Niyo: After golden opportunity in Detroit, Olympian Jerami Grant still has room to grow

Detroit News

Detroit — Jerami Grant struck gold in Detroit.

And if he wasn’t convinced of that before, when he signed a three-year, $60 million free-agent contract with the Pistons in one of the biggest surprises of the NBA offseason in 2020, he certainly is now.

Grant earned one of the final roster spots on the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team earlier this summer, then helped Team USA win a gold medal in Tokyo.

And he didn’t hesitate when asked Monday if he thought that would’ve been possible had he — and Pistons general manager Troy Weaver — not taken the leap of faith that brought Grant to Detroit, where he enjoyed a breakout season last winter.

“Not at all,” Grant said. “I think my decision to come to Detroit and showcase my talents that I haven’t been able to showcase before definitely helped me to get picked for that team.”

USA Basketball officials said as much back in July, and so did some of his higher-profile Olympic teammates. Kevin Durant was among the stars who lobbied for Grant’s inclusion on the 12-man team, and Draymond Green raved about the development that led to Grant’s runner-up finish in voting for the league’s Most Improved Player award last season

“The growth in his game has been incredible,” said Green, the Saginaw native and former Michigan State star. “I still remember the days in Philly of the scouting report being ‘He’s downhill and he’s Euro-stepping every time,’ and playing off him and giving him the shot. To watch his journey, he’s one of ‘the guys’ in the NBA now, an All-Star — just an incredible year.”

Make way for Cade

Grant wasn’t quite an All-Star last season, but the seventh-year pro was close, posting career-best averages in scoring (22.3), assists (2.8) and minutes per game (33.9) in his Detroit debut.

But now it’s time for an encore, and with another leading man entering the picture, Grant’s role is among the story lines to watch as the Pistons officially begin training camp this week. Rookie Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 pick in the draft, is the new face of the franchise, yet head coach Dwane Casey made it clear Monday at the team’s preseason media day that Grant is still the team’s leader.

“No, he’s still gonna be a high-usage guy for us,” Casey said. “He’s gonna be our primary scorer, our go-to scorer in go-to situations.”

That said, Grant should benefit from the addition of Cunningham, who’ll share some of the primary playmaking duties with second-year point guard Killian Hayes. The rookie’s play in the Pistons’ Summer League games offered a glimpse of the talent that made him a consensus No. 1 pick, and obviously has the ability to both score and set up teammates even as a 20-year-old rookie.

More: Great expectations: With Cunningham, young core, Pistons look to make leap

In fact, one thing Grant says he has noticed already about Cunningham in informal team workouts is that he doesn’t really act his age, on or off the court.

“The way he thinks, and the way he moves, is a lot older than what his age is,” said Grant, who at 27 is the third-oldest player on the Pistons’ roster. “I think it’ll be great. I think it’ll be seamless, honestly. Very unselfish player and very talented.”

Along with the expected growth from last year’s rookie class — Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee — and the floor-spacing addition of free-agent big man Kelly Olynyk, Cunningham’s arrival should help ease some of the offensive load that appeared to wear down Grant last season.

Staying strong

Grant posted a career-high usage rate (27.8%) and nearly doubled his shot attempts per game, but he also missed 15 of the final 21 games due to a combination of injury and rest, as the Pistons tried to help their draft lottery odds.

Still, Grant did miss 18 of 72 games in all, and his offensive efficiency declined after the first six weeks of the season. Both he and Casey acknowledged that he’d need to get stronger to better handle the physical punishment that goes with the territory as a frontcourt player who makes a living attacking the basket. (Grant ranked 15th in the NBA in free-throw attempts per game, and in the top 25 in fouls drawn.)

“Definitely something I’m working on,” he said Monday. “To be that involved in the offense and that involved in the game and hit the ground that much, it definitely takes a toll on your body. So I definitely tried to work on that.

And while he says he worked hard to improve his ballhandling this offseason, Casey points to Grant’s rebounding as another area of emphasis this season. It’s something Olympic team coach Gregg Popovich talked about this summer as well.

“We can’t expect Isaiah to get all the rebounds,” Casey said. “We gotta have some rebounding from our other frontline players. So that’s one area where he can pick up and he knows that.”

What Grant also knows, though, is just how much has changed in the 10 months since he first arrived in Detroit, leaving behind a lesser role on a playoff team in Denver to forge his own identity here. Gone are the former All-Stars who were on that initial roster in Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose. And now the Pistons’ starting lineup likely will feature Grant surrounded by three 20-year-olds and a 22-year-old.

“This year is different,” Grant said. “I’m gonna have to step up a lot more. We’ve got a lot of young guys, like everyone knows. So it’s being able to step in and coach ‘em up. There’s gonna be a lot of highs and lows this season — and it’s (about) just being able to weather that storm.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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