Charlotte Hornets point guard Devonte Graham had a “nice-to-be-known” moment early in Friday’s road game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
When Graham checked in during the first quarter, Anthony Davis — the No. 1 overall pick in 2012 and a viable MVP candidate this season — shouted to teammates, “He’s been hot lately! He’s hot!”
He is hot.
Graham, a second-round rookie last season, has had as good an early season as any Hornet. In four games, entering Wednesday night’s matchup with the Sacramento Kings, he twice reset his career scoring high (23 points and then 24), assembled his first double-double (14 points/12 assists against the Clippers) and is shooting 54 percent from 3-point range.
Perhaps the best measure of how well Graham has performed comes from the Cleaning the Glass website: Graham is averaging 125.5 points per 100 shot attempts, which puts him in the 90 percentile of the NBA.
That’s an amazing rise for a player who spent much of last season with the Hornets’ G-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm. It has already shifted how his coach views Graham’s trajectory as a player.
“He’s taken a significant jump — not just a small jump — as far as his poise, his presence, his confidence on the court,” Hornets coach James Borrego said.
“The rate (at which) he’s improved, there’s no reason he can’t continue to improve. I don’t think many people saw this coming in him, and I don’t think it’s fair of us to limit what he can be going forward.”
Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak traded two future second-round picks to the Atlanta Hawks in 2018 to move up to the 34th pick early in the second round. The Hornets’ history with second-round picks is bad, although it’s improving. Dwayne Bacon, chosen 40th in 2017 is a starter at shooting guard.
Graham plays behind starter Terry Rozier at the point, but he has been more productive so far. The stunning element is Graham’s 3-point shooting — not just that he’s 19th in the league in percentage, but that he’s fifth in 3s made at 3.75 per game. Among those right behind him: Kemba Walker, the former Hornets’ All-Star whose departure for the Boston Celtics opened so much playing time for Graham this season.
There were promising signs from Graham’s rookie season, particularly his having a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. However, his 28 percent shooting from 3-point range just wouldn’t do.
Three-point shooting is valuable at every NBA position, but it has special tumbledown value for point guards. If a point guard is a threat to pull up for a 3-point attempt off a pick, it dramatically changes how defenses guard him.
That was illustrated vividly over Walker’s eight seasons in Charlotte. When his 3-point percentage jumped from around 31 percent to 37 percent or above, it kept defenders from ducking under picks, instead having to fight over them. That opened the drive for Walker to finish at the rim or feed teammates.
“So much of what we worked on (over the summer) was in the pick-and-roll,” Graham said of sessions with assistant coach Nate Mitchell. “First week, I might have made 35 out of 75 (3s off the dribble). The next week I might have made 50 out of 75.
“You could just tell the confidence was getting better. And the conditioning improved, too.”
The master of this is Golden State Warrior and former Davidson star Stephen Curry: The ability to swish a 3 off the dribble — not just stationary with feet set — is rare and next to impossible to defend.
“A lot of time people don’t really believe you’re going to take that contested shot,” Graham said. “Coming off a screen, with guys right there. If you knock it down, you’ve got the defender guessing what you’re going to do. That’s when you’ve got him on his heels.”
Has he noticed a change in how teams defend him yet?
“Not anything crazy,” Graham said, “but they know I’ve been shooting it. Some guys really running out on the close-out.”
So much of this is a matter of confidence for Graham, knowing with conviction that he belongs in the NBA. It hasn’t been a simple process for him. He wasn’t big enough, growing up in Raleigh, to initially draw interest from the four ACC schools in North Carolina, so he committed to play at Appalachian State.
Then he had a spectacular finish to his high school career, and reopened his recruiting. Kansas wanted him, but Appalachian State didn’t let him out of his letter of intent, so he went to prep school in New Hampshire for a year (playing with future NBA star Donovan Mitchell) before ending up a Jayhawk.
“Remembering that keeps me from ever getting down” on himself, Graham said. “For at least three months there was so much uncertainty — not knowing if I would even go to college and play basketball.
“Not a lot of people go from App State to Kansas to playing in the NBA.”
Now the confidence just radiates from him. Which Graham knows is in the job description: If the point guard doesn’t believe, how is anyone else on the court supposed to?
“It’s something I (initially) had to talk myself into. People — my family — tell me all the time, ‘You belong, and you’ve got to play like you belong.!’
“I try to do that and make sure everybody is doing it, too.”