At certain points in the season, it seemed that Pistons forward Jerami Grant had locked up the Most Improved Player award. It was just a matter of continuing on the pace he was on and staying away from injuries.
In the NBA, that’s a pair of variables that’s often too hard to evade. After a strong first part of the season, Grant played in just six of the final 21 games, not wanting to take chances on a knee injury.
Grant is a finalist for the award, but the momentum seems to have swung to Julius Randle, who got an All-Star selection and led the moribund New York Knicks franchise to their first playoff appearance since 2013 as the No. 4 seed, which brought home-court advantage in the first round.
That doesn’t diminish at all what Grant was able to do with the Pistons this season, though. Grant bet on himself and got a big contract to leave the security of being a role player with low expectations with the Denver Nuggets to being one of the leaders with the Pistons, who finished 20-52 and had the league’s second-worst record.
Grant doesn’t question the decision at all, and he’s learning more about himself as a player and developing as a leader by example with a young team. That’s what has given him some optimism about how the Pistons and their young core can bounce back next season.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys with a lot of talent. Going forward, we’ll only get better,” Grant said. “We were in a lot of (close) games this year and we can turn those in the wins with some work in this offseason.”
General manager Troy Weaver and coach Dwane Casey have reiterated how important this offseason is, with the expected jumps that rookies Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee will take. Grant isn’t exempt from those expectations, either. He had a breakout season with 22.3 points on 17.3 field-goal attempts, an increase of 10 points and nine shot attempts per game compared to last season. He also shot 35% on 3-pointers.
The more telling stat is that he went from an 18% usage rate last season to 28.5% this year. In short, the Pistons leaned on him considerably more than they did anyone else, approaching the levels for Blake Griffin in his All-NBA season in 2019.
Grant is only 27 and he looks to be a foundational piece for the Pistons’ rebuild, at least in the short term. He just finished the first season of a three-year contract and anything beyond that is uncertain, but there’s a bond between Grant and Weaver that at least suggests that a few more years could be in the cards if the rebuild continues as it has.
Weaver’s vision and his ability to put together a roster is part of what brought Grant to Detroit — and it could be what keeps him here. Weaver made an impression when he was in the front office with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Grant spent three seasons there.
“I’m just as confident as I was when I made the decision in Troy. We’ve got trust between us,” Grant said. “I’m not worried about what’s going to happen in the offseason. I’m focusing on myself and focusing on what I can do with my teammates. Whoever he brings in and whoever we have, that’s what we’re going to work with.”
Grant was in the discussion for an All-Star spot but with the other standout forwards in the East, he wasn’t selected. That looks to be the goal for next season, and Casey has a roadmap of how to help Grant get there.
“(I told Jerami) you can be a really good player right now. Your next step is to get out of the conversation of most improved and get in the conversation of being an All-Star,” Casey said. “What helps you to be an All-Star is for us to win and for us to be in the playoff conversation. If we’re in the playoff contention, that helps you to be an All-Star conversation.”
Grant said that he would take a little bit of time off before he begins his summer work, with a specific list of areas of improvement devised by Casey and the coaching staff. Grant knows that it’ll be different than any offseason in his career because of his expanded role.
“Yeah, I’ll definitely prepare differently this offseason. I think every offseason, I prepare differently; my role has changed pretty much from year to year,” he said. “It’s a new role for me, so I know what I need to work on. There are a lot of things that I want to get better at. That’s the name of the game.”
The improvement plan entails Grant getting stronger and better preparing himself for the contact that became so commonplace on his drives to the basket. Instead of driving and hoping for contact, Casey wants Grant to swing the ball for an open shot, which will save on some of the wear and tear.
“He’s committed to the gym this summer to get stronger in his upper body and his legs so he can take those hits. He needs to continue to work on his passing, kicking out and moving the ball, because now he’s going to see extra bodies come to him,” Casey said. “He has to get used to seeing extra bodies come at him, get rid of it and trust and it’s going to come back (to him).”
More to be done
Grant scored in double figures in 50 of his 54 games, and his success isn’t built on being a do-it-all player who takes all the shots. He’s an underrated passer and had a career-best 2.8 assists this season. More than his own scoring, the Pistons’ success will be built on having other scoring options around him, such as Bey and Stewart, and making the defense stay honest in guarding them all.
With that, Grant has confidence in the young players and their role in the rebuild. It’s still in the beginning phases, but there’s a roadmap to getting to playoff contention that he sees clearly.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be put in, in order for us to get to where we want to get to next year — but it’s doable. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Grant said. “We’re capable of getting a lot better, and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
After next season, the Pistons will have significant space in the salary cap where they can bring in another top-tier free agent to complement Grant. Along with their own internal development, that should be enough to vault them into contention for the playoffs — and maybe more.
Not just an improved player, but an improved team.