When four-star Class of 2021 forward James Graham signed his National Letter of Intent in early November, he was preparing behind the scenes for an even bigger move.
Maryland men’s basketball head coach Mark Turgeon had brought up the idea of enrolling early to Graham when he committed back in August. As the Wisconsin native neared signing day, he circled back to ask if there was a scholarship still available.
“We both were entertaining it,” Graham told Testudo Times. “But soon after that conversation it became a real reality.”
With Wisconsin high school basketball not being what it normally would for Graham’s senior season, it made sense for him to make the leap and reclassify. The WIAA is following the order of Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers that requires masks to be worn inside, including by athletes and officials.
The NCAA announcement that the 2020-21 season wouldn’t count against players’ eligibility clocks due to the coronavirus pandemic ultimately opened the door for a “year zero,” as Graham calls it.
“Why not take advantage of it?” said Wisconsin Playground Club Executive Director/COO Duane “Ike” Wilson, who is the Executive Director/COO of Wisconsin Playground Club, the AAU team Graham played for. “James, technically, should still just be a junior, but he was a senior because his parents started school early.”
Graham, who wont turn 18 until June, will now focus on getting his body up to speed through the strength program run by Kyle Tarp, Maryland’s director of basketball performance. Listed at 6-foot-8, 205 pounds, Graham provides key length and a frame that can work the two through four positions.
“He’s very, very skilled,” senior Darryl Morsell said after Graham’s first practice Wednesday. “I think that’s real big for him to get used to the college atmosphere and be around guys that have had success in college and stuff. To get that experience at a young age is very important, but he’s in practice trying to soak everything up like a sponge as quick as possible, learning our principles and how we do stuff here in Maryland.”
While he is immediately eligible to play, Graham’s impact in College Park will be limited to start. He spent his first practice as a “decoy,” according to Turgeon, playing offense and defense against his teammates.
“For the first day, he looked pretty good,” Turgeon said. “He picked things up pretty quickly. He’s a hard worker, he’s a smart kid, but it’s a ways away. He spent a lot of time in the gym yesterday, he’ll get an extra weight workout in [Wednesday night], so he’s gonna do a lot of extra work. That’s why he came early, he wanted to try to get better sooner.”
Whenever he is tasked with making an impact on the floor, Graham will bring some key versatility to the Terrapin lineup. At the AAU level, his size allowed him to generate plenty of mismatches and work to score both inside and out. As a junior at Nicolet High School, he averaged 20.3 points and 6.6 rebounds.
Maryland assistant coach Orlando “Bino” Ranson’s relationship with Wilson kicked off Graham’s recruitment, as Wilson sent some film for him to check out. Ranson and Turgeon were able to get in the door and develop a relationship before other programs, which became key down the stretch, along with their coaching styles.
“Like Turgeon told him, he coaches guys up. He does the individuals with the guys,” Wilson said. “That helps a lot because some head coaches have assistants do individuals with the guys, but Turgeon is one of many head coaches who are in the business of working with the players. That made it a little more secure.”
Graham continued sending film to the Maryland staff, and his dedication to working on his game and body across the board made them confident that he was a fit for this program, according to Ranson.
“What stuck out to me was that he had different intangibles,” Ranson told Testudo Times. “He can rebound, he could play with his back to the basket, as he did as a sophomore in as a junior. He transformed his game during the spring moving into a senior year and during his senior summer. That stood out to us, that this kid could be a potential weapon for us.”
The 2020 AAU season was different to others in the past, but the competition allowed Graham to work on what Maryland coaches want to see against tough opponents.
“Maryland emphasized that I needed to become a better defender and ball handler,” Graham said. “I’ve spent a lot of time watching film from guys like Kawhi Leonard, Jayson Tatum, Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James.”
The NBA flavor in Graham’s game can be quickly sensed whether its watching his mid-range jumper, step-back move or turnaround jumper result in buckets, as well as his ability and confidence to win one-on-one matchups.
He’ll now test out his talent at the college level, where he’ll wear No. 1, citing that he wants to continue the hard work and passion that point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. displayed during his career in College Park.
Graham sees himself playing a role similar to Aaron Wiggins, sliding between the two and four spots to utilize the different skills he possesses and fit into the positionless basketball lineups that Turgeon commonly employs.
“Being a part of that team, the way they play so far is so entertaining. So I cant wait to be a part of that,” Graham said.