Will Graves keeps his national championship ring within arm’s reach of his pillow.
It also reminds him of the opportunity he allowed to slip through his hands.
“From a fan’s perspective, I’m in the best position ever because I don’t think any other fan in the world has a ring,” Graves said. “And then from a player perspective, it’s humbling. I would have loved to have been out there on the floor to earn it.”
Last February, the backup guard received a suspension from the team after violating an undisclosed team rule. Coach Roy Williams issued a statement citing that Graves “did not maintain the standards we expect of a Carolina basketball player.”
When asked about the specifics of the violation, Graves declined to offer any more details.
“I did some things that a Carolina basketball player is not supposed to do,” he said.
So he missed out on what North Carolina players very occasionally get to do — play for and win a national title.
“I was there with the team in spirit,” he said. “But I wasn’t able to be on the court with the team.”
While continuing to practice with the team, Graves spent the final 18 games of the season on the bench.
Prior to his suspension, Graves had a meager impact on the team, averaging 4 points and 2.6 rebounds a game. But this season, Graves is in position to step up as an integral player on the perimeter in the absence of Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Ty Lawson and Bobby Frasor.
Graves added that he would also like to focus on maturing into a defensive stopper to aid senior Marcus Ginyard on the other end of the court.
“I’ve been playing basketball since I was 4,” he said. “I just go out there and try to live for the moment. And it sounds like a great opportunity for Carolina basketball to need a shooter.”
As a redshirt junior, Graves’ experience has the potential to be an otherwise scarce asset on the young team.
That is, Ginyard said, depending on what comes from Graves’ experience off of it.
“I just hope that he learned when you’re a part of a team like this, even your individual choices and your individual actions have effects on other people,” Ginyard said.
“And for this team to be able to do what we want to do, everybody’s got to be on the same page.”
Graves assured his teammates that he had turned a page and recommitted himself to a new ending. Forward Deon Thompson could understand why.
“Having to sit on the sidelines and watch us win a national championship, things like that can maybe light a fire in him to want to help this team this year,” Thompson said.
“I definitely hope he learns from that experience and just doesn’t go back down that road he went down.”
Graves’ suspension never seemed to muffle his vocal presence around the team. For expectant fans at the Smith Center, Graves’ hoots, barks and cries of, “Here we go,” often heralded the team’s arrival at every home game.
The same upbeat attitude, he said, is one that will persist as he seeks to earn the trust of a new team by playing and by leading.
“I always try to come out with a smile on my face and move forward,” he said. “Learn from my mistakes.”
Ginyard said that Graves is still earning back the trust of his teammates. Thompson said he could not imagine being in Graves’ situation.
“I don’t think anybody from the outside looking in could put themselves in his shoes,” he said.
But just as nobody can place themselves in Graves’ shoes, nobody can walk in them for him either.
Or take him where he wants to go.
“It added fuel to the fire to come out here and lead a young team to another national championship,” Graves said.
With his suspension behind him, he knows there is only one way there.
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