James Graham III has never been one to let timelines dictate his young life. But even his father, James Graham II, was surprised at the proposition his 17-year-old son brought forth, asking to graduate from high school early and join the Maryland men’s basketball team months in advance.
The younger Graham, a four-star Class of 2021 recruit from Milwaukee, arrived in College Park on Dec. 27 to begin his college career and embark on an uphill battle to get acclimated as the Terps (6-5, 1-4 Big Ten) continue conference play.
In the team’s 63-55 loss to Indiana on Monday night, Graham made his debut in just his second game with the program, playing four minutes as Maryland looked for options while senior guard Darryl Morsell remains sidelined with a fractured bone in his face.
That Graham, who signed his national letter of intent in November, is even in College Park now is the combination of preparedness and a bit of good fortune.
Graham, who committed to Maryland in August, originally scheduled his high school courseload so that he could take two classes in his final semester and spend the rest of his time training in preparation to join Maryland the summer after graduation. The Terps, after an exodus of transfers in the offseason, had one scholarship remaining for the 2020 season.
Coach Mark Turgeon and the younger Graham discussed the possibility of moving his remaining courses to the fall semester and graduating early. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA extended an extra year of eligibility for winter- and fall-sports athletes, giving the coaching staff the opportunity to bring Graham along slowly without burning eligibility.
Concerns over whether high school basketball in Wisconsin would be played amid the pandemic, and to what extent, also contributed to his decision.
The elder Graham warned his son of what he would be giving up by ending his high school career abruptly: Scoring his 1,000th point. Winning another state title. A potential in-person graduation ceremony.
But his son was unwavering.
“Me and my wife kind of laughed. … The thought of early graduation was like, ‘Yeah, that’s unfathomable. There’s no way,’” said the elder Graham, who works in the construction trade.
The younger Graham stayed home to celebrate Christmas with his father, mother and two siblings — at the behest of his mother, Monique, who played college basketball at Jackson State and now serves as the executive of a local hospital — and two days later, he and his parents were on their way for the nearly 13-hour drive to College Park.
Even upon their arrival, the elder Graham worried about how well his son would mesh with his new teammates after missing out on months of practice and bonding. Those fears were soon alleviated.
The Grahams were shopping in Target on the night of Dec. 27, gathering apartment supplies as Maryland remained on its five-day road trip. All of a sudden, the younger Graham’s phone rang. It was the entire basketball team, calling him on FaceTime from the locker room to invite him to join in their celebration after it upset then-No. 6 Wisconsin. It was a telling gesture in the eyes of the elder Graham, acted out before his son’s first team practice.
“That was the coolest [expletive] I’ve ever seen,” the elder Graham said. “These guys, they want to win, and if you’re coming to help us win, then come on and help. That was the attitude and that’s the impression my wife and I got from those guys.”
At 6-foot-8, Graham provides an intriguing option on the wing for Maryland whenever he is ready to be fully integrated into the rotation. Turgeon said after the Indiana game that if Morsell, who is expected to return for Thursday night’s game against No. 5 Iowa after a one-game absence, was available to play, he likely wouldn’t have turned to Graham, who doesn’t turn 18 until June.
Graham has spent much of his early time with the program getting extra weightlifting sessions in with the team’s director of basketball performance, Kyle Tarp, watching film and becoming familiar with the terminology.
“It’s a ways away,” Turgeon said.
Junior guard Aaron Wiggins said it took the duration of his freshman season just to get used to the college game.
“He’s being thrown right into the pit,” Wiggins said of Graham, who has yet to speak to reporters. “I know it’s tough for him but in practice, our leaders, our upperclassmen, I’ve been with him on the side. We’re just trying to make sure that we’re helping teach him, guide him, show him where to be, how certain things are run. [We’re] just trying to be there for him as much as possible. You could only imagine how hard it could be for him.”
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind for the elder Graham, from moving his son into his first college apartment to watching on TV from hundreds of miles away as he stepped onto the court for his first game.
It’s not the timeline he expected but followed everything else he has seen from his son.
“He arrived here early, he was a premature baby. He was born three months premature, he spent his first two months in the hospital,” he said. “He’s been playing [above his age group] ever since he started playing basketball. We were worried but then this is just kind of how his cycle goes. … Sometimes I forget he’s 17. But he’s where he’s supposed to be.”