When the Hornets let Kemba Walker leave in the offseason that was supposed to be the end for them. To say Walker was important to the Hornets would be an understatement. He wasn’t just a key piece to the team. He was the team. Walker wanted to stay in Charlotte despite the stagnation of the roster around him, but the Hornets didn’t want to give Walker anything close to the super max contract he was eligible for, so Walker left Charlotte for Boston. This was the end of another Hornets era, with a rebuild on the way.
Charlotte responded by filling the void with a Terry Rozier contract and immediately shifting towards a youth movement — as much as they could with some bloated contracts still on the books for another year. With the season approaching, the Hornets were a popular pick for the worst team in the NBA. What nobody saw coming was the emergence of second year player Devonte’ Graham.
Graham played in 46 games last season and was generally unimpressive. He shot poorly from the field, the Hornets were worse with him on the floor when he did play, and he looked like he was just another example of Charlotte’s uninspiring future. So what has he done this season? Completely flip the script.
On Tuesday, Graham scored 35 points in an overtime victory against the Pacers. This was enough to move the Hornets to 4-3 to start the season, a record few expected them to have a few weeks ago. That start is respectable on its own, but the way the Hornets have gone about this might be what’s more surprising. They aren’t winning these games on the backs of their veterans like Nicolas Batum, Rozier, or Marvin Williams. No, it’s been behind the efforts of their youngsters and Graham is at the forefront of that.
Graham’s individual impact is as simple as looking at his stat line. He’s currently averaging 17.3 points and 6.7 assists per game, and doing so while shooting an absurd 46 percent from 3-point range. Will that three-point percentage be sustainable? Most likely not, but over the course of seven games he’s firing away from deep six times a game, which indicates he’s very comfortable hoisting from deep and a drop-off would likely be to simply “good.” The Hornets can work with good, but Graham is going to have to be ready for when teams get a scouting report on him, because there isn’t much shot variety in his game.
There’s a positive way to look at this and a negative way. The positive way is Graham fits straight into the way you want players to shoot. He only attempts shots from behind the arc or at the rim. On top of that, the areas he shoots the most he’s very good at. So many players, young and old, don’t do a good job of getting to their best spots. Graham seems to recognize that if he’s at the top of the arc, or on the right wing, then he’s at his most comfortable shooting from there. If you give Graham a look at one of his spots then he’s going to let it fly.
The negative is that a lack of variety in his game makes him predictable. Defenses know where he’s trying to get to and when players start getting scouting reports they’ll know to stay home in certain spots, close out harder in others, and generally frustrate him. Graham has two makes from the mid-range all year. It’s hard to believe that is all from him choosing to not shoot those. A lot of is that he probably isn’t a great shooter from that range. That’s fine. It’s not a shot you want to be reliant on if you’re not an elite midrange shooter, but it’ll be interesting to see if defenses start running him off the line to force him into looks he’d prefer not to take.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Graham can’t use that to his own advantage. He has an assist percentage of 33.8 percent so far this season, dishing out a little over six per game. Graham’s already shown he’s smart enough to know where his spots are. He’s a point guard at heart and that also means he knows where to find everyone else on the floor. If anything, Graham’s play puts coach James Borrego in a bit of a predicament. Charlotte has a net rating of 0.0 when Graham’s on the floor, but when he leaves it the Hornets drop to a -17.3 without him. Against Indiana, this meant a closing stretch with Graham running the show and Terry Rozier on the bench. For now, all parties seem fine with the hot hand arrangement, but whether the big free agent acquisition of the summer is willing to accept that will be how it is some nights remains to be seen.
Even so, the Hornets have to be really excited for what Grahama can be for them. The expectation shouldn’t be for him to be a Kemba replacement, but instead that their guard situation might not be as dire as expected. Graham will surely have his ups and downs, but the encouraging thing is that he seems to have a good understanding of what he’s good at, where his spots are on the floor, and making sure that’s where he’s taking the majority of his looks. Even as teams start preparing more for him, that’s a recipe for sustainable success, which the Hornets desperately need.