Jerami Grant Is Not So Quietly Making History For The Detroit Pistons

Photo via AP Photo/Nick Wass

The Detroit Pistons are, to put it bluntly, having a rough start to the NBA season. They’re 2-8, have the third-worst Net Rating of any team in the league, and just lost their top draft pick in Killian Hayes for at least 6 weeks, or potentially the entire year with a disastrous hip injury. Blake Griffin has struggled to assert himself, and the organization looks increasingly unlikely to get out from under his contract. Oh, and if you haven’t heard already from the simmering heap of existential frustration and despair that is Pistons Twitter, they lost last season’s revelation and fan-favorite Christian Wood in a sign and trade with the Houston Rockets.

But not everything has been doom and gloom for Detroit. Despite the losses, it’s clear the Pistons are building something in Motown. What that something may end up becoming one day is probably beyond anyone at this point, including GM Troy Weaver, but he’s made several shrewd moves in the draft and throughout free agency. Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and Josh Jackson have all been solid pickups, but without a doubt, the overwhelming victory for Weaver’s first offseason is his three-year $60 million signing of Jerami Grant. 

When Grant was brought in for nearly $20 million a year, the general reaction was to mock the move (perhaps understandable, given the Pistons decade-plus history of free agency blunders).  But after just nine games, he’s effectively not just silenced the criticism, but turned it into lavish praise by taking a nearly unprecedented leap as a player. 

From Role Player To Volume Scorer

Only thirteen players in NBA history have ever increased their scoring output from one season to the next by 10+ points per game. Only five of those were able to score 13+. Nobody, however, has been able to take the leap of scoring under 15 points per game to over 25. That is, until Jerami Grant this season. Not only that, but by going from scoring 12 PPG last season, to 25.1 PPG this season, Grant’s current 13.1 PPG jump would represent the fifth-greatest year-over-year scoring increase in the history of the league. 

In most of those thirteen cases where a player improved their scoring by 10+PPG, the player in question was usually a talented rookie who took the leap from very good scorer to great scorer in their second season like Jerry West or Nate Archibald, or they were simply expanding on what was already a significant role in their respective offenses, like Wilt Chamberlain during his legendary 50.4 PPG season. Additionally, every player on that list other than Gail Goodrich and Michael Adams were first round picks. Even with such a significant scoring increase, only a few became the outright lead option on offense. Most either slid into the same role as a recently vacated second scoring option or become one of several dangerous options for a playoff contender, like CJ McCollum or Zach Randolph for the Portland Trailblazers.

Grant doesn’t fit any of those narratives. The son of former NBA player Harvey Grant and nephew of Horace Grant, he was a solid but highly inconsistent college player for Syracuse. In 2014 he was selected in the second round of the draft based more on his length, size and athleticism more than his statistical output. In 2017, the still atrocious Philadelphia 76ers decided that Grant, age 22, was worthless to them than a late first-round pick from the Oklahoma City Thunder and the contract of Ersan Ilyasova, age (???), who they promptly dumped onto the Atlanta Hawks a few short months later. 

Despite being in a precarious situation for a player already struggling to find a foothold in the league, it was in OKC  that Grant began to truly shine. He honed his defensive skills and developed a consistent jump shot for the first time in his career, going from a 30% career three-point shooter to hitting 39% of his threes in 2018. When the Thunder traded him to the Denver Nuggets in 2019, it was understood league-wide that in doing so they were losing a very solid role player, albeit one who could occasionally flash the ability to do stuff like this:

Grant went on to success in both the regular season and the playoffs for the Nuggets last season, averaging a solid 12 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 combined steals plus blocks per night, but did so as a clearly defensive-minded forward, who was rarely even more than the fourth option on the floor for Denver on offense. So when the Pistons signed him with the apparent desire to make him their first option, the hesitancy of many around the league to envision a successful jump to lead scorer was understandable.

Making The Leap

After the Pistons’ first ten games Grant is averaging 25.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and a combined 2.1 steals plus blocks, while shooting 18.5 field goal attempts and 6 free throw attempts per game. After dropping 27 or more points in six of his first ten games, including back to back career-high 31 point nights against two of the NBA’s better defenses in the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, his ascendancy as not only the Pistons clear cut first option, but also one of the league’s most effective scorers of the early season is undeniable. No other player on Detroit’s roster averages even 14 PPG, and Grant is 11th league-wide in both total points and points per game.

Let’s go back to that list of thirteen players to improve by 10 or more points from one season to the next. Just five of those seasons came from a player moving from one team to another. Of those five, only two took on such a significant scoring increase after singing somewhere new in free agency, Tony Campbell and the World B. Free (owner of the greatest name in NBA history). But Free averaged almost 16 PPG the season earlier, and Campbell had up to that point never played a single season where his usage was below 20%. They were already players used to the offense flowing through them to at least a certain extent whenever they were on the floor. Grant’s previous career-high in usage was last season’s 17.7%, the tenth highest mark of any Nuggets player (usage is the percentage of field goal attempts, free throw attempts, or turnovers a player is involved in while on the floor, with league average being about 20%). On Denver’s roster alone, that 17.7% placed him behind such basketball luminaries as PJ Dozier and someone named Vlatko Cancar, who I have been assured is a real person and not a 1970’s James Bond villain. 

