Staff Photo: Will Hammock Peachtree Ridge grad Zach Graham is back in Gwinnett this summer preparing for the upcoming professional basketball season. Graham has played in the NBA Developmental League, Turkey and the Philipines since finishing his career at Ole Miss. He is hopeful of a shot with an NBA team this season.
Just 24, Zach Graham already has a nice collection of pro basketball jerseys.
One from the Reno Bighorns, an NBA Developmental League team. A pair from Air21 Express in the Philippines. Two more from his Turkish team, Maliye Milli.
Peachtree Ridge's all-time leading scorer has a handful of offers from overseas teams for next season, too, but he is holding off on accepting one for the moment.
"There are about five offers on the table right now, but the one offer I really want is here in the states," Graham said this week during a break from his twice-a-day workouts.
The one offer, coveted by pro free agents like Graham, is from an NBA team.
The 6-foot-6, 215-pounder is hopeful of playing in the Las Vegas-based NBA Summer League, which features 22 teams of top rookies, young prospects and free agents. He is awaiting word from a few teams, including the hometown Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks, coached by former Hawks head coach Larry Drew.
Graham spent the previous two weeks working out with the Hawks, who invited him down for sessions with players like John Jenkins and Shelvin Mack.
"It was really good," said Graham, whose relationship with the Hawks started as a rookie free agent in 2011 after he finished playing at Ole Miss. "They pretty much have a brand-new staff, a new GM, Danny Ferry, who is a great guy. I didn't meet the new coach (Mike Budenholzer) because he was with the Spurs (in the playoffs). ... I got to go against quality competition. Our workouts were good and I felt like I got better."
The first step toward the NBA dream began in an unusual year, with the NBA lockout shortening the 2011-12 season, Graham's first out of Ole Miss.
At the Hawks' suggestion, he played for the NBA D-League's Bighorns until the lockout ended. At that point, he joined the Hawks for training camp but Atlanta loaded up on veterans at his position --leading scorer Joe Johnson was joined by Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse --as it quickly filled up a post-lockout roster. The team again recommended that Graham play in the D-League, where he finished the 2011-12 season and averaged 10.9 points.
The break after the D-League season was brief for Graham, thanks to an offer from Air21 Express for a short season in the Philippines. He finished with the Bighorns in April, then joined the Air21 Express on May 1.
With Air21, he was the league's top scorer, averaging 37.6 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists. He had highs of 51 points and 20 rebounds.
"My coach just allowed me to play my full game," Graham said. "I didn't have any restrictions. He trusted me. He gave me the ball and allowed me to make plays. That helped my game as far as my aggressiveness, always attacking."
After returning to the U.S. last July, Graham sorted through a pack of overseas offers for the 2012-13 season. He chose Maliye Milli, a Turkish team that spent most of the season atop the league standings thanks to his eight, 20-point games.
He averaged 14.5 points in 33 games in Turkey, developing his game more with his first experience in Europe.
"Being in Europe and the Philippines, the team is on your back," Graham said. "It forces you to do everything. If somebody saw me play at Ole Miss and sees me now, I'm not the same player at all. I don't have the same mentality, the same outlook on the game. Overall, offensively and defensively, I'm a different player. I can score in all kinds of different ways, score from anywhere on the floor, and I can defend better as well. So I'm definitely more confident in my game."
That said, the work is still in progress.
Graham spends his mornings in the Bunten Road Park gym followed by running at local parks or stadium tracks. After a midday break, he heads to Lifetime Fitness in the evenings for more workouts.
He may join other NBA players at Atlanta's Saint Philip African Methodist Episcopal Church for workouts and games later this month. He played there last summer and trained with former NBA player Dion Glover, while getting game action against pros like Lou Williams, Josh Smith, Anthony Morrow, Jarrett Jack and Solomon Jones.
In the meantime, he just works out and waits. Waits for that one offer that could change his life.
"It's just having patience and staying positive mentally," Graham said. "Getting in the gym mornings and evenings and waiting for that opportunity to come. Just be ready when I get that call. ... It's tough. I have other friends that play, whether it's football or basketball, where you get into that mode. You've done your work. Now it's just a waiting game. You have to keep a level head. You have to stay focused and keep working on your craft. You have to be ready for the opportunity and these opportunities don't come that often."