If you say you’re not surprised Devonte Graham brought the Charlotte Hornets home Wednesday, I say you’re lying.
The Hornets agreed to pay Terry Rozier nearly $58 million over three years to replace Kemba Walker. That said they didn’t believe Graham, a second-round pick from the 2018 draft, was ready to compete for a starting job after Walker left for the Boston Celtics.
The fourth quarter Wednesday said otherwise. Graham subbed in for Rozier with 5 1/2 minutes left, and the Hornets down 10 to the Chicago Bulls. Graham made two 3s in the next minute, never subbed back out, and the Hornets prevailed, 126-125.
The contrast in the two performances was striking: Starter Rozier scored seven points on 2-of-10 shooting. He had six assists, four rebounds and four turnovers in 30 minutes. Graham had 23 points on 7-of-9 shooting (6-of-7 from 3). In 27 minutes, he had eight assists, four rebounds and one turnover.
Is this a brewing point-guard controversy? Tap your brakes on that. One game is too small a sample to knock Rozier out of the starting lineup. But Graham has arrived: I thought in the preseason he took the biggest jump from the end of last season, and that was certainly reflected Wednesday.
The day after the Hornets made a trade with the Atlanta Hawks to take Graham 34th overall, I got a text from a scout for another NBA team. He said he thought getting Graham early in the second round was an absolute steal; that Graham was first-round talent in most drafts.
What I noticed most last season was Graham’s problem-solving skills. He had an incomplete game — particularly as a perimeter shooter — but sized up the court well. That showed in his 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is rare for an NBA rookie.
Graham was a sponge for whatever he could learn from Walker and Tony Parker, then would apply all that in stints with the G-League Greensboro Swarm. By late March, he earned enough faith from coach James Borrego that he got Parker’s minutes off the bench.
Over the summer, Graham was relentless in training, particularly building up his body. He added only five or six pounds, but general manager Mitch Kupchak took notice of the functional strength he gained.
“I spent a lot of time in the weight room just for that reason — not to get bumped off (by bigger defenders) while I’m driving. About 5-6 pounds stronger,’ Graham described.
Just as importantly, Graham practiced by taking hundreds of 3s after making just 28 percent from outside the arc as a rookie. When an NBA point guard doesn’t worry about the opposing defense as a shooter, it changes the nature of how he’s guarded. You can lean toward cutting off the drive and helping in the lane, which limits Graham as a creator.
Making 6-of-7 from 3 sends a signal defenses can no longer sag off Graham.
“You see guys like Steph (Curry) and and Dame (Damian Lillard); they’re so hard to guard because they can shoot it from deep and then they can also dribble in pick-and-roll,” Graham said. “It gives you such an advantage.”
Borrego stuck with that advantage, and that’s representative of a wider theme for this season: As Kupchak said Monday, there is no player on this roster who should automatically get minutes the way three-time All-Star Walker deserved them last season.
Rozier’s contract alone didn’t get him back on the court. That doesn’t mean he’s out of favor — this is an 82-game season — but Borrego won’t be playing anyone this season out of obligation; Graham playing that well meant he was not coming off the floor.
“I was going to bring (Rozier) back, but that group just started rolling,” Borrego said. “Te’ was poised down the stretch, made the right play every single time, made big shots, made big passes, and defensively, he was great.”