Graves posted the first double-double of his career in Carolina's 98-61 victory over Marshall on an evening the Heels needed to overcome a sluggish start before putting together a fairly impressive overall performance in dominating the Thundering Herd. And credit Graves for improving much of the ambiance in Carolina blue.
"Will's play off the bench was great for this team," Marcus Ginyard said. "To see him hitting the boards, to see him out there, really, he was the first guy that got us going. You talk about competing; he was out there all over the floor."
Graves finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes of play after a three-game stretch where he made just 7-of-25 field goal attempts and wasn't much of a factor in the area of intangibles. For example, he grabbed just seven total rebounds in that stretch.
He infused the Heels by grabbing six first-half rebounds, but also with his intensity on defense. The Greensboro native didn't start because of his recent poor play. Roy Williams wouldn't expound on his decision after the game, but if a message was intended, consider it well received.
"My reaction was, take it back to last year and the other years I've been here," Graves said about not starting. "Stay focused on the sideline and come in ready to play and give your team a spark off the bench."
The story of Graves isn't exactly a misunderstood one by fans and the media. His suspension a year ago sidelined him for the final 20 games of the season. A lingering image for this scribe remains: Graves wearing a dark suit while sitting down outside of UNC's locker room in the bowels of Ford Field some 30 minutes after winning the national title entertaining mixed emotions.
Graves wanted so badly to be in uniform celebrating the right way, although he was happy for the team's and program's success. It was an internal tug-of-war, but it was also a valuable learning moment, one that helped him regain favor from Williams, who eventually welcomed him back onto the team.
With that came increased responsibility given that UNC was replacing its top four players from a year ago and ballyhooed freshman John Henson's struggles adapting to the college game.
Most observers have seen Graves as a potential scoring threat from the perimeter, but not much more.
He's not much of a defender, they say, thanks to many public comments from his coach. He isn't exactly an intangibles guy, they also say. A rebounder? Only in spots. And he's too slow to adequately and consistently fill lanes in the open court.
In other words, the book on Graves might just be that of a veteran clinging on to his spot in the rotation until freshman Dexter Strickland puts together enough quality performances to join the starting lineup at the two spot. Thus, Ginyard would move to the three position and supplant Graves entirely.
Ironically, it hasn't quite turned out that way, and it's not because Graves has performed above expectations. Quite the contrary, as nobody has stepped up to settle the troubling two-three spot issues. Inconsistency by Graves is part of it, but he just hasn't played well enough to warrant major minutes.
But he shined on this night. The 6-fot-6, 240-pounder displayed more hustle than usual, and his confidence appeared at its highest level this season.
Graves made a couple of defensive mistakes in the first half that "ticked off" Williams, but he was given another opportunity and made the most of it. Now it becomes an issue of stringing together quality performances, which hasn't been his norm.
"Once somebody has a little taste of success you don't want any drop off from there," Graves said. "As a player, once you do pretty good you don't want to have another bad game, so it's really about focusing and keeping my mind to where it was before today's game and just keep it there before every game."
If that leads to more similar performances, that Strickland scenario will have to wait.