Let’s start with the dunk of the season. Notre Dame is down four to Georgia Tech, first week of January, 10 minutes to go. Sophomore wing Steve Vasturia steps underneath Tech’s basket to inbound a dead ball. By design, Jerian Grant is nothing more than a release valve, rolling off a pick and floating into the backcourt for a safe, deep pass. Here’s how the point guard recounts the next few seconds: “I tried to back up to catch the ball toward half-court, and my man was behind me, so I sprinted toward the ball and caught it with some momentum. I didn’t see anything but the rim. From there, I kind of blacked out.”
The Irish went on to win in double overtime, and Grant’s name would trend on Twitter later that day. It took a Vine-able piece of magic, but the country finally noticed how good the best player on the nation’s best offense really is.
Grant sports a trim goatee and socks with shamrocks stitched on the back. He does not wear Rec Specs like his famous father, Harvey, or his even more famous uncle, Horace. His vision is actually his best asset. Through January 21, the 22-year-old fifth-year senior is averaging 16.7 points, 6.4 assists, and 2.8 rebounds a game. He’s rarely the quickest guard on the floor, but he processes information like a supercomputer. Among players who’ve used at least 24 percent of his team’s possessions, Grant’s offensive rating (128.3) is third-highest in Division I, a notch above Utah stud Delon Wright and a hair below Gonzaga revelation Kyle Wiltjer. He’s shooting 79 percent at the rim, a ridiculous mark for a 6-foot-5 combo guard, and ranks seventh nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio. His similarity score on KenPom.com matches up with Jon Scheyer, and — save for the defiance of gravity — the comparison is apt: Like the 2010 Duke grad, Grant is an unflappable, underappreciated ACC floor leader who is playing his best basketball during the twilight of his college career.
When Jerian was a kid, Rod Strickland and a few of Harvey’s other teammates on the Washington Bullets called him “Bam-Bam.” Grant and his three brothers — Jerai, who plays professionally in Latvia, Jerami, who’s a rookie on the Philadelphia 76ers, and Jaelin — were always hanging around the MCI Center or the Rose Garden or some other arena, mopping up sweat and soaking up the minutiae of their dad’s unusual profession. “He was a basketball junkie,” says Horace of Jerian. “A gym rat.” Family pickup games were rarely casual. Mike Jones, head coach at DeMatha Catholic, first met an 11-year-old Jerian at one of the high school’s summer camps. “The one thing that really stood out about him was how competitive he was. He never liked to lose,” says Jones. “At that age, if he lost, he’d cry. If he was playing his brothers and was about to lose, he’d just start a fight.” Slipping into the passive voice, Grant admits as much: “It got kind of physical sometimes. Tears were shed.”
As he’s gotten older, Grant has sanded down the rough edges. He comports himself like the professional he’ll soon become, preaching selflessness and teamwork, rarely letting his emotions show or his guard slip. “He’s always had a mask about him,” says Tom Noie, 17-year veteran beat reporter for the South Bend Tribune. “He doesn’t really open the door to let you in as far as what he’s really feeling, what he feels about his game, his future.” On the floor, this cool detachment can be an asset. With nine seconds left in the 2009 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title game and DeMatha trailing by one, Jones opted not to draw up a play for future lottery pick Victor Oladipo or Duke’s Quinn Cook. Instead, he let Grant take the ball the length of the floor and “make the decision.” The result — a leaping pass to a cutting big man for the game winner — is preserved on YouTube. “In that situation, there aren’t many kids that would pass the ball,” Jones says. “They’d say, ‘Coach is giving me the ball, I’m going to win the game.’ And Jerian totally is the opposite, and that’s why we trusted him.”
