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Feb. 18, 2010
By Bill Hass
When the Clemson post player sees an opponent driving the lane, he wants to swoop in and block the shot, which he often does. Trouble is, he is also prone to picking up fouls, and their quick accumulation usually lands him on the bench.
And you can’t help your team when you’re sitting there.
But now, in his junior season, there is evidence Grant is discerning that he doesn’t have to try and stop everything. And the results are beneficial for the Tigers.
“He’s done a much better job of it this year and a much better job of late,” said Clemson coach Oliver Purnell, “but that’s still a concern going into about every game.
“People are going to force-feed their first post option and he’s got to do a little bit better job of maybe letting a couple things go there early so we can have him not in foul trouble midway through the first half or midway through the second half.”
It hasn’t been an easy lesson for Grant to learn. He has blocked 110 shots in his career and is hungry for more.
“It’s instinct,” he explained. “As a big man and a shot-blocker, you want to block everything and that’s my mind-set. At the same time, in the last two or three weeks I’ve been smart about it, kind of picking and choosing which ones I can block, not trying to force the issue because I know referees look for that a lot of the time.
“It’s just staying on the court. When I get an opportunity to play I make the most of it. Foul trouble is my biggest enemy. So I don’t try to rush anything and at the same time I have to stay aggressive just because if you’re not you’re coming out of the game anyway. I want to stay aggressive and at the same time be smart with it.”
Grant’s progress can be seen in his minutes played. He averaged 8.3 minutes per game as a freshman, 14.6 as a sophomore and 19.8 so far this season. In ACC play, he’s averaging almost 24 minutes.
When he’s on the court, the 6-8, 220-pounder gives Clemson a shot-blocker, a rebounder to go with Trevor Booker and someone who can chip in with some timely offense (8.6 points in ACC play). Over the Tigers’ last five games, Grant has averaged 11 points and nine rebounds.
“Also, he does a really good job of correcting a lot of our mistakes in clogging up the middle,” Purnell said, “because he’s a good shot-blocker and he certainly changes some shots. He does a really good job of post defending, so you can put him on the opposition’s best big guy and you know you’re going to get a credible job on the defensive end of the floor.”
It all comes back to staying on the court.
“I feel more comfortable out there, like I can get every rebound, like I can score when I need to and when I have to,” Grant said. “Picking up those two quick fouls and sitting out the rest of the first half, that’s frustrating. So the key for me is staying in the game and playing.”
Anyone familiar with Grant’s background shouldn’t be surprised that his talent is beginning to show. His father was Harvey Grant, who played a year at Clemson and two at Oklahoma, followed by 11 seasons in the NBA.
Then there’s his uncle, Horace Grant, who is Harvey’s twin brother. Horace played four years at Clemson and 17 in the NBA, where he was part of four championship teams (three with the Chicago Bulls, one with the Los Angeles Lakers).
“Me and my mom and my brothers went to a lot of my dad’s games, especially when he was playing with Portland and the (Washington) Bullets,” said Jerai Grant, who was 10 when his father retired. “I got the concept but I didn’t really understand how basketball worked.
“It was nice being around all the players. I can still remember dancing at the games and being on the jumbotron. It was a fun experience. Not until later did I understand that was what I wanted to do.”
Harvey Grant coached his son for a while in AAU ball with the Maryland Crusaders, where another player was Nolan Smith, now at Duke.
“He definitely helped me improve my game,” Grant said. “My dad was extra tough on me but he instilled that extra toughness in me to play hard.”
Jerai Grant played his dad one-on-one a couple of times.
“I’m proud to say that I won the second time,” Grant said with a chuckle, “but I’m pretty sure he won’t admit that.”
Grant used to visit his uncle Horace in southern California and spend time lifting weights, working out and enjoying the laid-back lifestyle.
Even his mother chipped in with his development.
“She would bring the cones and me and a couple of my teammates, we’d dribble around them and she would do little drills with me,” he said. “I didn’t realize it until later in my life that it helped me out. Without that, I wouldn’t be able to put the ball on the floor at all.”
Like it is with many children of former athletes, Jerai Grant found that his bloodlines cut both ways.
“In a positive light it helped because I was around basketball and I got a feel for it and a taste for it, it gave me that hunger to want it.” He said. “Learning from my dad and my uncle is such a blessing; they helped get me to where I needed to be.
“In a negative light, you have people saying ‘you should be this or that’ or ‘the only reason he’s here is because of his parents.’ You get that sometimes, but it’s important to block the negative out.”
Something else that helped Grant was coming through the legendary program at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md. His coach there was Mike Jones, one of Purnell’s former players at Old Dominion.
“He’s been in and around some great basketball and some great teaching and that definitely is apparent when he comes in (as a freshman),” Purnell said of Grant. “He just knows some things that maybe the average freshman doesn’t know. He’s been in so many big games across the country, big tournaments, and he’s seen so many games, those things just have a way of kind of seeping into your pores.”
The Clemson connection helped when it came time for Grant to choose a college, but in the end it was Purnell who made the difference over his second choice of Marquette. Once with the Tigers, he found that Purnell’s system was similar to that of Jones.
“(At DeMatha) you had to learn to play in the system,” Grant said. “It’s tough at first but once you get it down-pat you know your role, you know what you need to do and you flourish in it. My high school program is similar to this college program because of the way the system runs and you have to learn to be a part of that.”
Clemson did not play a mid-week game, so the players have used the time to rest their bodies and prepare for a home game Saturday against Virginia. The Tigers, 6-5 in the ACC and 18-7 overall, are looking for a strong finish to ensure an NCAA bid, and then a deeper run into the tournament.
“In my opinion, the thing we need to do is focus more in every aspect,” Grant said. “We need it in practice, we need it during the games, we need it during scouting, we need it during lifting. When we’re a focused team we’re an unstoppable team and that’s just speaking from experience.
“There are so many distractions when you’re a student-athlete in college. They creep in and disrupt the natural flow of the team. But great teams are the ones that can filter that out and when we can input that laser-like focus and put one goal in our sight with one voice, we can accomplish anything, including an NCAA championship.”
For his part, Grant wants to keep getting better.
“I feel like I’ve somewhat made a name for myself,” he said, “but there’s so far I need to go. I know it’s a long journey but I’m ready to meet it head-on.”
And that starts by staying on the floor.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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