University of Kansas

KU is getting to the free-throw line more and Devonté Graham is a big reason why

Kansas guard Devonté Graham (right) drives past Baylor guard Manu Lecomte in the Jayhawks’ victory over the Bears in Lawrence this season.
Kansas guard Devonté Graham (right) drives past Baylor guard Manu Lecomte in the Jayhawks’ victory over the Bears in Lawrence this season. AP

The mid-season transformation of Devonté Graham from a spot-up, long-distance shooter to both a shooter and slasher has caught the attention of Baylor coach Scott Drew.

“Nonconference I think he got to the line three times a game. Now he’s up to eight or more. I think it’s one of the biggest jumps I’ve ever seen,” Drew said in advance of Saturday’s game between No. 10-ranked Kansas (19-5, 8-3 Big 12) and the unrated Bears (14-10, 4-7) set for a 1 p.m. tipoff at Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas. It’ll be shown live on CBS.

“Credit to him and Coach (Bill) Self making sure he’s getting to the line late in the game.”

Graham, KU’s senior point guard, leads the Jayhawks with averages of 17.5 points, 7.4 assists and 1.9 steals per game and is second on the team with 72 three-pointers made to Svi Mykhailiuk’s 81. Graham has definitely shown Big 12 coaches and NBA scouts alike an ability to take the ball to the goal in 11 conference games.

Fouled a lot on his drives through the lane, he has canned 71 of 85 free throws in 11 league outings (83.5 percent) That’s 7.7 attempts per game. He shot just 42 free throws, making 35 (83.3 percent), in 13 nonconference clashes for 3.2 attempts per contest.

“We can talk about what we don’t do well,” said Self, who has done a lot of that lately, expressing displeasure with his team following last Saturday’s home loss to Oklahoma State. “There’s been some vast improvements in some areas, too. To go from being a team that shot no free throws to now being a team that shoots almost as many free throws as anybody in our league, give him (Graham) lot of that credit. He’s gotten much better.”

KU basketball coach Bill Self previews Saturday's game at Baylor. The Jayhawks are tied with Texas Tech for the Big 12 lead.

KU hit 110 of 153 free throws (71.9 percent) in its 13 nonconference games. The Jayhawks have made 161 of 235 (68.5 percent) in 11 conference games, good for third-most attempts of the 10 teams in the league. One of the nonconference games was played during conference season: KU made seven of 11 free throws against Texas A&M.

The one stat that shows the importance of Graham’s value to KU’s team probably more than any other is minutes played. For the year he’s averaged 36.9 minutes per outing. He’s played the entire 40 minutes the past seven games.

“I thought Frank was hard (to take out) last year until we get to this year,” Self said of Frank Mason, who averaged 36.1 minutes a game a year ago. “Frank had Devonté. I can’t remember someone — us — having this little depth at a key position that we couldn’t put somebody else in. That would be probably an accurate statement.”

Self joked that the Jayhawks try to give Graham as much rest as possible in between games.

“He gets massages every other day. We bring him milk and cookies all the time to make sure he’s content on that, his caloric intake is right at the right spot. We’re doing all we can do,” Self said. “The bottom line is he can’t come out.”

Graham, who said he’s tried to “drive the ball downhill” in Big 12 action, relishes all the minutes.

“At the end of the day it’s what is best for the team, me being on the court trying to make plays for guys,” Graham said. “My body feels good. As long as I’m able to run up and down court, I’m able to play.”

Graham scored 15 points with eight rebounds and seven assists while playing 40 minutes in the Jayhawks’ narrow 70-67 victory over Baylor on Jan. 20 at Allen Fieldhouse. That’s the game in which Bears point guard Manu Lecomte (10 points, three assists, 37 minutes) had a shot altered by Udoka Azubuike with KU up by one and 4 seconds left. Graham hit two free throws after grabbing the rebound of the miss, accounting for the three-point margin of victory. Malik Newman scored 12 of KU’s final 14 points and finished with 24 points as KU erased a six-point deficit in the final 2:51 versus the Bears.

“Malik bailed us out,” Self said of KU winning a game in which the Jayhawks played better against Baylor’s 2-3 zone than its man-to man. “They led by six at the under-4-minute time out. They’ve been in games. There’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between being 4-7, 7-4, 6-5 or something in this league.”

The Bears, who have dropped 11 straight games to KU, including four in a row at Ferrell Center, take a two-game win streak into Saturday’s contest.

“Down the stretch you have to offensive rebound and defensive rebound. We didn’t get any second-chance points down the stretch. They did,” Drew said of the first meeting at Allen Fieldhouse. “They were able to get in transition. They were able to get to the free-throw line. Those were things we were not able to do down the stretch. Hopefully we can do a better job closing out games.”

KU returns to the road, where it has a 4-1 record in the league. Baylor is 3-2 in league home games; 11-3 overall at Ferrell.

“No I’m not glad to get back out on the road at all,” said Self, whose Jayhawks have lost three home games this season, two in league action. “But in order to win the league, we’re obviously going to have to win on the road. There’s no doubt about that. That’s not always been the case. Not all the time, but I’d say half our seasons (in current 13-year streak of winning league), we’ve gone 9-0 at home. It makes it a little more difficult to go 6-3 or 7-2 on the road.”