LAWRENCE — Last week, Bill Self said Devonte’ Graham “put the nail in the coffin” of the Big 12 player of the year race.
Truth is, the longtime Kansas basketball coach may have been selling his senior point guard short.
In the aftermath of yet another outright conference championship secured by two of his best games as a Jayhawk, Graham has received buzz from some outlets for not only the league’s top honor, but as a contender for national player of the year. He is one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Award and is on the late season top-20 list for the Wooden Award, both given annually to the nation’s top college basketball player.
In a column titled “Wooden Watch: Making the case for Devonte’ Graham,” ESPN writer Kyle Bonagura cited Graham’s combination of top-tier statistics and team success as strengths working in the Jayhawk senior’s favor. Graham is averaging 17.7 points, 7.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds in 37.2 minutes per game, scoring 26 points in a league-clinching victory last Saturday at Texas Tech and posting a double-double (10 points, 11 assists) in Monday’s home win against Texas.
“That candidacy isn’t built because he’s the best NBA prospect — if that were the case, it would be a two-man race between Arizona’s Deandre Ayton and Duke’s Marvin Bagley III — or because he has the most eye-popping stats (that would be [Oklahoma’s Trae] Young),” Bonagura wrote. “What’s working in his favor is arguably the best combination of individual and team success in the country.”
Bonagura isn’t the only ESPN personality making a case for Graham. In a segment that aired on the network earlier this week, analyst Jay Williams advocated for co-national players of the year with Graham and Jalen Brunson, of Villanova, sharing the honors, while fellow TV personality Seth Greenberg made a stronger push for Graham.
“I think in this moment in time, right now, Devonte’ Graham is the national player of the year,” Greenberg said. “The reason being is because if you take Devonte’ Graham off that basketball team, they have no chance — not only to win the 14th consecutive Big 12 championship, (but) I’m not sure they’re an NCAA Tournament team.
“He’s their lone point guard. Eleven games out of the last 12, he’s played 40 minutes. Not only can he score, but he guards the other team’s best player. He’s got a toughness about him. I love Jalen Brunson, but you know what? Devonte’ Graham has played his way into the national player of the year.”
Graham would be the No. 6-ranked Jayhawks’ second straight Wooden Award winner, following the consensus national player of the year honors earned by former backcourt mate Frank Mason. The current Sacramento Kings guard averaged 20.9 points, 5.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds in his final KU season, shooting 49 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from 3-point range.
The last teammates to win back-to-back national player of the year honors were Shane Battier and, oddly enough, Williams, who each won the Wooden and Naismith trophies in 2001-02, respectively. Chris Mullin and Walter Berry, of St. John’s (N.Y.), were the only pair from the same team to receive at least one of the two honors in back-to-back years, capturing Wooden Awards in 1985-86.
“While Mason’s numbers were more impressive — and he was a lock as last year’s POY — Graham’s impact as Kansas’ leader on an undersized and undermanned team with much less talent speaks volumes about his 2017-18 candidacy,” wrote Lindsay Schnell and Scott Gleeson, of USA TODAY, in a Wednesday column titled “Wooden Watch Top 10: Devonte’ Graham shoots to top ahead of Trae Young.” ”... Graham and Jalen Brunson have Young beat in the consistency and winning categories. Given Kansas’ clinching of yet another Big 12 title — outright — this week calls for his name atop our list.”
As for Self’s list? The KU coach indicated the nail is not quite in the national player of the year coffin just yet.
“Going into the last probably 10 days, I didn’t think he would be a candidate for national player of the year. I thought he’d be a candidate to make an All-American team,” Self said Thursday. ”... I do think he’s emerged as a candidate. Not a leading candidate in my opinion, but who knows what’s going to happen in the next 10 days? If he plays as well as anybody in the country the next 10 days, he may be a guy that could win an award or two in that area.”
The Jayhawks (24-6, 13-4 Big 12) close out the regular season with a 3 p.m. Saturday matchup at Oklahoma State (17-13, 7-10) and could play up to three games in the Big 12 Tournament, beginning with a 1:30 p.m. quarterfinal Thursday at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
Self also stressed one advantage Mason had over Graham last season — Graham, of course, hasn’t had Graham by his side.
“I would say what we should kind of look at is how good Frank had it having Devonte’ next to him. Then we should look at how good Devonte’ has been considering he doesn’t have Frank next to him,” Self said. “That’s not a knock to Malik (Newman) or anything, but it’s totally different. Malik is a prototypical two guard. He’s not a point guard. He’s not a guy that initiates or anything.”
Mason often guarded the other team’s best player, but again, Self said he had more options — Graham among them — to keep the point guard fresh.
″‘Hey, Devonte’, you’ve got to score the points and take the shots at the end of the shot clock, you’ve got to do all the talking, we’re not going to sub for you and you’re going to have to guard the other team’s best player the whole time,′ ” Self said of Graham’s responsibilities. “So, for me, from a coach’s standpoint, you have to respect that.”