BY PAUL MANCANO—Amid the noise of the now yearly “worst team ever” debate and the star-struck giddiness surrounding Nerlens Noel, the chatter around several Sixers has been drowned out. As well it should, because, well, they suck. But 2014 draftee Jerami Grant’s disappearance from seemingly every Sixers discussion is more surprising and less warranted than, say, Hollis Thompson’s. (no offense, Hollis—literally, he’s got no offense. Sorry, I had to) After all, Grant was taken just seven picks after K.J. McDaniels, and was projected by many to be a first-round pick. Yet there seems to be a steep drop-off in expectations from McDaniels to Grant. While I do agree K.J. has the most potential of any the Sixers’ second-rounders, there’s certainly reason to believe great things can also come from Grant.
As a Syracuse student and aspiring journalist, I watched Grant play at the Carrier Dome all of last year, talked to him in the locker room after a game once, and even saw him going to class a few times. (That’s right, he actually went to class sometimes) Over the course of the 2013-14 campaign, which was filled with the unparalleled highs of Tyler Ennis’ stunner at Pitt and the overtime epic versus Duke, as well as the unfathomable lows of losing to Dayton in the second round of the Tournament and actually losing to Boston College that one time, Grant became my favorite player. I also became a huge fan of the run-on sentence, apparently.
While the freshman sensation Tyler Ennis was stealing headlines and senior C.J. Fair was putting up the majority ’Cuse’s points, albeit inefficiently, Grant was doing the dirty work on both ends of the floor. He was left with somewhat pedestrian numbers (12.1 PPG, 49.6% FG,
1.4 APG last year to name a few) given his draft position and the expectations for him at the beginning of the year. But stats lie, and Grant’s are skewed by a couple factors.
First, he was hindered by the loss of the Orange’s token huge thug DaJuan Coleman. Syracuse head coach and adopted son of central New York Jim Boeheim has been using an unspoken plan of delegating one of his most athletic, potent players to the role of sixth-man. He did it with Dion Waiters in 2011-12, he did it with James Southerland in 2012-13, and he did it again with Grant last year. But when Coleman went down for the year, Grant was forced into the starting spot, giving the Orange an extremely long and skinny lineup.
Grant’s placement at the four in the starting lineup was the cause of struggle at times. At 6’8″ 214 lbs, Jerami was not fully prepared to shoulder the load at power forward next to the offensively inept and incredibly lean rotation of Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita. Grant’s offensive game didn’t exactly gel with the ball-dominant Fair, either. Thus, his weak post-up game was exposed, and his only effectiveness game from grabbing nifty Ennis passes below the low post or driving hard into a crowded lane, which often left him on the floor.
Which brings up another point about Grant: he falls. A lot. Those frightening seconds after Grant hits the deck are like the heart-stopping moments after a small child trips and falls; they’re are spent in nerve-racking apprehension, waiting for the child to start crying or for Jerami to clutch a lower-body extremity in pain and call for a team doctor.
Much like Nerlens Noel, Grant looks like a marionette at times, flailing his rope-like arms in traffic. It makes for an altogether gangly look when Grant is facing larger competition. Unlike Noel, Grant never went down with a major injury after an awkward fall, but he did miss some time with a back injury late in the season.
But the benefit of having two seven-footers patrolling the paint in the near future is Grant can be slid to the three, a position that should suit the 21-year-old much better. He’s a slasher, not a back-to-the-basket post-up man. If he wants to make a smooth transition to small forward, he’s going to need some major improvements to his ball handling, but I’ll give him a grace period in that category. Then there’s his shooting.
While in ’Cuseland, Grant’s poor jump shooting was the butt of some jokes. To put it bluntly, it was pretty atrocious, especially early on. Here’s a look at Jerami’s shot chart through early March:
I remember one game in which the young man became strangely enamored with the midrange J, despite air-balling several in a row. After a bricked 10-footer, I turned to my buddy next to me and said, “I never want to see him take a jump shot ever again.” Lucky for me, I’ll probably be seeing a fair amount of that shot this year. And Brett Brown’s emphasis on the three-pointer won’t help him much either, as Grant went just four for 13 beyond the arc in summer league action. The sad part is, shooting at that clip might make him one of the best gunners on this Sixers team. Well, probably not, but you get the point.
But for all his faults, Grant became perhaps the second-best all-around Orange this past year, behind only to the kid from Canada. He was more efficient and took care of the basketball much better than Fair, and he could actually put the ball in the hoop from inside five feet, which is more than I could say for too many ’Cuse bigmen. Not to mention he’s underrated defensively and unafraid of contact, which should come in handy once he adds some bulk. Oh yeah, and he’s an athletic freak. These are all qualities Hinkie craves in a prospect, and all qualities that should make his transition to the NBA a little bit easier.
What won’t show up on a stat sheet is his off-court demeanor. His upbeat yet intense attitude and approach to the game are huge positives. He also played through some pain with that back injury, showing some toughness. Plus, he’s got charisma and a winning smile. So yeah, he was pretty popular up here.
I’m not expecting much from the guy through his first couple years—he may even spend some time in the D-League—but I can’t think of a better coach (with the exception of Pop) to push him along before the training wheels come off. Like McDaniels, Jordan McRae, and Tony Wroten, Grant is a lump of clay, waiting for the patient hands of Brown to mold into him the contours of a competent role player.
Jerami and I have had a wild journey over the past year. I watched him grow into an NBA prospect, mourned the day he elected to declare for the draft, and rejoiced when the Sixers nabbed him with the 39th pick. I have an orange #3 jersey hanging in closet, and I think it’s about time I placed a blue #39 jersey next to it.