Why Devonté Graham is ready to push his body again — without any second thoughts

By Jesse Newell jnewell@kcstar.com

Devonté Graham grimaced, putting his hands on his knees a few steps behind the free-throw line.

The guard had just been hit below the waist on a foul in Kansas' 83-67 victory over Kansas State, and in this moment late in the second half, he needed an extra few seconds to recover.

"Devonté, you need one?" coach Bill Self yelled from the bench, asking if he wanted to come out.

Graham looked over and shook his head no. Then stepped up and hit both free throws.

The scene shouldn't be a surprise. The foundation for Self's success at KU has been his players valuing toughness, so even if the coach offered Graham a break, he fully expected his leader to decline.

And so Graham grinded through again. He played 38 minutes Friday after going 39 Thursday. And that's after he played 40 minutes in 12 of KU's previous 14 games.

"It is what it is," Graham said of his workload. "We've got to go back and get this rest, recover."

The next 24 hours will be important in that regard. After Thursday's win over Oklahoma State, Graham received an extensive message. He put on Normatecs — the equivalent of leg sleeves — that use compressed air to enhance blood flow to help recovery.

On Friday, he planned on an ice bath, and also drinking plenty of fluids.

"It's championship day," Graham said, "so you can't get tired on championship day."

I understand where Graham's coming from, yet couldn't help but think of the other side of this when it comes to what's most important for KU moving forward.

Graham is an outlier for KU when it comes to playing time. Self has never pushed one of his guys this hard minutes-wise, and he's also never had someone more valuable to a roster than Graham has been this year.

So while a trophy is on the line Saturday, it's probably not worth as much as it seems — especially if we look at the whole situation with proper perspective.

Do you remember who won last year's Big 12 Tournament championship? I had to Google to find the answer was Iowa State, which further illustrates how little this weekend means for the big picture. And you can bet that accomplishment didn't mean much to Cyclones fans the next week when their team was knocked out by Purdue in the Round of 32.

There's also this: I don't think KU's seed line will change regardless of Saturday's result. The Jayhawks' strong résumé, along with Xavier's loss Friday, means they should be a near-lock for a 1 seed based on what we know about the selection process.

It all made me wonder: How would NBA teams handle a similar situation if they were in KU's position?

Over the last few weeks, I called some NBA contacts to get their opinions on how teams at the next level might handle a conference tournament-type situation if only a minor change in seeding was on the line.

There was no consensus — and obviously, it's difficult for the NBA and NCAA to relate here. The NBA collective bargaining agreement forbids scheduling of back-to-back-to-back games for player safety, which is the exact scenario that KU will face Saturday.

The general consensus was this: Many NBA playoff teams focus on not overtaxing their starters in the regular season. Whether it's minutes limits or days off, there's often measures taken early to try to avoid issues later. Also, as a whole, NBA coaches have trended more and more toward resting players in the week right before the playoffs with hopes of improved play at the most important time.

Having said that, many college coaches might not share this similar type of thinking because of the difference in schedules. A back-to-back-to-back might not be ideal for KU this week, but afterward, the Jayhawks will have four days off before their likely NCAA Tournament opener in Wichita. That's a longer layoff than any NBA team is likely to have.

Which all brings us to the final question: Should Self, with Graham specifically, do anything different for Saturday's game knowing what's more important in the weeks ahead? Even if that's something as minor as sitting Graham a few extra minutes?

We already know the answer because Self has been consistent with how he's handled these situations in the past, but he still reiterated his thoughts when asked if Saturday's game was "not that big of a deal" for KU because it had already won the Big 12 regular-season title.

"If you play, you might as well win," Self said. "That's how everybody looks at it."

Self is not alone. Going all-out is how almost every NCAA coach handles championship week, though I wonder if that will change over time.

Perhaps in a decade or two, college coaches will have different perspectives. This could come with additional scientific studies or maybe even more examples of NBA coaches sitting their stars.

We aren't in that moment yet. And so Graham answered my weird question in the locker room exactly as you'd expect.

The NBA doesn't allow its guys to play in back-to-back-to-back games, I told Graham. Knowing that, and how the league values rest, would you ever consider wanting to sit out a few extra minutes Saturday?

Graham scrunched his face.

"No chance," he said. "The championship game tomorrow is most important, and then I've got a week to rest."

The guard paused for a second, then continued with his response.

I only realized later it was basically the same message he'd given Self about a half-hour earlier.

"This ain't the NBA," he said with a laugh. "We ain't resting."


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