Being a tall, lengthy kid helped Jalen Graham land a spot on the Mountain Pointe High varsity basketball team two years ago, although Graham still needed to grow into his slender body.
He still had some growing to do mentally, too. Graham admits that he was just tall and didn’t really have the passion for the game that he now has, which thwarted his development.
“I didn’t take it seriously my sophomore year,” said Graham, now a senior. “My junior summer, I really started to take it seriously and played hard. I work out a lot now, a lot more than I ever did.
“I have just seen my ability get better and better.”
Graham, 6-foot-10 and 205 pounds, now is more than just tall. He’s developed into a player, still with room to beef up, who recently committed to Arizona State.
With his college decision made, Graham now focuses on helping Mountain Pointe (13-5) reach the state-title game for the second consecutive year. He’s averaging 15.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.7 blocked shots and 2.6 assists. As the elder statesman, his role as a leader also has grown around the younger Pride players.
Graham, along with power forward teammate DeAndre Henry, will battle Osasere Ighodaro, a 6-foot-9 junior forward for Desert Vista (9-7), in the paint when the Ahwatukee rivals meet Friday at DV at 7 p.m.
Both Pride players are familiar with Ighodaro. Both give him praise.
“He is going to be one of the better players for them coming out,” Graham said. “But honestly, I’m looking forward to dominating him. I’m a senior, I’m the big dog. I just have to show him that’s what big dogs do. He’s going to learn that from me.”
Desert Vista replaced all five starters this season and has faced more adversity than Mountain Pointe to this point. Even though the Pride are favored, it is a rivalry game.
“We have to show them who runs Tukee,” Henry said. “We just have to come out and dominate.”
Still without a scholarship offer heading into his senior year, Graham played for Team WhyNot in the 2018 Peach Jam in South Carolina in July, a national basketball tournament featuring some of the best players in the nation.
After averaging 7.3 points, 5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks a game, Graham suddenly was well-known among the nation’s elite.
“He went into Peach Jam and nobody knew who he was,” said Pride coach Kirk Fauske said. “A week later and everyone in the country knew who he was. He shows that you can be a nobody but if you work and do what you’re supposed to do and be coachable, then the world is yours.”
Graham is athletic and can run the floor, which separates him from many big men. As he developed, college recruiters took notice. By last fall, he had scholarship offers from several Division I programs, including Santa Clara. Graham initially gave a non-binding oral commitment to the Broncos in October but then reversed course and committed to Arizona State in December after a campus visit. That, too, is non-binding. Binding letters of intent may be signed in February.
“Santa Clara is a great school. I just wanted to stay home,” Graham said. “ASU is doing well and I felt like it was the right place for me.”
Though he has gained interest from other schools since his commitment to the Sun Devils, Graham said he has shut down his recruitment. He plans to sign with Arizona State, where he’ll likely transition to forward.
What flipped Graham’s switch to the “on” position was the hiring of Duane Eason as coach of the Pride in March 2016. Eason and Graham developed a strong bond right away. The new coach expressed faith in Graham’s ability as a player, and that sparked Graham’s renewed love of the game.
“When Coach Eason came in he told me that I had the skill and ability to be successful,” Graham said. “I really started to believe in that and took it from there.”
Graham responded to Eason and the Pride staff, which included Fauske.
Graham helped Mountain Pointe to a 26-4 record last year, including a trip to the 6A state-championship game, where the Pride fell to Pinnacle.
Eason was an assistant at Phoenix College before he joined Mountain Pointe. The transition for Graham and the Pride to Fauske was seamless. The Pride roared to a 9-0 start, including a convincing win over Pinnacle, and at No. 11 were hammering on the door to crack the national top 10. Then they hit a skid that Graham, Henry and point guard Khalid Price hope they’ve snuffed.
Graham battles in the post with the 6-8, 255-pound Henry, a junior who used to play on the Pride football team, in practice. Graham uses his length to overcome Henry’s strength. They compete, but it’s all in good fun.
Those spirited practice sessions have been mutually beneficial to the Pride big men.
“(Graham) kind of tutors and mentors Dre,” Fauske said. “Everyone knew who DeAndre Henry was in the football world but when you come to basketball it’s like, ‘Oh, you aren’t playing football anymore?’”
“Dre listens to Jalen and Jalen helps him out. Jalen has helped his maturity process.”