NBA life has ups, downs for former Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Remnants of what passed for a pre-game meal – Penne pasta with red sauce and some wild rice on the side – sat on the floor near his locker in a rectangular box similar to the kind Martin's customers get with takeout orders from the Side Door Deli.

It was 90 minutes before the 16th regular-season game of his professional basketball career, and former Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant found himself in an unusual spot Wednesday – seated at his locker wearing a pair of gold headphones with the music cranked to a level that even a passer-by could bounce to the beat.

In Grant’s cubicle hung his white Knicks No. 13 game jersey. Folded underneath were the clothes - khaki shorts and camouflage T-shirt - he would wear on the team charter flight home that night. A thick gold watch lay atop the outfit. A pair of black loafers lay on the floor next to the scouting report of New York’s opponent that night, the Orlando Magic.

Had Grant been back at Notre Dame, 90 minutes before tip would have had him working up a lather out on the floor. Grant would roll through his repertoire of shots – drives, fade-aways, step-backs, pull-ups – before heading off to change from his practice outfit to his game gear.

On this night, which wrapped a four-game trip that kept him on the road for eight days, Grant’s near-game preparation included only studying the wide-screen television across of the room, which rolled video of a recent Magic game against Cleveland. He had worked through his warm-up routine three hours earlier.

Grant would play five scoreless minutes of a 100-91 loss. His minutes, which had been so steady early in the month, have since dwindled. With each passing week, Knicks coach Derek Fisher has leaned more on backcourt veterans Aaron Afflalo, Jose Calderon and Sasha Vujacic and less on Grant, the No. 19 selection by Washington (he was traded twice to end up with the Knicks) in the June draft.

“My year’s been up and down,” Grant said. “I think eventually I’ll get some stable minutes and it will be more consistent.”

A roller coaster

Grant started out with a solid role. He was the leader of the second unit, counted on to provide energy, to get the reserves into the Triangle offense, to drive and find guys, to get to the basket and finish. He logged a career-high 29 minutes in the season’s second game. He scored a career-high 12 in the fourth.

But the deeper the Knicks (8-8) dive into their 82-game season, the more Grant has been left to watch and wait. After getting 26 minutes in the Nov. 15 game against New Orleans, Grant averaged 10.8 the next four. On Wednesday, Grant checked into the contest for the final three minutes of the first quarter. He played only 120 seconds the rest of the way. The five minutes were a season low. On the flipside, Grant's best friend, Magic guard Victor Oladipo, came off the bench for the first time in his two-plus year career and scored 24 points in 26 minutes.

What's Grant's role now?

"I’m not sure, exactly,” he said. “But as I continue to get better, I think my minutes will continue to increase. I can bring a lot to this team and we’re headed in the right direction.”

There also are times when Grant is unsure where he’s headed. On this most recent trip, New York was in Oklahoma City one night, Houston the next. The Knicks spent last weekend in Miami before a quick trip to Orlando. All the cities and the arenas and especially the days run together for Grant, mainly because there’s no reference point. He’s either in the gym, in the hotel or on the plane.

Back at Notre Dame, Grant could keep his days straight by his class schedule. He could tell Mondays and Tuesdays from Thursdays and Fridays. Not now. It didn’t really hit him Wednesday that the next day was Thanksgiving.

“It’s really just every day is basketball and that’s it,” he said. “It’s a little different.”

Different in that there are only so many hours Grant can spend watching film, scanning scouting reports or working to fix a shot that has seen him make just two of his last 15 from the field. There are times he needs to just get away. But to do what?

“There’s really not much to do with your time,” he said.

Grant keeps in close contact with former Notre Dame teammate Pat Connaughton, who is on the outside of the rotation looking in as a rookie with the Portland Trail Blazers. The two communicate as often as the three-hour time difference between them allows. When they do talk or text, it’s more about their lives than their current basketball struggles.

“I just talk to him about the fact that we’re here and we need to keep working,” Grant said. “His time will come. A lot of crazy stuff can happen, so we’re both staying ready.”

In 16 games, Grant is averaging 5.6 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 18.2 minutes. He’s shooting 34.2 percent from the field, 11.1 percent from 3 and 84.6 percent from the foul line. Every rookie hits that proverbial wall. Grant may have smacked his before the end of the first full month. Five more remain.

"As a rookie, you go through your bumps and bruises, but it’s going well for him,” said Knicks second-year guard Langston Galloway. “He’s been a little bit up and down (but) he definitely brings a passion that we need.”

That passion has been tested as Grant feels the pressure to make something happen with any minutes he does get. He’ll admit that he’s pressing. A lot. He’s learned about being an NBA rookie the hard way. When he was struggling with his shot in college, he could always drive it to the hoop, draw contact and get to the foul line to get going.

That doesn’t work in the Association.

“In college, you get a bump, you get fouled, you go to the line and make your free throws,” he said. “Here, (the officials) put their hands up and it’s not a foul no matter how much body contact you get. That’s been tough. I’m not getting the calls like I used to get.”

Living the life

The 23-year-old Grant signed a two-year guaranteed contract, with a team option for two more, which pays him $1.57 million this season. He insists there haven’t been any wild purchases with the new-found financial freedom. Not with the crazy cost of housing in the New York area. He still drives the same black Jeep Cherokee he had at Notre Dame, and most of his earnings go toward the apartment he rents in suburban White Plains.

When it’s time to head for work, Grant is like any other 20-something commuting into midtown Manhattan. He takes the train, where nobody on the platform or in the car recognizes him.

“It’s not bad at all,” he said of the 40-minute one-way trip into Penn Station, which sits under Madison Square Garden. “I sit in the corner of the train with my hat and my headphones on and nobody bothers me.”

Coming off the team’s longest road trip to date – only a six-game West Coast swing in early March will be longer – Grant figured he wouldn’t get back to his apartment until sometime around 3 a.m. Thursday. Even then, sleep would be hard to secure. He could have used a few extra hours of rest to better get his bearings before his mother, Beverly, would arrive from her home in suburban Washington to help Grant and his girlfriend celebrate Thanksgiving.

Down time for an NBA rookie simply doesn’t exist.

Grant was expected back at the Knicks’ practice facility in suburban Purchase late Thursday morning. As a rookie, he’s required to report two hours earlier than the veterans to get everything prepared for practice. The next game, Friday at home against Miami, was coming quickly.

This is his life now, and as demanding and sometimes frustrating as it may be, he wouldn’t trade it for anything. For as long as he could remember, he dreamed of what it would be like to follow in the footsteps of his father Harvey and his uncle Horace and be a pro. He basically carried himself like one during the 2014-15 college basketball season.

Now he’s living that life. His life.

“It’s not a shock to me to be playing NBA basketball,” Grant said. “This was the goal. Now I’m here. Now I want to stay and get better.”

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Former Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant, now a rookie with the New York Knicks, drives around New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis during a game earlier this month at Madison Square Garden.AP Photo/KATHY WILLENS