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Paul Klee: NBA or nay, Air Force graduate Hayden Graham scores his shot with Denver Nuggets workout

By: Paul Klee
June 15, 2017 Updated: June 16, 2017 at 6:26 am
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photo - Air Force forward Hayden Graham greets the officials while being introduced before the Falcons game against McPherson College Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, at Clune Arena on Air Force Academy.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Air Force forward Hayden Graham greets the officials while being introduced before the Falcons game against McPherson College Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, at Clune Arena on Air Force Academy. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

DENVER — At the risk of sounding like an Air Force recruiter — I’m not, and that’s probably for the best — here’s what I was thinking as Hayden Graham wrapped up an NBA draft workout with the Nuggets on Thursday.

Yes, it’s true that Graham, the Falcons’ scoring and rebounding leader the past two seasons, is ineligible to play professionally for two years due to the policy shift that prevented his close friend, Jalen Robinette, from being drafted into the NFL. And yes, that’s still a bummer. But isn’t it also true that Graham still has more career opportunities at his disposal than 90 percent of the guys who roll through these predraft workouts stretching across the NBA? 

That’s just based on simple logic. If I’m a bigwig CEO — I’m not, and that’s probably for the best — this is the guy I hire: Air Force grad with right around a 3.0 GPA, endured a half-decade of 5 a.m. alarms and sleep-deprived commanders, and balanced a full course load with being a Division I athlete. 

That’s the guy I hire, and I feel pretty good about the guy I hire.

Every human with a heart loathed the timing of the Robinette Ruling, as it will be known. It was wrong to give Robinette the impression he would be allowed to be an NFL player straight out of the academy, then steal away that opportunity just as his inner circle was preparing a draft party in Castle Rock. Graham was driving to the draft party, in fact, when he read on social media that one of his best buddies had drawn a raw deal at the 11th hour.

“It was tough,” Graham said. “Feel bad for the guy because he’s been working so hard every single day. To hear that news break right then and there, it was more poor timing than a bad situation. He knew what he was getting himself into (at the academy). It was just bad timing.”

See, leave it up to the Air Force grad to frame the situation best. The timing of the ruling — the Air Force no longer approves requests from graduates to bypass active duty service in order to play pro sports — was dreadful, not to mention shortsighted. Money can’t buy the kind of pub an NFL player brings to the academy. But the end result was what they all signed up for. 

Back to the Nuggets workout. I went for three reasons. One, the gym was thick with Colorado connections, from Graham, who was named honorable mention all-Mountain West the past two seasons, to Canyon Barry, the Cheyenne Mountain grad who helped Florida to the Elite Eight.

“It’s good to be home,” Barry said.

Two, I wanted to see what the smartest predraft workout in NBA history would look like. Barry earned a master's degree in nuclear engineering and was a first-team Academic All-American. (I'd hire him, too, but we'll all probably be working for him someday.) Then there was Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, one of only six college basketball players — ever — to be named first-team All-American and first-team Academic All-American. Then there was Graham, another sharp cat, who was momentarily taken aback by Barry’s unorthodox, underhanded, dad-inspired free throws.

“I was standing there at the free-throw line and he actually did it,” Graham said. “I was like, ‘Yo! This is the dude!’”

The final reason was to learn if Graham would do it all over again — prep school, followed by four years at the academy — if he knew then what he knows now, that pro sports must wait. Would you do it again?

“I would, I would,” Graham said. “Sounds crazy. But I would.”

“In all honesty I wouldn’t change anything,” he added. “It’s hard to say that when you’re in the academy because the academy is such a difficult place. It’s not only academics; it’s military, then you try to balance athletics on top of that. I wouldn’t change anything. It’s given me so many lessons and leadership abilities and stuff like that moving forward to go on with my life. And there’s endless opportunities coming from the academy.

"There’s some restrictions and limitations on athletics after that, but I’m here now in a Nuggets uniform, so we’ll see.”

About that Nuggets uniform. For Graham’s workout, the Nuggets brass brought the house. Team president Josh Kroenke was there. President of basketball operations Tim Connelly and general manager Arturas Karnisovas — both newly promoted — were there. Coach Michael Malone was there. And Hayden Graham? He couldn't shake a smile. 

“It’s really like a dream come true. A lot of people don’t get this opportunity,” Graham said. “These are some high-caliber guys — the Floridas, the Gonzagas, the Arizonas. I’m the Air Force Academy guy. I was under-recruited coming out of high school. It’s kind of surreal for me, to be in the Nuggets facility working out in a Nuggets uniform. I’ll never forget it.”

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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