Sacramento State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz can laugh now about how much he underestimated Marcus Graves’ athleticism when Graves was playing at Westview High School in San Diego.
“His mom, Michele, makes fun of me all the time,” Katz said. “When I did a home visit, I told her, ‘I think Marcus is very skilled. I love his feel for the game, his intelligence. But he’s an OK athlete, very average at best.’ ”
Michele Graves and her husband, Fred, know a little bit about athleticism. She was an All-America softball pitcher at Utah and is in the Utes’ Sports Hall of Fame. He was a wide receiver at Utah and has coached for 37 years, including 13 in the NFL, and he’s the wide-receivers coach for the San Diego Chargers.
“His mom looked at me and said, ‘OK, we’ve never heard that before,’ ” Katz said. “I saw him on film a bunch and maybe that’s part of it. Film doesn’t show much. But even when I went down and saw him play in person, I thought he was an OK athlete.”
Despite his assessment of the 6-foot, 190-pound guard, Katz offered Graves a scholarship when no one else did.
“Boy was I wrong,” Katz said. “Gosh, he’s quick on quick. Marcus is a very dynamic athlete who has a chance to be really, really good.”
Boy was I wrong. … Gosh, he’s quick on quick. Marcus is a very dynamic athlete who has a chance to be really, really good.
Brian Katz, Sacramento State basketball coach, on sophomore guard Marcus Graves
In his first start for the Hornets, Graves had 20 points, five rebounds and five assists to help them upset Arizona State 66-63 on Nov. 13. Two nights later, the sophomore had 24 points, five rebounds, five assists and no turnovers in the Hornets’ 77-65 win at Seattle. He was selected national Mid-Major Player of the Week from two media outlets and was Big Sky Conference Player of the Week.
Entering Saturday’s game against South Dakota in the Sacramento State Basketball Invitational, Graves leads the Hornets in scoring (17.8 points), assists (5.0) and steals (2.3) while averaging a team-high 34.2 minutes.
That’s quite a change, considering Graves played just 13 games last season (5.3 minutes, 1.2 points).
Graves showed a hint of his talent when he scored eight points and played 16 minutes against nationally ranked Gonzaga in the 2014-15 season opener in Spokane, Wash. But the Hornets played without star guard Mikh McKinney, the spark plug for a team that won 21 games and had its first postseason win in 53 years.
With seniors McKinney and Dylan Garrity and juniors Cody Demps and Dreon Bartlett playing most of the minutes at the three guard spots, there was little opportunity for Graves.
34.2 Average minutes played by Sacramento State sophomore guard Marcus Graves
17.8 Graves’ scoring average, which leads the team
5.0 Graves’ assists average, also tops on the team
“In a normal year, he would have come in and played a ton,” Katz said. “It was more about where our program was. We had never really won before, so we went with the veteran guys, right, wrong or indifferent.”
Demps saw Graves’ ability daily in practice but was most impressed with how he dealt with sitting on the bench.
“He handled it extremely well,” said Demps, a senior co-captain. “He had Mikh and Dylan to look up to and watched them closely. He got to see what works, what didn’t, and that’s added to what he’s done this year.”
Graves said he learned a lot from McKinney, the Big Sky Player of the Year who now plays professionally in Belgium.
“In practice, he would never let me take a play off,” Graves said. “He treated me like I was his little brother, and I still talk to him a couple of times a week.”
That’s the one big thing about this team. We don’t have to depend on one person to score. We have so many weapons.
Marcus Graves, Sacramento State sophomore guard
Graves said it also helps having parents who were college athletes.
“Being around my dad, I always went to his games, so I saw how professionals handled themselves, both good and bad,” he said. “And growing up, my mom and dad always talked about not being a ‘me guy’ and keeping it always about the team.”
So as teams focus on stopping him on offense, Graves knows he can contribute in other ways, as he showed in the Hornets’ 84-79 win over rival UC Davis on Tuesday at The Nest.
He made just 4 of 12 shots and missed all five three-point attempts, but he played strong defense, had six assists and three steals. And he scored six of his 14 points in the final four minutes. He was one of five players in double figures, led by Demps with 22, tying his career best.
“That’s the one big thing about this team,” Graves said. “We don’t have to depend on one person to score. We have so many weapons.”
Graves said he likes being part of an emerging program, with most players under the radar in high school.
“When I was being recruited by Coach Katz, I could see that Sac State had struggled a little bit,” Graves said. “But I saw the potential and Coach Katz had a vision, and I believe in that vision. We love it when Coach Katz reminds us to always prepare like champions but play like underdogs.”
He said that attitude spurred the Hornets in the season-opening win at Arizona State.
There was personal incentive, too. Graves’ grandmother died a week earlier and his father, despite his NFL schedule, attended the game.
“While I was playing, I felt like my grandmother was looking down on me,” Graves said. “After the game, my dad gave me a big hug. We just embraced the moment.”
Sacramento State Basketball Invitational
- When: Saturday and Sunday
- Where: The Nest
- Saturday’s games: Sacramento State (4-0) vs. South Dakota (2-3), 3:35 p.m.; Pacific (1-3) vs. Eastern Washington (2-2), 6:35 p.m.
- Sunday’s games: South Dakota vs. Eastern Washington, 2:35 p.m.; Sacramento State vs. Pacific, 5:35 p.m.
- Tickets: hornetsports.com/tickets