Devonte' Graham's unlikely emergence gives beleaguered Hornets hope following Kemba Walker's crushing departure

NEW YORK — Every game, Charlotte Hornets second-year point guard Devonte’ Graham receives a flurry of texts from his mother while he’s on the court.

Typically, the texts read like they were posted by a frustrated fan on Twitter.

Too many turnovers

Shoot the ball

Why are you passing up shots?

“She acts like she’s talking to me in real life,” Graham says with a laugh.

But after the 24-year-old marksman hit a career-high nine 3-pointers on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden — including the game-winner with 2.8 seconds remaining to give the Hornets a 103-102 win over the New York Knicks — Dewanna King had a different message for her son.

Charlotte Hornets' Devonte' Graham (4) and teammate Malik Monk (1) react after Graham made a 3-point basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in New York. The Hornets won 103-102. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
The Hornets' Devonte' Graham (4) celebrates after his game-winner against the Knicks on Saturday night. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Way to shoot

The Hornets executed their final sideline out-of-bounds set to perfection with Graham playing hero — just the way they practiced it.

As designed, Graham came up the floor with a head of steam. He faked right and went left to gain separation from defender Frank Ntilikina. All that remained: taking a bounce pass from rookie P.J. Washington and draining his final 3-pointer of the night from the top of the key.

“I definitely watched ‘SportsCenter’ that night,” Graham told Yahoo Sports. “My social media blew up. You dream of stuff like that.”

Graham — a 6-foot-1 second-round pick who spent time in the G League last season — has been one of the biggest surprises in the NBA during the early portion of the 2019-20 campaign. He’s was averaging 18.3 points and 6.9 assists while shooting 41.5 percent from 3-point range. And the Hornets — projected by some to be the worst team in the league after losing franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker to Boston in free agency — have gotten off to a surprising 6-8 start.

“I wouldn’t say I’m replacing Kemba, but I just knew that my role would be bigger this year,” said Graham, who learned a lot from Walker and future Hall of Famer Tony Parker in 2018-19. “I knew I had to work this offseason — no matter who stayed or who left — to have an impact on the team.”

“We didn’t expect him to be at this point right now in the season,” Charlotte coach James Borrego told Yahoo Sports. “And I don’t want to put a ceiling on him.”

A chip on his shoulder

Graham is the ultimate underdog story.

He was 5-foot-3 as a freshman in high school. And his lack of height led to a lack of interest from college programs. The Raleigh, North Carolina, native committed to Appalachian State before realizing he’d made a mistake following a growth spurt and a spectacular senior season.

Appalachian St. coach Jason Capel, however, wouldn’t let Graham out of his commitment — Capel’s refusal stemming from allegations of tampering by other schools — leaving Graham stuck in basketball purgatory. He couldn’t talk to other coaches, so he wound up spending a year at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, contemplating an uncertain future.

“Some nights I actually cried because I just didn’t know what I was gonna be able to do,” Graham said.

Still, Graham teamed up with backcourt mate and close friend Donovan Mitchell and guided Brewster to a 33-0 record and the national prep championship in 2013-14. Capel ultimately got fired from Appalachian St. and Graham was released from his letter of intent by Capel’s successor, freeing him up to attend Kansas and learn under coach Bill Self and point guard Frank Mason.

His stats improved in each of his four years with the Jayhawks, and he was named Big 12 Player of the Year as a senior. The Hornets acquired Graham’s rights after he was taken with the No. 34 overall selection in the 2018 NBA draft by the Atlanta Hawks.

In 46 games with Charlotte as a rookie, he averaged just 4.7 points and 2.6 assists and shot only 28.1 percent from 3-point range. He also spent time with Greensboro in the G League.

“I didn’t look at it as a demotion,” Graham said. “I just wanted to go down there and prove myself.”

Graham credits Hornets assistant coach Nate Mitchell for developing his game from downtown. Mitchell would often have Graham take 3-pointers 2 or 3 feet behind the arc to increase his range and confidence.

“You’ve just got to have that chip,” said Graham, who posted a career-high 35 points against the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 5. “People always want to overlook you. But you’ve just got to keep putting in the work and make them believe.”

Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte' Graham (4) drives to the basket against Detroit Pistons forward Markieff Morris in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Charlotte won 109-106. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
Devonte' Graham (4) is scoring 18.3 points per game. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

From the projects to the pros

Graham wears the No. 4 because that’s when he first started playing basketball.

The sport kept him out of trouble while growing up in the Southgate projects in Raleigh.

King, who gave birth to her son when she was only 14, made sure of it.

“I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it wasn’t for her and all her sacrifices,” Graham says of his mother, who managed to get her college degree while also traveling for his AAU games. “I definitely respect her more than anybody in the world.”

King was a frequent crier when her son would leave North Carolina to fly back to school in New Hampshire or Kansas. But now Graham plays his home games just two hours away in Charlotte, where his childhood idol, Allen Iverson, also lives.

Graham has since met Iverson, but admitted he was “too nervous” to tell A.I. how much he admires him.

“I had the braids. I had the headband. I wore No. 3. All that,” Graham said.

Meanwhile, Graham has quickly drawn the admiration of a team looking to somehow replace the irreplaceable in Walker, a three-time All-Star. Terry Rozier was Charlotte’s big acquisition in the offseason, but Graham has done more to carry the scoring load in the early going.

“You think of the Charlotte Hornets now, you think of Devonte’ Graham,” Graham’s agent, Ty Sullivan of CAA Sports, told Yahoo Sports. “He’s never complained. He just waited his turn. I’m so proud of him.”

Borrego knew it was going to have to be a scoring-by-committee situation. Graham’s sudden ascension has only helped the Hornets’ cause in trying to surpass outside projections.

“We addressed that in our first meeting at training camp,” Borrego told Yahoo Sports. “Here’s what the outside world believes about our team. And either that’s going to be a reality or it’s not. But it’s up to us, how we work, how we commit, how we compete every day. So far, our guys have bought in.”

The key will be sustaining it, as Charlotte’s coach continues to preach player development and establishing an identity for his team.

Regardless, even as people talk about his chances for Most Improved Player or Sixth Man of the Year — along with his next contract — Graham understands his fast start won’t mean much if he can’t keep it going. His mother can always remind him of that via text.

“It’s gratifying seeing the work you put in is coming to light,” Graham said. “But I can’t listen to that too much. We’ve only played 14 games — and I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

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