The Detroit Pistons signed Jerami Grant to a three-year $60 million contract, and it is fair to ask what the appropriate expectations are for someone paid $20 million per season. Grant comes to Detroit from Denver where he spent a single season after previously being with Oklahoma City. Grant was a high-minutes bench-player and occasional fill-in starter for the Nuggets including being a starter for their playoff run.
That $20 million tag seems like a big number for a guy who wasn’t a starter and didn’t even play 30 minutes per game for the Nuggets last season, which it is. The Pistons made this deal with the hope that Grant has more to give than he was able to show on a stacked Denver Nuggets team, a hope that Grant reportedly shares as well. It has been widely reported that the Nuggets were willing to offer Grant the exact same deal as Detroit, but Grant turned it down seeking a larger role. The question is, how does he step into a role that will justify his contract?
We are going to start with the defensive end of the ball because this is easier and more straight forward for a player with Grant’s skillset.
Grant is a perfect combination of size, speed, and effort, and can go toe to toe with most any wing player in the league. He may have gotten a little oversold as an on-ball stopper after the classic “defended LeBron tough in the playoffs” bump, but he is legit. The issue is that the way some people have hyped him up on defense would suggest he may be in the conversation for the defensive player of the year award, which he isn’t.
It is OK that he is just “really good” and not great on the ball because he is great off the ball. The aforementioned combo of size, athleticism, effort along with his timing make him a devastating weak-side defensive helper. His abilities in this area are what got him a shot on the Process Sixers. His career block percentage of 3.8% would put him in the top 20 in the league last year, which is pretty remarkable given that last season the only non-center in the group was Robert Covington (who checked in at 3.7%). Whether he’s on the wing, at the 4, or a small-ball 5, he is a menace around the rim defensively. His on-ball abilities are good and will stand out on a Pistons team severely lacking in big wing defenders, but his abilities as a shot-blocker should still stand as the spot where he has the biggest defensive impact, especially since the Pistons might be even shorter on shot-blocking than they are on big-wing defenders.
The one blemish defensively is that he’s always been pretty underwhelming as a rebounder, even if you fully classify him as a Small Forward. That should come up a bit in Detroit as he previously played with some rebounding machines in Denver and Oklahoma City, and now finds himself on a Detroit team with no elite rebounding to speak of (goodbye, Andre Drummond).
One of the more fun and intriguing developments is that Grant finds himself alongside the right sort of power forward in Blake Griffin that allows you to get away with having Grant as a small-ball 5. Griffin is diligent in boxing out and has no problem bodying up big guys on the inside, both of which are the most glaring shortcomings for Grant. This means Grant can play the 5 and work as a free safety, terrorizing passing lanes and contesting shots, without the Pistons getting obliterated on the glass and/or by post-up brutes.
The problem is that no matter what, with Grant at center it is going to be a weaker defensive unit, so to really unlock it you need offensive firepower and I'm not sure the Pistons have enough of that on the perimeter to really make it work. Forcing opposing centers to choose between guarding Griffin or chasing Grant around the perimeter is potentially devastating, but if the defense can still send help cause no one is guarding Derrick Rose or Delon Wright it won’t really matter. This is a spot where Killian Hayes’ development could be big. If his long-ball is ready from day one, the Pistons could roll out a lineup of Grant/Griffin/Svi/McGruder/Hayes and potentially have the right mix of defensive speed and offensive abilities to have a fun time.
The last point here is that it will be interesting to see if Grant’s defensive effort and intensity drop at all with a bigger offensive role. Every team he’s been on has largely asked him to only really expend effort on the defensive end so hopefully, he is ready to take on the larger offensive role and still bring it defensively.
So what about the offense?
Yeah, that is the question. And there isn’t a clear answer.
Basically, we can sit here and argue about what ways Grant will expand his game and how it will look, but there is scant data to go on. Last season, Grant was assisted on nearly 80% of his field goals, which is only slightly higher than his career mark, and he averaged even fewer dribbles per touch than fellow Nugget turned Piston Mason Plumlee. Grant as a creator is a total unknown.
So what’s our best guess?
The easiest guess would be to simply say that he is going to completely flop in an increased role, and given that he will no longer be playing in the exceptionally healthy offensive ecosystem of Denver, he may even be significantly worse, but that is boring and also sad to think about so we are going to ignore that for now.
The most obvious thing to hope for is to simply expand on role-player stuff. Grant was a solid spot-up shooter last season, but he rarely shot off the move. Instead, he largely planted himself somewhere beyond the line and waited for a pass. He doesn’t need to become Reggie Millerm, but if he can add some more off-ball movement before coming into a shot that would both make him more valuable and allow him to probably find an extra shot or two per game without testing his dribbling ability.
This is especially interesting to think about because Grant is so good rolling to the hoop. There is some fun stuff where he can threaten with a roll and then just keep running straight to the corner that can mess with defenders. Basically, use him even more as a roll-man and get him moving more when he doesn’t have the ball.
The other obvious option is to ease him into ball-handling duty by making use of the bigs to get him dribble hand-off looks and the like. Conveniently, both Griffin and Plumlee excel in this area. Instead of making Grant take the ball and navigate into a pick, you can instead let him get a running start and take the ball from Griffin. If the lane is clear, he may only have to dribble once or twice before getting to the hoop.
You seem scared of his handle
Oh, I am. He is tall and lanky, and it’s not clear he can dribble well enough to hold the ball much. That’s easily the biggest concern here.
D you really think Dwane Casey is going to design cool stuff to help him out?
No. I expect Casey’s idea for a bigger role to be simply telling Grant he should shoot more.
With this in mind, we come to the most realistic way that Grant can expand his offensive game effectively: post-ups.
First off, this is the one thing that Grant has some history of success with. It’s still a small sample size, but he has shown some ability to be efficient out of post-ups in his career. Posting him up also makes sense given that the Pistons are likely to play him predominately at small forward.
If Grant is going to be playing alongside Griffin and Plumlee with regularity, he should have a size advantage against his matchup basically every single night, which should allow him to bully smaller guys down low. It makes use of his size, is less demanding of his handle, and something simple enough to execute within a Dwane Casey offense.
The trouble here will be if he can pass well enough to make it work long-term. He’s occasionally shown flashes of nice passing vision, but, once again, there is little data to work with.
Beyond that, because it’s a Dwane Casey offense, Grant will almost certainly get the allowance to just try and go in isolation. I’d prefer these to mostly come out of post-ups or something similar, basically let him start closer to the hoop instead of trying to dribble out on the perimeter. Here the hope is that he can somehow replicate Marcus Morris as a Piston — big enough to just shoot over guys. Overall, a player that slots in as “Marcus Morris but also an awesome roll-man” is probably the most realistic upside here. Not a real initiator, but a tough player who can bully smaller guys whether in the post or just by shooting over them in the mid-range.