Joey Graham has been like a dead man walking this season.
To put it kindly, the second-year Raptors forward had sputtered to a rocky start and seemed to be destined to join Toronto's affiliate in the NBA Development League, the Colorado 14ers.
That is, until the Philadelphia 76ers rolled into town last night and Graham responded with one of the best games of his career, shooting 5-for-9 from the field in 22 minutes while picking up three rebounds, two assists, and 16 points, just three short of his career high.
Now all he needs is a few more games like that.
Last season, the personable Graham averaged 19.8 minutes, 6.7 points and 3.1 rebounds -- pretty good numbers for a rookie small forward.
This season, at least prior to last night's game, the former Oklahoma State star had averaged six minutes, scoring a grand total of three points. Even more frustrating, Graham had shot 0-for-5 from the floor. The Brandon, Fla. native said that he can't remember ever going three games in a row without scoring a basket.
"Maybe when I first started playing," he said. "Not since the ninth grade anyway. But you have to accept that (limited) role when you step up to the NBA."
Fair observation. But no matter how you spin it, it's not a good sign when your minutes fall drastically from your rookie year to your sophomore season. And not a great thing when the new GM goes out in the off-season and secures two players (Fred Jones and Anthony Parker) who play a similar game.
Graham admitted last night that he figured the writing was on the wall in terms of his minutes being cut this season when GM Bryan Colangelo signed Jones and Parker.
"Yeah, I did (realize that)," he said. "We've got a lot of guys in the same position, so it's going to cut back on your minutes a little bit. But it's about going out there, when your number's called, and performing.
"You practice hard everyday and wait on your turn, that's all there is to it," he added.
Parker, whom the Raptors rescued from the European ranks this season, has started all four games while the veteran Jones has averaged 24 minutes off the bench. Graham has been the odd man out. He has to learn to bring energy to the team even if he's only getting a few minutes here and there off the bench, which is what he did last night for the first time this season.
"Energy and presence on defence, running the floor and giving us some kind of physical presence out there," said head coach Sam Mitchell, of what he expects from Graham. "And I thought he was great (last night).
"I'm always confident," Graham said. "I just came in (last night) and decided that I was going to hit some shots, play some good D, and that's exactly what I did."
The D-League schedule begins on Nov.24 with the 14ers at Idaho, so Graham has time to turn things around.
Colangelo, of course, may decide not to send Graham down. He may send rookie forward Uros Slokar to Colorado.
Slokar, it has been noted by a couple of wags at the ACC, may be the happiest 15th player in the NBA. But the native of Slovenia is certainly not going to develop as a player in Toronto this season if he doesn't get some serious playing time. He has been a healthy scratch for the first four games and it makes you wonder what Colangelo was thinking when he brought the team's second-round draft pick from 2005 to the NBA this year (Slokar was brought over after Pape Sow went down in the Las Vegas Summer League with an injured neck).
Slokar may have been better off staying in Europe and playing a level of competition superior to the NBADL, which is where he'll likely end up if Graham isn't shipped down first.
Last season, the 23-year-old Slokar helped European powerhouse Benetton Treviso to the Italian championship, along with current teammates Jorge Garbajosa and Andrea Bargnani.
Judging from his constant smile, Slokar may be enjoying the NBA experience, but he's not doing his career any good by sitting on the bench.
And he may regret that in years to come.