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Jesse, Tanner Graham ready for challenge of playing at Queen’s

March 24, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

Having been part of the process once, Jesse and Tanner Graham thought they’d like to be part of a team rising to prominence once again.

To that end, the basketball-playing brothers from La Salle Secondary School have decided to cast their intercollegiate lot with the Queen’s Golden Gaels.

The Gaels have never won an Ontario University Athletics championship since they shared one with Windsor (nee Assumption) in 1957, and they’ve never played in a national-championship tournament. “It would be cool,” Tanner Graham said, “to be part of the first team ever to do that. I kind of like the idea of doing something new.”

Jesse, who at 19 is two years his brother’s senior, said he also finds the notion intriguing. “That would be fun to be part of,” he said, more appealing than the opportunity to land with a team more traditionally thought of as a contender than the middle-of-the-pack Gaels.

“It’s kind of the same situation we had at La Salle,” Jesse said.

Indeed, the Knights haven’t won a county title in 26 years — and for much of that time weren’t close — but this year they were the dominant team in the league until injuries finally caught up with them in the Kingston Area final.

“It was a good year,” Jesse continued. “It was fun. We had our ups and downs but we accomplished a lot of our goals: getting to KASSAA final, winning EOSSA, making it to OFSAA, and we went pretty far at OFSAA, so that was good.”

And so for the Grahams it will start again, with a Queen’s team that has struggled to reach .500, doing so just twice in the past five years. The Gaels hit rock bottom at 2-20 just three years ago and lost nine of their last 13 this year to finish 10-12 in the toughest division in the land.

Few recruits are as aware of this recent history as the Graham brothers, whose parents used to take them to watch Queen’s games when their cousin, Erin Skippon, played for the women’s team through 2010, and no one knows it better than Gaels coach Steph Barrie, who understands it will take more than athletic ability to thrive in a program that has, in perennial national powers Carleton and Ottawa, an enormous cliff to climb to reach the top.

“We are very particular in terms of recruiting certain kinds of people, guys who are easy to coach, guys who are going to be good teammates,” Barrie said. “That’s a very important foundation piece for us.

“They had to bypass all those tests to make sure they would fit in that kind of culture and that was a no-brainer. They’re really good guys. They’re guys who are excited to join the program and realize the kinds of things they can do for us.”

Those contributions may one day be substantial. Barrie spoke of Tanner Graham’s great wingspan — “his size may not be representative of how long he is” — and his outside-shooting skill. Having played out of position in high school — “he’s not a point guard” — will help in the long run, Barrie said, because it allowed him to see the game from a different perspective.

“He’s going to be a versatile guy who has a chance to be a strong perimeter player at this level.”

Jesse Graham will be what Barrie calls a “mismatch guy.”

“He’s going to have to be a guy who, if he has a smaller guy on him, he’s going to have to be able to score on him in the post and if he has a bigger guy on him, he’s got to be able to shoot the three. That’s a part of his game that he’s going to have to develop.

“The thing he has going for him is he’s got a very high basketball IQ and that is first and foremost. You have to understand where your advantage is … and he’s a guy who understands the game; he understands what he does well; he understands where he can be successful. As he goes to the next level, that’s going to change a little bit. The guys are going to be faster and stronger, so some of the advantages that he had inside, they’re not going to be as prominent at this level. That’s why the perimeter game is the next part that he has to be come proficient at.”

The brothers said they hadn’t expressly discussed their post-secondary future, and whether it was vital they both choose the same school. “It wasn’t do or die but we did want to go to the same school,” Tanner said. “It’s just fun to play with your brother. We didn’t really talk about it much until this year. More and more we just figured it out.”

One day, the suspense was getting to their mother, La Salle senior coach Karen Graham.

“She just asked, ‘What do you guys think of playing for the same team?’ And we were, like, ‘We would like that,’” Tanner said.

It wasn’t a momentous occasion, Jesse recalled. “It was pretty simple. It wasn’t like it had to be (the same school). We never went about being a package. It just seemed to happen.

“We’ve been playing together forever and it’s been fun. We’re close. We hang out all the time. It’s nice to have a friend. (Playing with) someone you know really well is always comforting.”

Typical of athletes who choose Queen’s, both boys spoke of the academic credibility and the atmosphere of the school. Both like the thought of being close to home, which may have tipped the scale in Queen’s favour over McMaster, the other school the two were exploring.

Concurrent education and phys-ed are Jesse’s preferred courses of study. Tanner has been accepted into engineering and is waiting to hear from the school of kinesiology.

“I feel really good about their potential,” Barrie said. “I’ve had 11 freshmen in the last two years and there are adjustments to be made (at the university level). The game takes time to adapt to and it will be the same for those two, for sure, but looking at what they can become, they each have some assets to their game that will help us.

“Over time they can play at this level. It will be a matter of going through that process, of putting in the time it’s going to require.”

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