Unlikely Leader

Zach Graham isn't the likeliest of leaders. Read about it inside.

Quiet off the court, but loud on it, the youngster has always had undeniable talent.

However, inconsistency continued to plague the sophomore's progress (to a degree) early on in his career.

He experienced an improbable NIT run, usually contributing minutes from the depths of the Rebel bench, but was never looked upon to trigger the Ole Miss offense by any means.

That's not to say he wasn't as valuable as his teammates during that memorable March run, but the role he formerly held has changed in ways he couldn't have expected.

Graham is continually asked to guard the best player the opposition has to offer, drawing the toughest assignment each night, while also creating offense when a spark is needed.

Sound familiar? Eniel Polynice once held those duties before being the second player to fall victim to a season-ending knee injury.

"Zach's an unbelievably good kid. He really is," said head coach Andy Kennedy. "He doesn't have a malicious bone in his body. Now, in his role, we've had to accelerate his maturity. We need him to be a guy who can go out and get double-digit points and a handful of rebounds a game. He'll have a tough assignment every night.

"That's a totally different mentality. You can't be that passive guy, because we need him every night. We're trying to get him to be more aggressive in his approach, but he's taking steps in that direction."

Graham has taken to his coach's advice, learning the everyday nuances of starter in the Southeastern Conference.

"I think Coach Kennedy has depended on me to be more aggressive," Graham explained. "I've tried to maintain my intensity and get better defensively every game, but I've had to focus on being more aggressively on the offensive end.

"I'm trying to help out where I can and help the younger guys. I've had to come out and to be more aggressive and intense than I have in the past."

Kennedy always held high hopes for Graham. His intangibles alone set him apart from your typical small forward. While listed as a guard, he stands 6-foot-6, 225 pounds and can get in the paint with the big boys.

As Andy would admit, he was expected to jump into the SEC and make a name for himself. However, that takeoff never seemed to quite take place – until now.

"He's had to gain an understanding of the level in which you have to play to be consistent," said Kennedy. "It's a consistent approach day-in-and-day-out. For him, it's about gaining maturity. His role has quickly changed. There are more shot opportunities and a need for someone to step-up and be a consistent producer. Zach's a guy we've needed to do that for us."

That understanding has grown throughout the season's duration. Graham averages just below 10 points per game, while adding almost four rebounds, but his numbers don't really tell the story.

In the team's first two conference games against Florida and Arkansas, the sophomore put up 14 and 12 point efforts respectively, while also displaying the court awareness and vitality Kennedy and staff had been hoping for.

"I thought Florida was his best game from an approach standpoint," Kennedy continued. "He was really focused. We've lost a lot of our emotional guys. Trevor is, obviously, very emotional and Eniel has really grown into a leadership role. He'll challenge guys and bring some emotion. Of course, David is emotional.

"It's a mindset. Zach was never a great rebounder in his career. Last year, when we had those three guys along the front line, he could just float around and get two or three rebounds and that was fine. Now the roles have changed. We've needed him to be more involved."

With LSU next on deck, Graham and the Rebels will try and win their 15th matchup in the last 26 meetings with the Tigers.

Better yet, they have the opportunity to jump to 2-1 in conference play in what Zach believes is anyone's SEC to win.

"I'm trying to stay focused on the task we have at hand," said Graham. "The conference is wide-open. It's boosted our confidence. We just have to take each game one at a time."

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