Detroit — Jerami Grant is entering his eighth season in the NBA, and it seems like he’s still trying to establish some roots. He’s spent two-plus seasons each in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City before an eye-opening year with the Denver Nuggets.
Grant made his biggest impression last year with the Pistons, averaging career highs in points (22.3), minutes (33.9) and usage rate (28.5). He was in the conversation as an All-Star last season and was the runner-up for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
The numbers are just numbers, but what the Pistons will need most from Grant this season will be leadership, both on and off the court, in Motown. That’s a bit of a change for Grant, who was able to play in the background in the Sixers’ lean years, and with Russell Westbrook and Paul George as the frontmen with the Thunder.
With the Nuggets in 2020, Grant grabbed the mic and tuned up in their run to the conference finals. Last season with the Pistons, Grant had a virtuoso performance in taking the reins from Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose as the frontman himself.
If the Pistons are going to push forward in their rebuild, they’ll need Grant to continue to develop as a leader and be the pied piper for their young core, with Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart backing him up. It’s a philosophy that starts with general manager Troy Weaver and coach Dwane Casey and cascades down to the rest of the roster.
“I think I embrace it. I came here and the city has embraced me,” Grant told The Detroit News. “The team, Troy, Coach Casey, they all looked at me and allowed me to flourish in this situation, so I’m just taking it in and trying to grow and be a better leader for the young guys.”
Grant, 27, is on the other end, after being one of those young guys during his time with the Thunder. He said he learned by watching and listening to Westbrook, with whom he still keeps in contact.
Athletes can lead in different ways, and Grant hasn’t been the fire-and-brimstone screamer who bullies the younger players to get in line. There’s nuance to his style, and for what Weaver and Casey are trying to build, it fits well for Grant, and for the young core.
True leadership is about being true to one’s self, and for Grant, it means walking the talk.
“He’s taken to it well; with Jerami, it’s more by example,” Casey said. “He’s growing into it, even more so, but he’s doing by example. We need somebody to emerge — whether they’ve been here a year or half a year, whatever — as that vocal, on-the-court leader.”
Grant also had an incredible experience with Team USA on the way to the gold medal in the Olympics last summer. He said he took a lot from watching some of the leaders of that group and how they carried themselves on and off the court.
It doesn’t mean that things are going to be easy as one of the main voices, but he has help with Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk and Rodney McGruder spreading some of the vocal leadership around as well.
Connecting to community
Grant’s indoctrination also comes with a connection to the city. As he’s bounced around in his career, it’s been harder to establish an identity in the community and to be accepted by the fan base. With his success last season, he’s become more popular and has become one of the faces of the franchise.
“I definitely think a lot of times it does take a little while (to integrate in the community), but I think as soon as I got here, the fans definitely embraced me,” Grant said. “Obviously, we didn’t have fans in the stadium, but social media makes it easy to kind of see what the fans think about you.
“I think as soon as I got here, they embraced me, so it made it easier to get acclimated.”
That embrace came with an unusual honor, with Grant appearing on a fan mural in midtown Detroit alongside Pistons Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas and Ben Wallace.
He hasn’t quite made it into that lofty status, but it’s a show of appreciation from fans, who haven’t had a long time to get to know Grant, but he feels the weight of the impression he’s made on the city and that Detroit has made on him.
“I think just the love that the fans give, on and off the court,” he said. “It’s a lot of little things like that where feel the love and energy of the city or whenever people stop you and say thank you for coming to Detroit, so you feel the love there.”
Grant has two more years left on his current contract, so if he stays the full length, he’ll have been in Detroit longer than any other stop in his career. By then, the Pistons’ young players likely will have developed, and they could be in position to contend for the playoffs — or maybe even more.
Until then, it’s about the present, where he’ll have his first chance to see a packed Little Caesars Arena on opening night, and to feel the appreciation with a full crowd, instead of the fraction of the arena capacity that was allowed last season.
Grant also gets to help groom Cunningham, who should emerge as the next face of the franchise. Cunningham won’t play in the season opener, but he’s been absorbing everything from the sidelines at practice.
His time will come to lead, both on and off the court.
“We’ve got a good feel and we know what he brings to the table, just his poise, being able to control the game and his ability to shoot,” Grant said. “He does a lot of things that will help us when he gets back. We’ll still have to get acclimated again when he does get back, but he has a lot of positives that will definitely help our team.”
Bulls at Pistons
► Tipoff: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
► TV/radio: BSD/97.1
► Outlook: The Pistons open the regular season with a home-and-home Wednesday at LCA Saturday in Chicago. They will be without No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, who still is recovering from an ankle injury.