It may be early, but things are already tense inside Wells Fargo Arena on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Tempe.
Utah, looking to spoil the home team’s hot start to Pac-12 play, has quickly jumped out to a 6-0 lead against the Arizona State Sun Devils. Bobby Hurley’s team isn’t communicating on one end of the floor and is missing shots on the other, so the choice is an easy one.
It’s time for the best sixth man in the country to check in to the game.
* * *
Torian Graham was born on March 26, 1993 in Durham, North Carolina. 2,000 miles from Tempe and seemingly a million miles away from being the second-leading scorer in the Pac-12, he remained in the Tar Heel State for the duration of his childhood.
That was about the only sense of normalcy Graham would experience early in life.
“Growing up, I lived a tough lifestyle and didn’t have a lot of structure,” says Graham. “I just listened to the wrong people.”
There were nights spent sleeping in cars. There were days spent moving things from apartment, to house, to motel room.
There was no end in sight, and nothing waiting in the future but time and basketball.
* * *
Graham first gave Arizona State fans a sense of what might be in store back in October of 2015, ahead of a season in which he was required to sit out after transferring from Buffalo. It was then, at the team’s annual preseason dunk contest, where the 6-foot-5 guard jumped over teammate Shannon Evans II and completed a 270-degree slam to take home the title.
He then accomplished the same feat one year later, impressing a buzzing Mill Avenue audience with a host of rim-rocking dunks that was enough to secure the championship.
While those back-to-back titles made it clear he was the best dunker on the team, it soon became evident that Graham’s skill set was plenty diverse. With an ability to score from both behind the arc and at the rim, the transfer quickly became the team’s top offensive weapon in his first season of eligibility.
His coming out party was a game-high 25-point performance in an exhibition win against UC Santa Cruz, and the guard followed that by sparking the Sun Devils off the bench with 23 points in their regular season opener against Portland State.
That contest against the Vikings was special in more ways than one for Graham, as it was his first meaningful game since playing for Chipola College in the 2014 NJCAA National Championship quarterfinals.
“It was tough,” says Graham when asked about the long layoff. “Some people didn't think I was going to make it through, since I didn't play in a competitive game in over 900 days. I just had a vision and I stayed focused and stayed with it.”
The perseverance has payed off.
In 17 games this season, Graham has scored in double figures in all but one outing. He is Arizona State’s leading scorer at 18.1 points per game, and ranks second in the conference behind the likely No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft - Washington point guard Markelle Fultz.
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This kind of success is what Graham envisioned throughout his AAU and high school career.
Playing for three high-profile AAU teams (D-One Sports, Team CP3, and D.C. Assault), Graham quickly garnered national attention. He played with guys like T.J. Warren and Rodney Purvis and became friends with John Wall.
“I’m still close with John,” Graham says. “We talk almost every week. I actually went to one of his games when we were in New York (for the Jimmy V Classic), so that was cool getting to catch up with him there.”
Graham isn’t the only member of his family to find success on the hardwood.
His brother, Tyree, was recruited to Texas Tech by the legendary Bob Knight. He honored his letter of intent with the Red Raiders after Knight resigned, but ultimately bounced around three more colleges. That journey included a stop at Rutgers, where he played for Mike Rice, Jr. prior to the coach being fired when videos were released showing Rice verbally and physically abusing players.
While Tyree was criss-crossing the country, Torian was bouncing around different high school stops.
Graham would attend five schools in four years, finding the most success at traditional powerhouse Word of God Academy in Raleigh. That was his second stop, but it wouldn’t last. A dispute with a teammate led Graham to transfer to Pace Academy (NC), and before getting his diploma there would be stints at Arlington Country Day (FL) and Christian Faith Center Academy (NC).
“There were just a lot of different living situations,” explains Graham. “I was trying to make the best decision as far as being successful with basketball goes. Every choice I made was trying to get me to the right spot to be successful with that, but some of the spots weren't the right decision.”
Complicating matters was the loss of Graham’s mother, Crystal Green-Graham, who passed away in August of 2011 after years of battling heart problems.
“It didn't really hit me at first,” Graham says. “I couldn't believe it because I grew up a mama's boy. But it just made me more determined to be successful, and now I always have both an angel and a chip on my shoulder.”
While the loss served as an even bigger motivator for Graham, his ultimate goal of Division I basketball would have to wait. The multiple transfers has left his transcript in a chaotic state, meaning his collegiate career would have to start through the JUCO route.
* * *
With a logjam in the Sun Devil backcourt and so much time having passed without playing in a competitive game, which role Graham would play with the Maroon and Gold was murky heading into the year.
That was soon remedied.
Graham was the first player off the bench in that exhibition against UC Santa Cruz, and that sixth man position has been a natural fit for both him and the rest of the Sun Devils. While still playing usual starter minutes, he has began over half of this season’s games on the bench, ever-ready to head to the scorer’s table as soon as he gets the go-ahead from Hurley.
He may not always be on the court to start the game, but you can bet he’ll be there in the contest’s final minutes.
"He's embraced the role for right now,” said Hurley early in non-conference play. “We will see how that goes throughout the year."
