Jerami Grant’s long-awaited return to Denver finally arrived Tuesday. And he came out swinging against the Nuggets, his former team before signing a three-year, $60 million contract with the Detroit Pistons last November.
Grant scored 16 of his game-high 29 points in the first quarter. He made six of his nine shots in the quarter and repeatedly attacked the rim. While the Pistons lost, 134-119, Grant helped Detroit keep the game competitive early.
It was the type of start that would’ve been hard for him to come by a year ago, when he was the fourth offensive option for Denver. And it showed why the Pistons prioritized prying him away last fall.
Grant might’ve had something to show Tuesday. His decision to leave the Nuggets after helping them make a run to the Western Conference finals, and join a rebuilding Pistons team that could give him a featured offensive role, surprised many NBA pundits. But after the game, Grant’s rationale for his performance was simple — the Nuggets are one of the best teams in the NBA, and he had to be aggressive for the Pistons (15-36) to have a shot.
“I know I gotta be aggressive to give us a chance,” Grant said. “Just wanted to come out. They were giving me some things that usually I don’t see. I just wanted to be aggressive and take some shots. Was working at the beginning.”
Pistons coach Dwane Casey said he sensed urgency from his star forward against the Nuggets, owners of the NBA’s best offensive rating at 117.3 fourth-best record in the West now at 32-18. They’re led by the MVP favorite in Nikola Jokic and run one of the league’s most-effective offensive schemes that take advantage of Jokic’s transcendent passing ability.
One the second night of a back-to-back, the Pistons simply lacked the energy and talent to keep up with Denver for 48 minutes. Grant was a lone bright spot.
“Always in that situation, you always have a sense of urgency when you go to a former team, a team that you used to play for,” Casey said. “It was his decision to leave. You always know that those guys are going to play a little bit harder, a little bit faster and have a little bit of pep in their step. He did it tonight and we just didn’t have enough other guys to join him.
“What we’re trying to build is a sense of consistency, a sense of urgency, a sense of fight for all the guys out there on the floor. I thought Jerami brought it tonight, especially on the offensive end.”
Grant has been Detroit’s best player on both ends of the floor this season. He’s averaging career-highs in points (22.5), rebounds (4.8), assists (2.9) and minutes (34.4). Even as his overall efficiency has begun to slip as the season has progressed, his play has exceeded the value of his contract.
The Pistons believe Grant’s best basketball is ahead of him. He’s close with his former teammates, and shared private words with a few on the court after the final buzzer. After the game, he called them a great team and praised their offensive execution. He would know better than most, given he was a key role player for them last season.
But he came to Detroit because he had an opportunity to elevate his game. He’s having a breakout season, and the Pistons see him as a key piece of their foundation.
“If you think back with Denver, they took bumps in the road before they got where they are,” Casey said. “We have to go through it here, we’re going through it now. Jerami’s very bought into it. He is a big part of our future going forward, and we just gotta mold things around him to go and add another co-rider with him to be able to compete on the level you guys are here. And we will. We have a good foundation, we’re going to compete each and every night.
“We might get out-talented, but most nights we compete. But Jerami has been special to us. He can score. He’s still not a finished product, I don’t think. He’s learning to run pick-and-rolls, his 3-point shooting is coming, and this is a 3-point shooting league. That’s going to add to his drives to the basket. We’re excited he’s with us and he’s going to be a big part of our future.”