Two weeks after the Georgia Tech dunk, before a matchup with Miami at Notre Dame’s 9,000-seat Purcell Pavilion, a small man with a red beard and green knickers is shooting flat jump shots. His rotation isn’t bad, all things considered, but the leprechaun just can’t generate enough lift, and 3 after 3 clangs off the front end of the iron. The display does little to ease the nerves of anxious fans inside. Although the Irish are 16-2, the program’s best start in 36 years, Grant himself is stuck in a shooting slump, having failed to convert a single shot beyond the arc in four straight games. Most worrisome is the eligibility of Zach Auguste, an athletic center the team left at home during its midweek road trip to address unexplained academic obligations. A season-ending suspension was one rumored outcome.
You could understand if the Notre Dame faithful were experiencing uneasy flashbacks. It was Grant who was dismissed from school just before Christmas in 2013, for reasons the athletic department has never disclosed. (ESPN analyst Doris Burke, in one recent broadcast, described it euphemistically as an “academic separation.”) His absence spoiled any chance the team had of playing in the postseason; the Irish went 7-13 during spring semester, tossing out 12 different starting lineups and finishing under .500 for the first time in head coach Mike Brey’s 14-year tenure. As impressive a job as Brey has done at Notre Dame, fully reviving “a dead-end program” (Noie’s words) that missed the NCAA tournament every year between 1990 and 2001, the school still can’t afford too many empty seasons in a row before potential recruits bypass the Golden Dome for less football-oriented campuses. Notre Dame has advanced to the Sweet 16 only one time since 1987, after all.
Grant, for his part, took his own suspension in stride. He visited his uncle in Southern California, running on the beach, lifting with Horace’s personal trainer, and watching games on NBA League Pass. “There’s no relaxing when he comes out here,” Horace says. “It’s very intense, no shortcuts.” Back home, he got shots up at DeMatha and took his new job as an Irish scout seriously, sending detailed emails to Brey following each game. Spacing was a specific priority. “I like to stand around a lot,” he says, “so seeing how a lot of people on our team were getting easy buckets just moving without the ball and cutting, I think that’s helped the offense this year.” Grant reapplied to Notre Dame, reenrolled for summer school in June, and is back on schedule to graduate in the spring. “He’s better for it,” Brey says. “He’s come back more mature.”
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The crowd seemed to let out one collective breath when Auguste, whose availability remained uncertain up until tipoff, checked in against the Hurricanes, four minutes into the contest.1 When Grant sank his first jumper, a long 2 off a transition leak, they exhaled again. “COME ON!” a middle-aged man near press row screamed as the ball left Grant’s hand, begging it to drop. On the day, Grant poured in 23 points on just 10 shots and doled out eight assists. At his best, he plays in rhythm and within the system, often working off the ball, initiating from the wing comfortably with either hand. Especially when Notre Dame goes small, he has ample room in which to operate. “Everyone has downshifted to us,” Brey says.
“He had to make up academic work,” Brey texted ESPN’s Andy Katz right before tip. “He has.”
The Irish overcame a cold start to win 75-70, looking in spurts like the ideal version of the team fans are so excited about: Division I’s best shooting unit, an offense that can spread the floor and attack the tin, led by two seniors, Grant and Orioles farmhand Pat Connaughton, as productive and experienced as any tandem in America.
Brey’s group — now 17-2 — will certainly receive an invitation to the Big Dance this spring. How late they’ll stick around is an open question. Aside from Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt, Brey is the longest-tenured power conference coach without a Final Four appearance.2 Notre Dame has holes, to be sure: a defense that’s allowing 1.06 points per possession in conference play (ninth in the ACC) and a rotation that’s small and stretches seven deep at best. On the other hand, there’s a confidence and a toughness in the locker room that Notre Dame basketball has not always exhibited. But more important, as the Leprechaun Legion learned last year, they have Grant back, blacking out, throwing down on unsuspecting freshmen, and running the show one last time.
A cynic, or maybe a Pitt fan, might call it the “Irish Good-bye.”
Adam Doster (@adam_doster) is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His work about sports and sporting culture has appeared in Sports Illustrated, The Atlantic, and ESPN The Magazine, among other publications.