LAWRENCE — The statistic is remarkable and, more than any other number, reveals just how valuable Devonte’ Graham is to this Kansas basketball team.
Graham has played 430 of a possible 440 minutes through 11 conference games this season, appearing in 39.1 minutes per Big 12 contest. And incredibly, it’s a number on the rise — the senior point guard has played 40 minutes in each of the No. 10-ranked Jayhawks’ last seven contests. For perspective, the second most-used player in Big 12 play has been Kenrich Williams, averaging 38.4 minutes for TCU.
Mindful of fatigue concerns, KU has throttled back some Graham’s off-court responsibilities over the last two months. The Jayhawks have limited Graham at some practices and withheld him from others altogether, as they did Jan. 25.
“I think we’re doing all we can,” KU coach Bill Self said Thursday ahead of the Jayhawks’ 1 p.m. Saturday contest at Baylor in Waco, Texas. “He gets massages every other day. We bring him milk and cookies all the time to make sure he’s content on that. His caloric intake is right at the right spot.”
Joking aside, Self acknowledged he’s never had a player quite as invaluable as Graham.
“The bottom line is he can’t come out,” Self said. “He’s just got to play through that.”
The previous most irreplaceable Jayhawk was likely Frank Mason, who last year averaged a Self-at-KU-record 36.1 minutes through a dynamic national player of the year senior campaign. Graham, meanwhile, is averaging 36.9 minutes through 24 games, and it’s hard to envision any scenario where that number decreases.
For what it's worth, Graham averaged 35.3 minutes minutes last season, at the moment the second-highest mark of the Self era.
“I thought Frank was hard last year — until we got to this year,” Self said. “Frank had Devonte’. I can’t remember someone, us, having this little depth at a key position that we couldn’t put somebody else in.”
Depth, as Self identified, has been the biggest reason for Graham’s sky-high usage, even more than the obvious talent of the only player in college basketball averaging 17-plus points (17.5), seven-plus assists (7.4), 1.8 steals (1.9) and fewer than three turnovers (2.8).
The Jayhawks (19-5, 8-3) have at times tried others as the team’s primary ball handler, primarily sophomore Malik Newman and junior Lagerald Vick, but neither has clicked in that role — “The problem is, who runs the team” when Graham is on the bench, Self said. The KU coach may explore other options like senior Svi Mykhailiuk moving forward, but even Mykhailiuk is averaging 36.3 minutes in conference play, and using him in that role may hamper his catch-and-shoot ability.
“We could do that some,” Self said, “but the best way we could do it, and maybe it’s Marcus (Garrett), is to have someone that could literally take Devonte’ out and sit him down, or take Devonte’ off the ball and utilize him getting some shots off the catch. The vast majority of Devonte’s makes are off the bounce, unless it’s an offensive rebound.”
Self isn’t a fan of what the team has shown when Graham has played off the ball — “I don’t think it’s worked out very well for us,” he said. Nevertheless, the team has tried it and may continue to do so moving forward as a compromise of sorts between true rest and Graham’s typical do-everything role.
“I personally thought Malik or Lagerald would, not be a point guard by any stretch, but could be immediate point guards or be able to initiate, things like that,” Self said. “It hasn’t quite worked out the way I’d hoped on that front.”
Playing so often has at least allowed Graham to figure out one of his biggest early-season issues.
The 6-foot-2 guard is averaging 7.73 free-throw attempts in Big 12 play, a massive turnaround from the 3.23 free-throw attempts per game total he posted across 13 nonconference games. He’s been the catalyst in a team-wide turnaround in that category for the Jayhawks, who average 14.64 free-throw attempts per game, the third-highest total in league play.
“We can talk about what we don’t do well. Guys, there’s been some vast improvements in some areas, too,” Self said. “To go from being a team that shot no free throws to now being a team that shoots almost as many free throws as anybody in our league, give (Graham) a lot of that credit.”
Graham’s done it all of late while battling a knee bruise, an injury which kept him out of every practice between a Jan. 29 victory at Kansas State and a Feb. 3 defeat at home to Oklahoma State. Self thinks Graham is on the mend, though he isn’t sure he’ll ever get an honest assessment from his senior leader on that front.
“I think they’ve been taught that nobody really cares how you’re feeling,” Self said of his players. “So when I ask them that, they all say, ‘Good, great, whatever.’ I’ve told them many times that there’s not 16,000 people (at Allen Fieldhouse) that really give a flip if your nose is running or not. They really don’t.
“I think they’ve kind of learned that over time. They’re probably going to tell us what we want to hear.”