Upon first glance, Devonte’ Graham is easy to discount. He’s a 6’1 second-round pick who shoots 37.6 percent from the field for his career. Initially viewing him as a spark plug reserve guard is understandable. Yet a more nuanced depiction of his game, between the numbers and the film, reveals he’s much more than that.
The New Orleans Pelicans completed a fantastic signing this summer when they inked Graham to a four-year, $47.3 million deal, presumably to be their starting point guard on the heels of Lonzo Ball’s departure. He’ll bring some crucial elements offensively and benefit from the infrastructure already intact. New Orleans absolutely has some faults to critique in their team-building vision over the last couple seasons, but this is not one of them. Graham is a very good player who aligns well with what the Pelicans’ needs offensively, accrued experience in Charlotte playing alongside primary and secondary initiators — which makes for a fairly seamless transition to New Orleans — and helps replace some of what they’ve recently lost.
Graham is the rare player who provides both efficient, high-volume three-point shooting and sound playmaking. It’s an archetype not commonly found across the NBA and those who do tout it are usually some of the league’s top offensive guards. As an arbitrary and fun data set, over the last two seasons, the only two players to launch at least eight threes per game and shoot 37 percent while posting at least five assists a night are Graham and Damian Lillard, per StatHead.
Stephen Curry would be there if he hadn’t missed most of 2019-20. Ball and Donovan Mitchell achieved it this past season. Broaden the criteria slightly and guys like Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Trae Young enter the frame. Graham is not on the level of those guys, but he’s an excellent offensive talent.
According to Synergy, he was one of the NBA’s premier pull-up maestros in 2019-20, ranking in the 85th percentile off the dribble. Although he regressed to the 42nd percentile last year, opponents still respect him. When he finds airspace around a screen, it warps the configuration of defenses. Stationing a guard with legit pull-up gravity alongside Zion Williamson, who is arguably the most dominant paint scorer in the league (it’s him or Giannis), should produce bountiful results.
Ball, for all his exploits and concordance with Zion, did not offer that aspect. Ingram has off-the-bounce chops, but doesn’t draw eyes off of picks with the immediacy of Graham, nor does he execute passing reads with precision and haste like Graham. Not only does he provoke traps and swarming closeouts while causing hesitation from pick-and-roll defenders, he’s masterful at promptly reading the floor and parlaying his shooting magnetism into playmaking opportunities. Graham represents a notable upgrade in on-ball viability at the guard spot for New Orleans.
Pick-and-rolls involving Zion and Graham connect one player with domineering roll gravity and another who commands sufficient pull-up attention. Zion’s yet to experience that dynamic from an NBA guard consistently. It’s going to prop up the entire offense toward elite outputs. Graham-Jonas Valanciunas pick-and-rolls won’t be too shabby, either, and he’ll draw help from the wings to generate slashing lanes or open spot-ups for guys like Ingram, Naji Marshall, Josh Hart, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
The Graham-Zion partnership will not be confined to traditional pick-and-rolls. Graham was occasionally utilized as a screener in Charlotte and that gambit should become a mainstay, especially when Zion is initiating possessions. Despite being undersized, Graham sets good screens. He’s precise about making contact, applies his stout frame well, and transitions fluidity out of them.
Last season, inverted pick-and-rolls between Zion and J.J. Redick were a popular action for the Pelicans. Graham and Miles Bridges also dabbled in it for the Hornets. I expect that to persist with these two, as it’s one way Graham can help compensate for the absence of Redick’s shooting, even though he is not in the same pantheon of movement sniper as Redick. Similarly, dribble handoffs for Graham that manipulate the space Zion’s defenders often extend him on the perimeter can be copied from the Zion-Redick playbook.
Graham is a capable off-movement shooter with a feisty trigger unswayed by defensive pressure. Slide screens, floppy sets, relocation, Spain pick-and-rolls, and screen-the-screener actions should all be incorporated (or naturally woven) into his off-ball deployment. I’d also like to see some empty corner pick-and-pops where Ingram is the handler and Graham is the pick man, as well as Horns Flare with Zion or Valanciunas as the screener for Graham while Ingram controls the ball. You can even scheme Hammer actions during Ingram-Valanciunas side pick-and-rolls to flummox the defense.
Graham will garner on-ball reps, but Zion is this team’s offensive engine and Ingram warrants creation responsibility, too. Those stretches are when Graham’s off-ball prowess can shine and help embed a gamut of nifty wrinkles into a potentially preeminent attack. Given the divergent production between 2019-20 and 2020-21, his true pull-up capacity is somewhat murky, but the dude is a dynamite off the catch.
Over the past two seasons, Graham cashed 42.3 percent of his 499 catch-and-shoot triples, including some low quality looks. Playing alongside Zion, Ingram, and Valanciunas, he’s going to encounter plentiful chances to showcase those merits and maybe even heighten them.
Graham will help maintain Ball’s transition passing prowess, albeit to a lesser degree, which harmonizes with Zion. Independent of Zion, though, Graham also brings Ball’s decisiveness as a facilitator, while adding more aptitude conducting ball-screens.
As a facilitator, he’s both daring and caring. According to Cleaning The Glass, he’s never ranked lower than the 73rd percentile in assist-to-usage ratio, nor has his turnover rate ever peaked north of 13 percent (70th percentile last season). He seamlessly delivers skip passes, maps the floor quite swiftly, and capitalizes upon the openings derived from the stress induced by a pick-and-roll. His experience playing alongside Bridges — another springy, dunktastic wing — should also simplify the assimilation to Zion’s presence in some regards.
Despite being flanked by a limited number of credible play-finishers, only nine players have generated more assists at the rim over the past two seasons, according to PBP Stats. A team with Zion, Valanciunas, and Jaxson Hayes will surely benefit from that trait, just as the Pelicans collectively will reap the rewards of Graham’s passing web.
Graham’s interior struggles run interference to his chances of being an elite offensive player. He’s finished 20th (2019-20) and 40th (2020-21) in Offensive Estimated Plus-Minus the past two years, yet has been hurt by ineffective driving and two-point scoring. He’s shot a combined 39.1 percent on twos and 33.3 percent on drives during that span. His rim frequency was 15 percent in 2019-20 and 7.6 percent last season. Each time, he’s finished in the seventh percentile or lower in scoring efficiency around the basket, per Synergy.
These constraints are why it’s important for the Pelicans to properly balance his on- and off-ball delegations. Fortunately, rim pressure and paint scoring won’t be areas of need with Zion and Valanciunas mashing inside. The more pressing demands have been exterior excellence and reliable complementary handling from the guard position.
Graham meets those qualifications, and his arrival is one reason New Orleans could conceivably fashion a top-three offense. Scoffing at the notion is a justified reaction, but much like Graham, a careful analysis illuminates its virtues.