he says he loves and earn his degree in communications studies; and the chance to improve his draft prospects as did Mason (selected by Sacramento 34th overall).
Mason largely was the model for returning and the template for the season ahead.
That includes Graham’s major point of emphasis over the summer in working to get “downhill” to the basket by putting his head down and driving.
And it includes a state of mind.
“No matter who he was playing, (Mason) thought he was the best player on the court, and then he came out and played like it,” Graham said. “I think a lot of my confidence came from playing with him and seeing him never let anything bother him.
“Whether it was going bad or positive, he always stayed the same and aggressive.”
Influential as Mason might be, don’t expect Graham suddenly to turn stone-faced.
“I still need to do what I do, and that’s show the personality,” he said. “I think that fuels a team as well. You’ve got to have somebody out there who just shows personality, shows that they care.”
It’s a different sort of look and voice out of KU’s best player, for sure, but one you can expect to deliver similar results.