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2020-21 Hornets season preview: Devonte’ Graham

Graham looks to build off his breakout sophomore campaign as one of the league’s most notable outliers.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

An outlier season is a season that is statistically divergent from other seasons. There are historical examples of players having outlier seasons; take Isiah Thomas’ 2016-17 season. Isaiah averaged 29 points per game that year and never got above 22 PPG before or 15 PPG after. Kendall Marshall on D’Antoni ‘s 2013-14 Lakers averaged 8 assists and points per game and hasn’t looked like an NBA player before or since. Dorell Wright, Joakim Noah, and others have had positive outlier seasons, depending on what statistics you use. (I’m expecting there to be a lot of “well actually’s” in the comments, and I welcome them.)

Then there are Gladwell’s outliers. Malcolm Gladwell wrote Outliers in 2008 about the outlier as a person. From the book, an outlier is described as “those who operate at the extreme outer edge of what is statistically plausible.” These are people, mostly through circumstance and repetitive practice, who can achieve more than what they should. This is a gross simplification of what the book is about, so for more information, please feel free to the book. The question remains: Was Devonte Graham’s accomplishments last year an outlier performance? Or is Devonte, himself, an outlier?

It is important to establish what an amazing performance Devonte put on in the 2019-20 season. The statistics speak for themselves, and I won’t list them here… oh just a few: 38% from beyond the arc, 50% EFG, 7.5 assists, 18 PPG, and .659 “humdiddlydees” per game from Eric Collins. Not only do these numbers blow out the statistics he put up as a rookie, as you might expect, but they also show proficiency at a level not equaled during his four years at Kansas.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

But that doesn’t tell the whole story of the season. Devonte became the linchpin guard on a team where his partner in the back court is making 17 million a year more than him. He filled the leadership void left by Kemba going to Boston and became the emotional vanguard for a young core of players. The team cheered so hard for him because he cheered for his teammates. His success was the Hornets’ success, and his performances correlated to Hornets’ wins.

Speaking of Kemba, Devonte may owe him a Cherry Coke when he signs his next contract. The bounce-out pick and rolls and the space-creating dribble step backs are all text from the Walker playbook. And although Devonte had a great season, it pales in comparison to the Skywalker Jedi years. The averages pop out, sure, but the game to game performances could be Kid Cudi, “Day and Night.” Take a look at the +/-, for example. Graham was the best guard on the Charlotte roster but didn’t crack the top 10 in the league.

Watch all of this, but take note of the first play. Devonte is doing his best Kemba like it’s Karaoke night at the Spectrum Center.

Devonte is eligible for a contract extension this season. And the answer to the outlier question should guide the front office. Do the Charlotte Hornets see him as a franchise player capable of more seasons like the last? Or do they use his increased value and minimal contract as a trade chip in what should be an active market? The drafting of Lamelo and signing of Hayward doesn’t reveal thinking in either direction, but Devonte finding a place on this newly constituted team will.

Coming into the 2020-21 season the Hornets’ guard rotation is as crowded as ever. Never mind the 60 million dollar man, Terry Rozier. Never mind the flashy newcomer who was drafted 31 picks earlier, Lamelo Ball, [Malik Monk’s name has been redacted to protect the innocent], but Hayward has been known to play point forward on occasion. Will Devonte lead this motley crew? What does leadership look like in this context? It would take a Malcolm Gladwellesque Outlier to do so.

With the hindsight of history, it’s easier to identify those who are outliers and those who have had outlier seasons. It’s more difficult, of course, to identify outliers while they are in-progress or an outlier season before the start of the next. My love of the Hornets’ and the hero’s journey leads me to believe Devonte Graham is an outlier, my cold pragmatism says otherwise.