Naismith Trophy

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Brendan Bures | | January 29, 2015

Court general Jerian Grant

  Jerian Grant's 'dunk of the year' changed the game against Georgia Tech and led to a Notre Dame victory.

You saw it; we all saw it. Simply no way you didn’t. Even in our age of social hype and buzz, with enticing posts of must-see highlights and plays/players being called best or worst ever with little to no regard, you just had to see this dunk. It was the ‘dunk of the year.’ It still is.

Because as Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant broke toward his teammate inbounding the ball on the baseline, he broke a few other things: Georgia Tech’s defense, poor poster victim Tadric Jackson, any chance the Yellow Jackets, leading 46-42, would pull off an upset, but chiefly he broke gravity. OK, maybe "break" isn’t the correct verb; he shattered it.

Receiving the pass uncontested, Grant dribbled, stepped then soared, rising higher and higher, his ascent only stopped by the dunk itself, chin above the rim. He hung there for a second, eventually submitting to gravitational pull and returning to the rest of us on Earth. When his teammates met him on the ground to dap him up, he barely even reacted. Why would he? His dunk did all the talking he needed.

So, yeah, I guess you could label Jerian Grant a physically impressive player. He’s athletic, agile, strong. But it’s his physical creativity and understanding of space that’s spurred Notre Dame into a top 10 team and possible title contender.

Many ways exist for a basketball to pass through a hoop: jump shot, layup, dunk, pass to a teammate who does any one of those three ... even trick an opponent to knock it in. Grant, capable of all these scoring possibilities, does not seem to care how his team scores points, only that it does. His abilities and talents are not contained within a vacuum; he rises his teammates around him like other great players do. On the court, it’s like he knows he could score (sort of) when he wants, but throughout the game he appears more interested involving his teammates as much as possible. He lets them get theirs, too.

  Jerian Grant has a unique ability to hang in the air, creating open shots where others cannot.
Which in turn helps Grant get his. Without a defense respecting other scoring threats, the space an offense can work with shrinks considerably -- lanes clog, double-teams happen. Notre Dame has four players averaging more than 13 points per game, a statistic of design. The ball spreads in the Fighting Irish’s offense and the man at the helm, pushing this thing along, is Grant.

And that’s without saying much of Grant’s own skills to score. He has a nice-enough jumper, but his ability to penetrate and create off the dribble may be the best in college basketball. (Virginia’s Justin Anderson and Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell are two of the main guys who make it an argument.) If that dunk somehow didn’t convince you, Grant’s a master in the air. His hangtime’s unreal as he can contort his body just enough to levitate a second or two longer than most defenders, opening the space he requires to score.

When he’s at his best, Grant finishes as much as he dishes. Earlier in the season, against a sneaky good Miami (Fla.) team (which is better than its ranking or record might indicate), Grant was a deadly 8-for-10 shooting with 23 points and adding eight assists to his night. In other words, he was responsible for more than half of Notre Dame’s 75 points in the win. And that was his second-best night of the season, compared to his elite 27-point, six-assist game in ND’s 79-78 overtime win against then-No. 19 Michigan State.

One guy doesn’t make a team, but he certainly can have a very large impact. Last season, at this time, Grant was sidelined for the spring semester because of academic issues, according to his coach. Following Grant’s final game of the season against Ohio State, Notre Dame lost 13 of its past 20 games, including its final stretch where the team lost five its past six. The Fighting Irish were not the same team without Jerian Grant.

Now, Notre Dame is 19-2 and headed into a crucial run, playing Duke twice in its next four games. Grant, for now, remains just outside the echelon of elite players in the country, but depending what happens Wednesday night, that might soon change. The question, I guess, is this: Will he fly through the air again, or crash-land with the rest of the lot back on planet Earth? We’ll see.

Naismith Power Rankings

Each week, we’ll rank the top players in the Naismith race. These rankings are fluid and mostly for fun, but they matter ... to someone.

1) Jahlil Okafor -- Coach K can credit his 1,000th win to Marshall Plumlee disrupting St. John’s momentum if he wants, but none of it was possible without Okafor. Outside of the special milestone, the game served as a reminder that Okafor looks like a man playing pickup at an elementary school most of the time. It’s just not fair.

2) Frank Kaminsky -- Frank the everything-but Tank continues doing Frank-the-everything-but-Tank things. Kaminsky held Wisconsin down with his 22 points and nine rebounds in its 69-64 OT win against a surprisingly feisty Michigan team.

3) Willie Cauley-Stein -- Kentucky's been pretty boring lately, huh? Blame Cauley-Stein (and middling opponents). Anchoring the Wildcats’ D isn’t flashy or stat-stuffing, but it dramatically impacts what opponents can do when Cauley-Stein is on the floor.



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