A sub-20% usage player like Jerami Grant going to a new team and exploding into one of the best scorers in the entire league isn’t just rare, it’s literally unprecedented.  Even the few who have gone from a role player on one team to top scorer on another, like Dale Ellis, Campbell, and Tracy McGrady were bench players with significant offensive roles for their previous teams. Nobody has ever gone from a sub-20% usage one season to scoring 20 PPG the next, let alone 25.1 PPG. There is already an argument to be made that no NBA player has ever gambled on their own career progression as successfully as Grant, should he continue to keep his scoring even within 5 points of his current pace. 

Record-Setting Efficiency

But what makes Grant’s progress historically impressive is his efficiency. Despite increasing his shot attempts by nearly 10 per game, and an overall increase in his usage from 17.7%  to 26.1% this season, Grant’s true shooting has actually IMPROVED from 59.1% to 59.4% (true shooting percentage balances the inherent differences between two-point field goals, three-point field goals and free throw attempts). His three-point and two-point shooting are down, slightly, but the career 67% free throw shooter is hitting 87% of his six attempts from the line per game this year, a 20% improvement that would make even former Piston Andre Drummond blush. 

Grant has somehow managed to do this while also currently maintaining the lowest turnover ratio of his career at 5.7%, on 26.1% usage an absolutely absurd mark.  To date, nobody has finished an NBA season with a usage above 25% and a TO Ratio below 6% since Al Jefferson in 2012. In fact, no player has ever finished an NBA season scoring even 20 PPG on greater than 55% TS and a turnover ratio below 6.3%.

At 25.1 PPG, 59.4% TS and a 5.7% TO ratio (Per NBA.com statistics), Grant is currently looking at perhaps the greatest mixture of scoring volume and efficiency in the history of the league. Only 2014-2015 Anthony Davis comes particularly close. It must be noted that CJ McCollum is currently putting up similar numbers while for the Trailblazers this season, although his previous career-high for a single season is 22.2 PPG, and he has never finished with a TS higher than 58.5% or a TO ratio lower than 7.4%.

Overall, Jerami Grant excels in just about every single scoring aspect. He’s not just relying on a couple of plays that he uses over and over to pad his efficiency and hide his weaknesses. This creates a conundrum that opposing coaches have yet to solve. Want to put him on an island one on one with a defender? Too bad, Grant also ranks among the best isolation scorers in the association. Fine, let’s take the ball out of his hands then! Nope, sorry, that’s not going to work either, he’s scoring more than a point per possession in both spot-up and hand-off opportunities and has for years now. He’s among the best in the league in both half court and transition offense as well, so if you’re trying to disrupt his scoring by changing the speed of the game, don’t bother. His numbers in the pick and roll might be subpar so far, but if opposing coaches feel like allowing Jerami Grant more opportunities to get the ball going towards the basket with a full head of steam, I wish them the best of luck. Essentially, the next coach or player this season to figure out a successful strategy in stopping Jerami Grant from scoring on them will also be the first.

If you’re looking for any sort of a flaw, it’s in his passing. Grant isn’t much of a playmaker for others, giving the Pistons less than two assists per game along with an assist ratio below 8%, a low mark for even a scoring-focused high usage big man. But even there he’s shown strides, as recently punctuated by his outstanding assist to Mason Plumlee for a game-tying dunk in the Pistons’ eventual overtime win against the Phoenix Suns.

Other than that, he’s been just about unstoppable for opposing defenses. Former second round pick and fringe role player Jerami Grant has turned himself from a bit part into a bonafide first option and All-Star contender for the Pistons in a matter of about two and a half months.

Jerami Grant isn’t new to playing time, he averaged nearly 30 minutes per game as a role player over the past two seasons. But he hasn’t simply increased his role in leaving Denver for Detroit, he’s dramatically changed it to a level that simply hasn’t been seen before. Grant has gone from just tenth in usage on the Denver Nuggets last season, to fiftieth in the entire league this season, all while comfortably placing inside the top 35% of NBA players in just about every single type of offensive action.

This isn’t just an incredible individual feat for Jerami Grant, it’s a historic feat for the NBA, one that demands to be noticed. While the team will likely continue to lose, it’s important to keep in mind that even the seemingly bleakest situations can lead to some truly incredible and transcendent basketball. Pistons fans have already come to realize they have something special in Jerami Grant, but even they might not quite yet realize exactly how special what they’re seeing really is. If he can keep this up however, it might end up being impossible to ignore.

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