Devonté Graham, a self-proclaimed LeBron James fan, examined some pictures of the future NBA Hall of Famer after Kansas’ game-day shootaround Saturday morning at American Airlines Arena.
“LeBron’s my favorite player,” senior point guard Graham said after putting on a LeBron-type performance in the Jayhawks’ 76-60 victory over Syracuse on Saturday night in the home of the NBA’s Miami Heat.
The 6-foot-2 Graham scored a career-high 35 points for the second straight game in a building in which current Cleveland Cavalier James played his home games en route to NBA championships with the Heat in 2012 and ’13.
“Seeing all the stuff on the walls with him and the championships … Ray Allen, and all the guys, Mario Chalmers. We were looking at the venue. I actually thought we’d be in the Heat locker room. I got excited about that,” Graham said. “We didn’t get to go in there (but) it’s still nice to play in these type of arenas.”
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Graham, whose mother and other family members sat behind KU’s bench, hit 10 of 17 shots. Included were a career-high seven three-pointers in 13 three-point attempts. He also was 8 of 8 from the line and had five assists and five turnovers with three rebounds and two steals in 40 minutes.
“Coach kept telling me to be aggressive. Coach Rob (Norm Roberts) was telling me I need to be more aggressive. I was trying to give us a spark,” Graham said.
He actually provided the spark KU needed to start solving Syracuse’s 2-3 zone.
Graham scored 14 points and also tossed a perfect lob pass to Svi Mykhailiuk (11 points, four rebounds, four assists, four turnovers) during a 16-4 run in the final 6:21 of the first half.
That turned a narrow 19-17 lead into a 35-21 halftime advantage.
He continued his sizzle into the second half, scoring seven quick points as KU built a game-high lead of 21 points at 47-26. Graham also hit a huge three when the Orange had cut KU’s lead to seven points at 49-42. And he followed that three with five straight free throws to give KU some breathing room at 57-45.
Graham also flipped a perfect lob to Lagerald Vick (20 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) for a one-handed slam to give the Jayhawks a 64-47 lead at 7:39.
The Orange did reduce the deficit to nine one final time at 68-59 with about 5minutes left, but KU was able to keep its poise en route to its seventh win against no losses. Syracuse fell to 6-1.
“These two guys carried us offensively,” KU coach Bill Self said, seated next to Vick and Graham in the interview room after the game. “The thing with Devonté, he’s a point guard, but also a scoring point guard. Seventeen doesn’t sound like a lot of shots to get 35. I do think we’re better when we have balance. But on a night we didn’t have much going on, Devonté needed to do that. He picked his spots well.”
Graham and Vick scored 55 of KU’s 76 points (the Jayhawks hit 49.1 percent of their shots and were 11 of 31 on threes to Syracuse’s 32.1 percent) to dominate offensively with Syracuse’s Tyus Battle, who had 22 points on 7-of-20 shooting (2 of 11 threes).
A third KU candidate for player of the game, according to the Jayhawks, happened to be walk-on senior forward Clay Young, who played the final 9 minutes of the first half.
He entered with KU up one point and Udoka Azubuike (six points, nine boards) and Mitch Lightfoot (two points) saddled with two fouls apiece. The Jayhawks were up 14 at the break with Young on the court during the time the Jayhawks clicked offensively against the 2-3 zone.
“When I went in the locker room, I told ‘em, ‘Clay was MVP,’ ” said Graham, who actually was the official Hoophall MVP. “Last time he had a good game (18 minutes against South Dakota State on Nov. 17) I tweeted, ‘Clay for President.’ He does the little things to help us win. You need somebody like that. When we are in foul trouble he can come in and we just keep on rolling.”
Young had no shots and one assist on the night.
“For me to go in and play a couple of minutes, do what I could do was pretty cool,” Young said. “I've got to be ready to play whenever my name is called, especially if we get in foul trouble. I have to be mentally prepared to go in the game.”
Young actually guarded 7-foot-2 Syracuse big man Paschal Chukwu, who had seven points and seven boards in 23 minutes.
“That’s probably the tallest guy I ever guarded,” Young said.
Self was impressed with Young’s performance.
“I thought Clay did great,” he said. “Six-foot-three guarding 7-2, I thought he did OK.”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim thought the game boiled down to one factor.
“Our offense was not good from the beginning,” Boeheim said. The Orange, who hit 5 of 23 shots in the first half (21.7 percent) did improve to 39.4 percent in the second half. His squad hit 6 of 27 three-pointers.
“I thought our defense was good. Our offense kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” Boeheim added. “The first half was bad offense. Down 21, I thought our guys dug down and made a great effort to get back in it. Graham was really good today. He kept making his shot every time we needed something. Kansas has a tremendous team. We have to play better offensively against them.”
KU will next meet Washington at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Sprint Center.
Kansas walk-on Clay Young talks to reporters after playing 9 first-half minutes in KU's 76-60 victory over Syracuse on Saturday. Jesse NewellThe Kansas City Star