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Hornets point guard Devonte’ Graham never stopped working, and now he’s this season’s breakout player

On the perimeter, Devonte’ Graham dribbled hard off a screen and rose up into a 3-pointer. Then he did it again and again, hundreds of times, and then thousands of times, spending his summer building confidence in his off-the-dribble jumper. At first, the Charlotte Hornets point guard told CBS Sports, he was only making around 50 shots in a 100-shot session. Then it was 60, then 65, 70, and eventually it was second nature. He felt like every shot was going down. 

A former star at the University of Kansas turned second-round pick in 2018, Graham had grown accustomed to using workouts and practice to show his skills. Stuck behind Kemba Walker and Tony Parker on the Hornets’ depth chart, the 6-foot-1 Graham racked up dozens of DNPs in his rookie season, and often only found his way onto the floor in garbage time. He dedicated his offseason to making sure that wouldn’t happen again.

Through 22 games this season, Graham is clearly a breakout player, perhaps the breakout player, putting up 18 points and 7.7 assists per game while shooting 39.6 percent from 3-point range. It took him just 11 games to force his way into the Hornets’ starting lineup, a promotion he cemented with a stunning game-winner at Madison Square Garden to beat the New York Knicks in his third start. 

While Graham may not have had much of an opportunity to play last season, he did have a chance to learn. He saw the confidence and toughness of the giant-slaying Walker, and he paid attention to how Parker prepared for games.

“I think the thing that impressed me the most last year was his patience — his willingness to listen and learn and watch,” Marvin Williams said about Graham. “He was constantly watching Tony, constantly watching Kemba. If you watch those guys and then watch him today, he does a lot of things that those guys were doing.”

As Graham put in his long days in the gym and the weight room, building leg strength for those pull-up 3s, the Hornets totally transformed their roster. Walker left for the Boston Celtics, Parker retired and point guard Terry Rozier arrived with a huge contract. As a result, just about everyone expected Charlotte to stink.  

Our own CBS Sports ranking of the Top 100 players in the league featured no Hornets, and Vegas bookmakers set their win total over/under at 23, which was the lowest in the league. Hornets coach James Borrego brought up the low expectations on the first day of training camp. 

“You hear everything,” Graham said. “People saying this, people saying that, people tweeting at you. But for me, I personally don’t pay attention to any of it. We used to hear it all the time at Kansas, but it’s all about what’s inside the locker room.”

At 8-14, the Hornets are well on their way to hitting the over on that win total, and are hovering just a game and a half outside of the playoff picture in the East. Making the postseason remains unlikely, but they’ve established that they’re far from the worst team in the league. No one embodies their underdog mentality better than Graham, who has provided playmaking on a team desperate for it. When Charlotte invested $57 million in Rozier, it could not have anticipated that Graham would lead the team in scoring and assists.

Graham’s 72 3s are second only to James Harden, and his 169 assists put him third in the league. Of the six players who have made at least 50 3s and handed out 100 assists, Graham is second only to Fred VanVleet, another small guard who was passed over and spent most of his rookie season on the bench, in 3-point percentage. 

At the beginning of games, he said, he feels out the opponent’s defensive approach. He tries to be aggressive as a scorer, but not just for scoring’s sake. He understands that establishing himself as a threat will “open up everything for everybody else.”

“It’s the balance, I think of all that,” Borrego said. “The ability to shoot the ball, score the ball, run a club, be a playmaker out there, and doing it as a starter in this league is extremely impressive for a young man.”

With Graham on the court, the Hornets’ offense boasts a 108.6 net rating, but when he sits, it plummets to 93.4. To put it another way, the Hornets have been exactly league average on offense when Graham plays, and nearly 10 points worse than the last-ranked offense in the league when he doesn’t. Much of this is due to all of those jumpers in the offseason: After shooting just 28.1 percent from deep as a rookie, he has become one of the league’s best off-the-dribble shooters.

Graham is averaging 2.1 3-point attempts per game after three to six dribbles and making 38.3 percent of them. Only six players in the league attempt more of those shots per game; of those, only Kyle Lowry and D’Angelo Russell have shot a higher percentage. When it comes to 3s after seven-plus dribbles, only eight players have taken more than Graham’s 1.4 attempts per game and none of them have shot better than his 43.3 percent. 

It is one thing to have a hot start, however, and another thing entirely to sustain it. 

“That’s where it gets really tough,” Borrego said. “You’re on the scouting report now, the best defender’s on you now, you’re getting their best look, their best scheme, their best punch. Teams are blitzing him now, they’re putting two guys on him, and the kid’s handling it extremely well.”

Williams and forward Nicolas Batum said that they aren’t surprised by Graham’s emergence, as he is doing the same things he did in practice last season. Impressing your teammates in scrimmages, though, is only significant insofar as you can perform when the pressure is on. And Graham’s breakout is only significant insofar as he is able to build on it. 

Graham’s numbers suggest he might merit fringe All-Star consideration, but he needs to improve as a defender and a finisher before that is realistic. In the meantime, the Hornets want to see him stay steady despite the increased attention. So far, so good.

“He has that poise about him,” Borrego said. He’s not rattled. He’s not fazed by the moment.”

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