With 3:22 left in a game that seemed almost a prerequisite for Kansas to continue its run of consecutive Big 12 Conference titles, starting point guard Frank Mason fouled Oklahoma’s Jordan Woodard as he connected on a 3-point shot.
That not only put Woodard in position to complete a 4-point play, but it was also the last thing Mason would do on the court that day: It was his fifth personal.
This sequence turned a Kansas lead into a 3-point deficit, without their leader, on the road against a Final Four-caliber opponent. Instead of disaster, though, it became the moment the world understood the Jayhawks had two elite point guards. Devonte’ Graham accepted the challenge of running the team, scoring eight points and directing a defense that yielded only three more points in what little time remained that afternoon.
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The Jayhawks won 73-63. Graham already knew.
“I think it was an important game for us, because it definitely helped us solidify the Big 12,” Graham told Sporting News. “But as far as me being a point guard, it’s just kind of natural. I had no doubts, at all. It’s what I’ve always played. I was 5-3 going into high school. I couldn’t play any other position but point guard. My whole life, I’ve been doing it.”
That afternoon in February 2016 still resonates, and assured Graham would not enter his senior season underrated. Even with Sporting News Player of the Year Frank Mason moving on, Graham’s switch from shooting guard to point guard has been more a curiosity than a concern. Graham is considered an All-America candidate and will be one of the premier attractions in Tuesday’s Champions Classic doubleheader at Chicago’s United Center, which matches four Sporting News top-five teams: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Duke and No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Kansas.
So the trick at Kansas has not been replacing Mason as a point guard, but recapturing the backcourt chemistry he enjoyed with Graham. And Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman will have a role to play in that.
Although Newman arrived at Kansas with a background as a McDonald’s All-American, top-10 recruit and FIBU U-17 world champion, he had done much of that as a scorer playing almost constantly with the ball in his hands. What coach Bill Self from him thus far has seen has been convincing.
“I think it has potential to be close to equally as good,” Self told Sporting News. “I don’t think we’ll be as good of a ball-handling, slashing, aggressive downhill team with these two. But I think we can be better perimeter scorers, maybe as good or better shooters from behind the arc.”
Self isn’t trying to con us into believing Newman did not face a significant transition in transferring from Mississippi State to Kansas, or in moving to a position where he would more frequently run off screens and try to score or make plays off the catch.
However, Self believes Newman can be at his best in this circumstance because of his size, his shooting ability and his initial explosion.
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“He’s still good on the ball, but it’s better if he catches it on the wing with an unused dribble,” Self said. “He’s good off ball screens, with one or two quick bounces to create separation. But sometimes when you have an unused dribble instead of dribbling it up, that makes him more dangerous.
“From a comfort standpoint, I think he’s fit in fantastic. On the basketball court, I’m not sure he’s totally comfortable yet, because I think he’s still trying to figure me out and trying to please, trying to play the way we want him to play. The ball was always in his hands before, and we’re trying to get him to play not like that. He has potential to be a terrific all-around player. There’s no reason he can’t be a great defender, no reason he can’t be more whole. That will pay off over time.”
Toward that goal of becoming a more connected backcourt, Graham and Newman roomed together last season as Newman practiced with the team during his year-in-residence after transferring. It worked.
Neither finished that year with a genuine complaint about the other’s living habits. Newman couldn’t even give SN a clear answer as to whether Graham is a better roommate or backcourt partner.
“That’s a tough one” Newman said. “He’s such a great person off the court. He always brings energy to the room. He always brings life to wherever he is. It was great being roommates with him.”
Their only real dispute involved which was better at NBA 2K.
“I’m much better than he is,” Newman said.
“It’s definitely me,” Graham said.
Graham did allow that Newman “talks a lot,” but that’s another thing Self likes about this tandem: Mason led with his toughness and consistency, but Self struggled to get him to communicate on the court. This is not a problem for Graham or Newman.
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“Devonte’s kind of got an Aaron Miles quality to him,” Self said. “The ball in his hands, his talent is obvious so everybody respects him, and he’s the best talker since we’ve been here.”
Oh, and there’s one more thing about the Kansas backcourt that could make it the first Final Four-bound unit the Jayhawks have featured since 2012: It’s not just a two-man operation. “I think Lagerald Vick adds a different mix to it,” Self said.
Kansas starts Vick on the other wing, and he led the Jayhawks with 23 points in the opening win over Tennessee State. He went 8 of 12, including four 3-pointers, and contributed five rebounds and three steals.
Kansas discovered a more dynamic approach late last season when it began using lineups with Josh Jackson and Svi Mykhailiuk at the forward spots, and there’ll be plenty of that this year with Vick and Mykhailiuk.
“I think Coach does a good job of making sure guys know their roles,” Graham said. “Me being a leader, I just try to instill that confidence in guys. I talk to them about the little things that are going to help our team win. Knowing what Coach likes, I think I can do a good job of that.”
Graham is new to being a college point guard, and to being the Kansas point guard. But he’s not new to being a point guard. His position is different, but his identity hasn’t changed.