In 2015, former Arizona coach Niya Butts welcomed a freshman class that consisted of Destiny Graham, Eugenie Simonet-Keller, A’Shanti Coleman, and Michal Miller.
Fast forward four years and that class will take the court for its final home game Sunday at McKale Center when the Wildcats take on No. 9 Oregon State.
The catch? Only Graham is still on the team.
“I was kind of thinking about this when we were playing at Cal’s Senior Night,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to be as emotional, but I think as the time is getting closer, it’ll be really emotional.”
You see, Graham has experienced her fair share of change over her four years at Arizona. Butts was let go at the end of the 2015-16 season and most of Graham’s class followed suit.
Coleman and Miller transferred and Simonet-Keller, hailed as the tallest player to ever play for Arizona, medically retired, though is still involved with the program as a manager.
But Graham stuck with it, adapting to the coaching change, adapting to whatever was asked of her at Arizona, even when times got tough. Last season, that meant Graham, a slender 6-foot-1 forward, having to bang against taller, stronger players as UA lacked other interior options.
This season, Graham has had to adapt yet again. Her playing time has diminished and she has taken on a mentorship role for a young, but talented, team.
“It definitely has been hard,” Graham said. “But it’s not as challenging, because it’s fun playing with these players. I don’t think my teammates feel that my role is any less, although maybe it has been. And I think that they still listen to me and they kind of think of me as a leader.”
Arizona coach Adia Barnes has stressed all season the important role Graham has played for the program.
“Destiny and Lucia (Alonso), they’re the only players here from when I got here,” Barnes said. “Lucia’s my first recruit. Destiny I recruited to stay here. She could have left. Destiny’s going to be a really hard player to replace. She’s a great kid. She’s one of our smartest players. I think this year has been tough for her. She started last year. This year, she’s playing multiple positions, different roles. I think it’s been a challenge, but she’s still really important to this team. We really need her, and we really need her to step up these next few games and going into the postseason. If she doesn’t play well, we probably don’t win. She plays a big factor in what we do. And It’s not all about scoring. She’s someone who’s a leader, and she’s someone who coaches the freshmen and tells people where to go. She knows all of our plays inside and out better than anybody.”
Freshman Bryce Nixon agrees. When asked to describe the roles of the three seniors, it was Graham’s mentorship on the court that she chose to talk about.
“All of them are leaders in their own way,” Nixon said. “Lindsey (Malecha), she’s always super enthusiastic and positive. In practice and the game, she’s always everyone’s hype man. So, that’s always super helpful. Tee Tee (Starks), she’s always hyping people up, too. Destiny, giving people little pieces of advice, teaching us what to do.”
For Graham, it’s paid off both on the court and off. While she didn’t starting this season, she was one of the first off the bench all year, except for several games she missed with a concussion early in the season. She has averaged 3.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in just over 15 minutes a game.
Her best game, perhaps not surprisingly, came on her final return to her old stomping grounds in the Bay Area. In Arizona’s 56-54 loss to Stanford last weekend, Graham came alive from outside. She was the second-leading scorer, putting up 11 points while connecting on three shots from beyond the arc.
Graham has already completed her undergraduate degree and her next step is to take part in the So You Think You Want to Be a Coach program for aspiring coaches.
“She did a great job of getting accepted, because that’s extremely competitive,” Barnes said. “So, I was really proud of her for that, because I think she can have a good career in coaching.”
The work ethic was evident in high school. The San Francisco native attended Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, California.
The private school, which is lauded for its rigorous coursework and focus on students who will be the first in their families to attend a four-year college, is located about 35 miles outside the city. The daily commute down the crowded freeways of the Bay Area only adding to the time commitments of school and basketball.
During Graham’s time at ECP, her team also succeeded on the court despite challenges that she would face again at Arizona. Her junior year in high school, they won their league despite having only six players on the team. It still didn’t prepare her for what she experienced during her junior year at Arizona, when the program faced depth issues that forced her to play in the post against players like Cal’s Kristine Anigwe.
“You can get away with a lot of things in high school that you can’t in college,” Graham said.
Graham learned what you could “get away with” under two different coaches, both with different emphases.
“Definitely under Coach Barnes it’s more offensive,” Graham said. “Under Coach Butts, it was more defensive, and I think that’s because of where she came from. The players are really different. They’re both really great coaches, but I just think the atmosphere has definitely changed.
She will take those lessons into the next phase of her life, which she hopes is coaching.
“I think that I kind of have a knack for those kind of things,” Graham said. “I think that I can talk to different people in different ways, and I think that’s a big component in what being a coach is.”