P.J. Washington had the NBA debut that every rookie dreams about. He was all but flawless in the Hornets’ season-opening victory over the Chicago Bulls Monday night in an exhilarating atmosphere at the Spectrum Center. He totaled 27 points, going 7-11 from three-point land. 27 points is the most in an NBA career debut since 2002. But the rookie out of Kentucky was not the only substantial storyline of the night.
Devonte’ Graham – not Terry Rozier – closed out the game for the Hornets last night. He stepped in with five minutes left as the Hornets trailed by 10 points and scored eight points, adding two assists, going on to complete the comeback and defeating the Bulls. Graham’s play down the stretch was a big factor in the Hornets making the comeback and coming out victorious on opening night. Graham ended the game with 23 points, eight assists, and four rebounds, shooting 7-9 from the field and 6-7 from beyond the arc.
With 5:38 left in the fourth quarter, Devonte’ Graham trotted onto the court to replace Terry Rozier. The score was 118-108 Chicago. On the second offensive possession, Graham whipped the ball to Bacon at the top, who sent it to the left corner to Miles Bridges. Bridges drove and kicked it to the right corner to P.J. Washington, who then dumped it to Devonte’ who stepped in to drill a three-pointer. The ball movement on this possession was one of the many examples of the Hornets making a handful of passes on one offensive possession leading to a score. They assisted on 20 of the 23 made three-pointers on the night. 23 made threes is a franchise record for the Hornets and an NBA record for made threes in a season opener.
The very next offensive possession for the Hornets, Devonte’ did it again. He got an outlet pass from Miles Bridges and confidently pulled up for a 25-foot three-pointer to trim the Bulls lead to just four. Devonte’ ended the game by dishing out two more assists to a Cody Zeller dunk and a Dwayne Bacon three-point bomb. The second-year guard sealed the game by sinking both free throws to give the team the 126-125 victory.
Many were surprised that Graham closed the game out instead of Rozier. But the poise and control Graham plays the game with is something that immediately stands out as you watch him run the point for this team, and his coach believed in his play as well. “We were going to rest Terry. That was his normal rotation, to go to Devonte’ at that time because that’s Terry’s normal rest time,” Borrego stated after the game. “I was going to bring him back, but that group just started rolling. We were down 10, they started playing and cut the lead, so I rolled with that group. You have to give Devonte’ and that entire group credit for sticking with it and the resiliency they showed.”
Devonte’s experience, confidence, and composure
Devonte’ has more experience than the average second-year NBA point guard, and being able to close out tight games like last night is nothing new to Devonte’. Opportunities like that for young players are unfamiliar in the NBA scene, but being a four-year guy at Kansas has helped him tremendously, as Graham has said himself. During Hornets media day, he attributed his swift transition to the NBA to his experiences at Kansas – where he won multiple conference championships as a three-year starter, along with being a consensus All-American. “It made it a lot easier for me… got to go through a lot personally with me and Coach (Bill) Self. The way we play, a lot of pick-and-rolls, which is a lot of what the league is now, a lot of pick-and-rolls and iso’s and being able to make different reads.”
The confidence and improvement Devonte’ exhibited in his game in year two – most obviously Wednesday night – is something that his teammates and coaches have taken note of. Borrego spoke on Graham’s performance saying, “You have to give him credit… He put himself in the position to have a game like this. I’m not surprised.”
Borrego spent a lot of time with Devonte’ this summer preparing him for an elevated role in year two where he is challenging him to be more aggressive offensively. The head coach talked about the work he and Devonte’ put in last summer during Wednesday’s postgame. “We spent a lot of time in the gym this summer. We took a lot of shots and worked on his shots a tremendous amount; we worked on his finishing and decision making. Those are the three things we need from him, decision making, shot-making, and to compete every night. He just looked so much more poised than last year.”
Dwayne Bacon also sees a big difference in Graham’s game. However, he also pointed out that Devonte’ has always been a great player, as he showed during his four years at Kansas. “[Graham] just knows how to control the game. He’s been in every situation, can shoot the ball, and control. He continues to build each and every year. Most guys don’t know about him, but they will… He can do a lot, and he is just going to keep building.”
Graham totaled 23 points last night on 7-9 shooting from the field, including 6-7 from beyond the arc. He did not hesitate to let it fly from deep even with defenders draped all over him – which is something he would not have done his rookie season. It seems Devonte’ has accepted the challenge from his coach. Graham has talked about how he knows Borrego has the confidence in him to knock down those shots and willingly wants him to, no matter how hot or cold he is. Devonte’ looked cool and composed, hitting all six of his threes in rhythm, not forcing his shots, just going with the flow of the game, taking what the defense gave him.
Graham credits ball movement to his team’s performance
A constant theme of last night’s game was the Hornets’ ball movement, and Graham credits his teammates’ collective effort in that respect on his performance in the season opener. “I feel like this is the most comfortable game I’ve played, and I feel like a lot of that has to do with my teammates. We were all just out there being unselfish, sharing the ball.”
Borrego has cemented this unselfish style of basketball where the ball is moving around at a high rate, not sticking in one player’s hands. The Hornets put up some flattering statistics last night, starting the game assisting on 10 of their first 13 made field goals. As previously mentioned, the team set a franchise record and NBA opening night record for made threes in a game with 23. 20 of those 23 made threes were assisted on, and the team totaled 77 points off assists compared to 58 points off assists last season.
Devonte’ Graham and the Hornets put on an exciting show on opening night in the Spectrum Center, so hopefully, they can bring that same energy and unselfish style of play with them Friday when they face the Timberwolves at home.