Kansas’ Devonte Graham was 100 percent deserving of this year’s Big 12 Player of the Year accolades.
But the fact that Graham won the award unanimously — all other nine league head coaches voted for him, according to the Big 12 — may be more than just an appreciation of Graham’s prodigious basketball skills.
Maybe Graham’s clean sweep of the vote is a sort of referendum on high-impact freshmen, a silent protest of the one-and-done phenomenon, a strong commentary on the growth and grit and patience of a fourth-year senior.
Oklahoma’s Trae Young didn’t get one vote for player of the year in the Big 12 Conference? Not one coach thought the guy who leads the nation in scoring and assists was the best player in a 10-team league? Nobody gave serious consideration to a player who outscored Graham by 10 points per game (27.5 to 17.6) and averaged nearly two more assists per game (8.9 to 7.2)?
The local kid with the unlimited range and ridiculous handles and half-court alley-oops was completely shut out?
Yes, although Big 12 coaches on Monday cited Graham’s championship and a multitude of other attributes, rather than his simply being a persistent role player who only required time to grow into his superstardom.
“They asked me after our last Oklahoma game, ‘Are you gonna vote for Trae Young for player of the year?’ ” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “And I just said, ‘In my opinion, no.’ To me, it’s more than just the scoring and the numbers and all that. It’s helping your team be successful. Obviously, Kansas winning another championship is impressive, and (Graham) being a part of those four.
“But I thought he took it on himself, this is his team. The other years, it was Frank Mason’s team or this other guy’s team. But this time, Graham took it upon himself to make it his team and did all the things necessary to help them win. Trae Young’s really, really good, and obviously unbelievable numbers. But at same time, I think the coaches appreciate when a player helps the team be successful, and that’s what Graham has done.”
With Kansas playing each night through severely limited depth, coach Bill Self expounded on Graham’s ability to shoulder a larger role this season. With Mason, the national player of the year, running the show last year, Graham was a really good bit player. Now he’s so much more.
“Last year, Devonte probably didn’t get the credit that I think he deserved in large part because he deferred so much to Frank,” Self said. “But Frank had a sidekick next to him that took the pressure off of him. Devonte certainly, this year, has not only taken Frank’s role that he had last year as the point, but we really don’t have anybody else that can sub for him and be that point guard. So I think he’s done a remarkable job considering as many things as he’s had on his plate.”
The Jayhawks were said to be vulnerable in 2017-18, mostly due to a severe lack of depth in the post. KU started February losing two out of three and trailed upstart Texas Tech by a game in the standings. But then, as Tech lost frontline star Keenan Evans for most of two weeks, Kansas won five in a row to clinch its 14th consecutive Big 12 title before Saturday’s otherwise meaningless loss at Oklahoma State.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma had a nightmare February, losing six in a row and seven out of nine overall.
KU won the league by two games with a 13-5 conference record; OU finished in a four-way tie for sixth at 8-10.
The Sooners and Jayhawks split this year’s series 1-1 and could meet in Thursday’s quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. If OU (18-12) beats Oklahoma State (18-13) in their 6 p.m. game Wednesday, OU-Kansas tips off at 2 p.m. the next day.
Choosing Graham over Young came down to more than just wins and losses. During their round on the Big 12’s back nine, Young played bogey golf while Graham shot almost all birdies.
In nine February games, Young shot 34.9 percent from the field and just 23.2 percent from 3-point range. He averaged 21.1 points, 7.4 assists and 5.0 turnovers.
Graham, meanwhile, shot 42.1 percent from the field, 44.4 percent from 3-point range and averaged 18.4 points, 6.6 assists and just 2.4 turnovers per game during KU’s last nine games.
And while Young, a freshman, was struggling to hit shots and make plays against arguably college basketball’s deepest conference, Graham, a savvy senior, regularly delivered game-changing moments.
“I think the big thing you hit on was ‘won 14 championships, won the championship this year,’ ” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “To the victors go the spoils. It’s not a knock on Trae at all. Just, Devonte helping Kansas with 14 straight championships and how he was able to help them win this year. That’s not saying Trae’s not worthy, it’s just Devonte did more on the winning part of things.
“I think it probably starts with 14 consecutive championships,” said West Virginia’s Bob Huggins. “And then he’s had really big games when he’s had to. That’s the biggest thing that I see is that when they have a challenge, he’s the guy who is right in front of the team, leading them to victories against the better teams in the league.”
A month ago, Young was the slam-dunk national player of the year. Big 12 player of the year wasn’t even a consideration. But Graham changed that.
The fact that the voting was unanimous, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said, was “not necessarily” a surprise, “given that Kansas won the league and Devonte had a terrific year and was the leader of their squad.
“He’s very deserving. Obviously, there’s other very deserving players in the league, too, but when you have a player that had the year that Devonte had on a championship team, that’s a very natural thing to do.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.