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Devonte Graham has shot his way from Appalachian State commit to NBA Rising Star

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By: Kels Dayton

Before he dropped 40 on the Nets back in December, before he was named to the U.S. team in the NBA’s Rising Stars challenge— even before he joined Frank Mason as part of one of the most-overlooked backcourts in college hoops history, Devonte Graham was heading to … Appalachian State?

As a junior in high school, the Raliegh, North Carolina native had shown enough talent to be recruited by Division 1 schools, though at 6-1 and under 160 pounds, he wasn’t getting noticed by the big boys.

So Graham, who had been through his share of challenges growing up (his mother gave birth to him when she was just 14), signed a letter of intent with then-coach Jason Capel and Appalachian State. It was a chance to play major college basketball, and to lead a program, which was hoping for a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000.

But Graham blew up during his senior year, when he led Broughton High School to the North Carolina 4A state championship game. He began garnering interest from schools like NC State and Virginia, and it soon became obvious that he would be crazy to stay committed to little App State.

Capel didn’t want to release him, and he accused NC State of tampering with his star recruit after he signed his letter of intent. So Graham decided to spend a post-graduate year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, and Capel was fired following the season. New coach Jim Fox freed Graham almost immediately after taking the job, and Devonte, who had made his way into the Top 100 in most recruiting rankings, signed with Kansas.

Graham blossomed under Bill Self, and alongside the similarly diminutive Frank Mason (who’s 5-11), led the Jayhawks on a remarkable run of success– even for them.

Like Graham, Mason was overlooked in high school, and committed to Towson before a failing grade in a history class kept him from enrolling there. A year in prep school did Mason so much good that he ended up in Lawrence, one year before his fellow small-school commit. The two overlooked guards each went on to win Big 12 Player of the Year honors, and Mason was named National Player of the Year as a senior in 2017.

In his senior year in 2018, Graham led the ‘Hawks past Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter Jr. and a much-ballyhooed Duke team and into the Final Four for the first time in six years.

Graham, who had averaged 17.3 points and 7.2 assists per game, was a second-round pick in that June’s draft. Many analysts figured he could become a rotation player in the league, but few could have expected he’d be balling out the way he is now.

Like fellow Jayhawk Svi Mykhailiuk, Graham was one of those players who basketball fans might have expected would peak in college, but he’s shown out once he’s gotten his opportunity in the NBA.

The 24-year-old has stepped confidently into the void Kemba Walker left when he departed as a free agent — just as confidently as he steps into his ever-improving 3-point shot. Here’s a montage of him treating the Nets like they’re UNC-Greensboro:

The Hornets expected Terry Rozier to fill the Kemba role when they completed a sign-and-trade with Boston for him, but it’s been a combination of the two who have carried the offensive load at that spot.

Devonte has put up 17.9 points and 7.7 assists in 35 minutes per game, and he’s knocking down 3s at a 38 percent clip. Rozier is averaging 18 and 4 in 34 minutes per, and is also shooting 38 percent from 3.

It’s been a long, winding road from App State commit to the NBA Rising Stars Game, which Graham will compete in on February 14.

But it couldn’t have worked out better for him.

“It ended up being maybe the best thing that happened to me,” Graham told NBA.com. “Being held out, going to Brewster, getting better, then ultimately going to Kansas, I feel like that whole situation made me better as a player, as a person … I keep saying that it’s opportunity and confidence.”

When Graham has had both, he’s been tough to stop. We wouldn’t bet against him to keep on rising.

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