According to Graham, it’s still going.
“I’m cool with it,” says the senior guard. “I just want to be part of a winning team and I don’t really care about the points, or the steals, or the assists, or the rebounds. Wherever coach feels like gives us a chance to win, I’m fine with. If that's being the sixth man, then so be it.”
The team-first mindset isn’t one you always see out of a transfer with only one year of eligibility remaining, but Hurley and assistant coach Levi Watkins have worked hard to instill it. Both Hurley (Duke) and Watkins (NC State) played their college ball in North Carolina, so there is a natural connection there.
But Graham’s relationship with Watkins is even deeper, dating all the way back to his childhood.
“I have known coach Levi since I was seven-years-old,” Graham says. “So he has been more like a family member than a coach. I trust him and coach Hurley a lot, so I was willing to open up to them and hear what they have to say because I know they can make me successful.”
The pair recruited Graham to Buffalo after he sought a transfer from Houston, and their efforts were rewarded when he committed to the Bulls on Christmas Eve in 2014. Hurley would soon be off to greener and sunnier pastures, however, hired by Arizona State four months later to replace Herb Sendek.
When Graham received the invitation to join him, Watkins, and Evans (another Buffalo transfer) in Tempe, it was one that he couldn’t pass up, even if it would mean having to sit out yet another year.
“It was a leap of faith,” says Graham when asked about the decision. “Without basketball I feel like my life is pretty much put on hold, but I just stuck to the process. It was tough on me but I made it through and it's working out.”
That year of riding the bench for the Sun Devils was a challenging one as Graham struggled to always see eye-to-eye with the coaching staff, a byproduct of the frustration that comes with not being able to see the court for two whole seasons.
Eventually, temperatures reached a boiling point and Graham was suspended for two weeks last January.
“I kept calling Hurley, trying to get some kind of reinstatement because we just come from such an unstable situation,” Graham’s brother Tyree says. “At the end of the day we had to raise ourselves, so I was thankful for coach Hurley and coach Watkins getting him back on the team eventually.”
* * *
While that suspension wasn’t related to any legal issues, Graham did run into some problems with the law at his first collegiate stop.
As a sophomore at Chipola College - one of the top junior college programs in the country - Graham and two of his teammates were arrested on felony drug charges. The police report from that incident stated that he had eaten marijuana in an attempt to conceal it from officers who pulled over a car Graham was in for speeding, leading to a suspension from the Indians basketball team.
Charges were eventually dropped a week later, however, and Graham was soon back on the court, playing a pivotal role in Chipola’s postseason run.
After averaging 12.4 points per game in that second and final season with Chipola, Graham signed on with Houston, a team coached by UNC Pembroke product Kelvin Sampson. The 2014-15 season marked the first for Sampson after receiving a five-year show cause penalty stemming from some NCAA violations during his tenure at Indiana, and a disagreement regarding playing time hurt his relationship with Graham from the outset.
“I just didn't feel like it was the right situation for me,” says Graham when asked about his time at Houston. “I went there looking forward to playing heavy minutes and it just didn't happen for me right away like they said it would.”
He scored two points in eight minutes of action in an exhibition game against North Alabama and announced he was leaving the program one week later.
While he didn’t receive much of any game experience as a Cougar, one positive did arise from his time there: a forged friendship with former Arizona State star and current Houston Rocket James Harden.
The two met in Houston and have stayed close ever since, with Harden serving as a friend, brother, and mentor for Graham.
“He talks about staying focused and how winning is the key to everything,” Graham says. “He tells me to stay in the gym, stay out of trouble, stay focused, and everything else will take care of itself.”
* * *
The plan is working.
Graham is taking full advantage of what is likely his final year of college basketball. He is one of the top players in the Pac-12, quite possibly the most crucial piece to this Sun Devil team, and is staying out of trouble off the court.
“I know my mother is proud,” says Tyree. “We're coming from a situation that a lot of people don't make it out of. So for Torian to be on this level every night, playing how he's playing and contributing to this team's success, it's very humbling. I just try to keep him focused and make him cherish every shot, every practice, and every minute, just because we've been through so much.”
It’s possible that there will be more minutes, more practices, and more shots in the future for Graham as a member of the Maroon of Gold.
With a seemingly good case to qualify for a hardship waiver, the NCAA may grant Graham an extra year of eligibility if he chooses to take it. That option will be explored further by the program at the end of the season.
“I'm looking forward to that, but who knows what could happen,” Graham says when asked about the possibility of playing another year in Tempe. “I'm just worried about this season right now.”
Yes, the future may be unclear at the moment, but that is nothing new for someone who has attended four colleges and five schools.
Not many things have been guaranteed for Graham in this life, but for him, there is no alternative to his ultimate goal of playing professional basketball.
“I come from nothing, and I know one day I want to have things,” he says. “I’m not scared of failure because failure isn't really an option.”
Graham’s life has been filled with challenges on top of challenges, a never-ending series of roadblocks and misfortunes.
There is finally light at the end of the tunnel, and now it’s his turn to shine.