When his best friend soared to the second pick of the 2013 NBA draft, he so wanted to follow him to the league but knew his game needed more work.
When his younger brother bolted after two years of college and became a second-round selection in the 2014 NBA draft, he wished that he could be the one to follow in their father’s footsteps into the league, but knew his game was not yet NBA ready.
When former Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant decided last spring to return to school after missing the second half of the previous year because of academics, the advice of his buddy (former Indiana standout and current Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo) and his brother (Jerami, set to start his second season with the Philadelphia 76ers) made it all seem more manageable.
Don’t worry about going back, they counseled Grant around this time last year. He would be next among the group to get to the NBA. Play hard and play well, and his time would come.
On Thursday, Grant will rise from his table somewhere inside the green room of Barclays Center in the New York borough of Brooklyn, step to the stage and shake hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after becoming the first first-round draft pick from Notre Dame since 2002 when Ryan Humphrey went No. 19 to the Utah Jazz.
A new basketball chapter remains to be written for Grant, one of the most dynamic play-making guards in college basketball last season. Many more challenges lay ahead. But for a few moments Thursday, Grant will drink it all in and let it all sink in.
He’s a first-round draft pick. The elite of the elite.
“That’s going to mean a lot,” Grant told the Tribune last month in Chicago during the NBA draft combine. “It’s been a dream to play in the NBA and to be able to do that this year means a lot. Being the first Notre Dame guy in 13 years, you’re making more history and that’s important to me.”
A long road
Grant has taken his game to a level few thought possible five years ago when he arrived at Notre Dame a young and scrawny guard from famed DeMatha Catholic (Md.) High School. Because of his age and inexperience and a lingering stress reaction in his left leg, Grant reluctantly sat out that first year in 2010-11. While the Irish ran off a 27-7 record and climbed to as high as No. 4 in the national rankings, Grant impatiently watched and waited and even wondered if he had made the wrong college choice.
“He wanted to transfer,” said Irish coach Mike Brey.
But Grant also wanted to work, something he did more and more of as the following four years unfolded. By the time he re-enrolled last June, he had become more dedicated to being a better player, a better leader, a better person. Just better.
He was driven to have a good season. He had a great one.
Grant enjoyed a dream senior year (16.5 ppg., 2.5 rpg., 6.9 apg., 37.1 mpg.) that saw him climb steadily up draft boards. A possible second-round selection last fall, he became a potential lottery pick by the time spring arrived. The consensus first team All-American also helped lead Notre Dame to a 32-6 season that included an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, a tournament most valuable player honor and Irish trip to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.
Thursday is the culmination of a perseverance and a plan to play at the game’s highest level.
“It means all your hard work is paying off,” Grant said. “You’re not done, but to see this hard work show, it really means a lot.”
Where Grant might go during Thursday’s 30-pick first round remains a mystery. He’s heard anywhere from Nos. 10 to 20. Grant worked out for the Charlotte Hornets, who own the No. 9 pick and the Oklahoma City Thunder (14). He also is reportedly coveted by the Chicago Bulls, who pick 22. He’s auditioned for over a dozen teams on a cross-country workout tour that commenced with the Indiana Pacers in May, only hours after he received his Notre Dame degree.
“He’s an interesting kid,” said one NBA director of scouting. “I don’t see him in the lottery (picks 1 to 14). I think he’s going between 15 and 25.”
One of Grant’s strongest attributes last season is considered by some in the NBA as a potential pitfall – his age. Having spent five years in college, Grant will turn 23 during his rookie season. The consensus top three picks Thursday – big men Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky) and Jahlil Okafor (Duke) and guard D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State) - are teenagers who played one year in college.
Grant has sometimes wondered what it would have been like to be a one-and-done, but his game was nowhere near as polished as it was this season. He needed five years to get to this point. Now, Grant believes his age could be his greatest asset. The further down the first round that Grant goes – say Houston at No. 18, Washington at 19 or Dallas at 21 - the more likely he lands with a team ready to win. A veteran team. A playoff team. A team that needs something from him sooner rather than later.
A seasoned Grant is ready to go the minute he steps into the gym instead of spending the first few months of his rookie year trying to figure it out.
“Me being this old means that I’m more ready right now,” he said.
One of the biggest selling points for teams with Grant also is the way he played – and excelled – the pick-and-roll last season. The pick-and-roll, a two-man exchange game between the guard and a big, is the bread-and-butter in the NBA. Run it well and guards can stay in the league a long time. Run it poorly, and you become a fringe asset.
Few were as good as Grant in the pick-and-roll last season. If opposing teams tried to jump Grant with a double team off it, he’d drop a bounce pass to a rolling Zach Auguste for a dunk. If teams doubled Auguste, Grant would pull up with a mid-range jumper. Or he’d get into the lane and probe the defense to finish at the rim or kick to a shooter in the corner.
It’s why Brey considered Grant the ultimate creator, the ultimate closer. Few could think the game, then play it, as efficiently as Grant.
“The DNA is great,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla. “You could put him on the floor immediately.”
“He’s got a toughness about him,” said fellow ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg. “He’s got an NBA body.”
NBA teams will look at Grant’s statistics last season and likely raise a red flag when they get to his shooting percentages. His inefficiency from the 3-point line (31.6 percent) is a concern. He could take tough ones; he could make tough ones. But the NBA has long been a make or miss league, and if a young guard struggles to shoot it consistently from distance, he’ll struggle to stay around longer than his four-year rookie contract, of which only two years are guaranteed.
Grant’s not worried. Last year, defenses were designed to limit his looks at all times. Teams ran waves of defenders his direction (see the Duke game at Cameron Indoor Stadium). That’s not going to happen right away in the NBA, especially if Grant goes to a veteran team. His athleticism and versatility can allow him to bounce between both guard spots.
“I can knock down shots,” Grant said. “I really didn’t get lot of clean looks last year (but) I know I’m not going to be a guy who has the ball in his hands as much as I did at Notre Dame.
“Playing off the ball a little more and being able to knock down shots is going to be big.”
While age and shot selection and shooting percentages may be concerns, they’re just numbers on a page for the 6-foot-4, 198-pound Grant. He believes he owns additional intangibles that cannot be measured. It’s something he believes will keep him in the league for a long time. Something that’s driven him to this point, something that will carry him into the next phase of his basketball career.
“I work harder than anyone in this draft,” he said. “I’m going to continue to get better.”