On a humid summer morning in Hyattsville, Maryland, Jerami Grant is back where it all began.
Before capturing gold at the FIBA Americas in 2012, before providing a spark off the bench as a freshman for Syracuse on the way to the Final 4, and years before securing a three-year, $27 million contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder last June, DeMatha Catholic High School’s gymnasium was Grant’s proving ground.
Grant grew up in the shadows of DeMatha, the local prep basketball powerhouse located just 15 minutes south of the University of Maryland that has seen All-Stars from former Nugget Adrian Dantley to Victor Oladipo, Danny Ferry, Keith Bogans, and Markelle Fultz walk through its doors over the last 50-plus years. It’s a program that’s built on tradition, excellence, and hard work. All of those are qualities that Grant and his three brothers, who all attended and played at DeMatha, embody.
Every summer Grant returns to Hyattsville and to the same hardwood that he poured gallons of sweat into for four years. His first workout of the day begins early, before the warm Maryland sun rises and DeMatha’s summer basketball camps run by head coach Mike Jones get underway.
“I know summer has started when I walk into the gym at 6:30 or 6:45 in the morning before our camps start at 7, and Jerami is already in there getting shots up,” said Jones, who’s known Grant since he was six and has amassed a 469-116 record at DeMatha over the last 17 years. “Music’s playing and he’s lathered in sweat already a good hour, hour-and-a-half into his workout. That’s just him. That’s Jerami.”
Years removed from DeMatha, Grant never lost his hard-working gene. He’s the same grinder now that he was as a rising prep star, at Syracuse, and throughout his first professional seasons with the 76ers, who selected Grant 39th overall in 2014. His workmanlike nature has shown up at every stop along the way.
Take Grant’s three-point shot for example. Over his two seasons at Syracuse, Grant attempted just 30 threes. He rarely ventured out beyond the three-point arc and instead stayed tethered to the paint. But in Philadelphia, the 6-foot-9 forward began to adapt his game to the modern NBA. Big men were gradually beginning to shoot more three-pointers and Grant willingly fell in line with the current trend.
During his rookie season, Grant shot 2.4 threes per game but only converted on 31.4% of his attempts. Next season Grant sunk just 24% of his triples. More summers back home in Maryland and more reps in the practice gym gradually led to better results. Grant shot 37.7% from 3 during his first season in Oklahoma City and while his percentage dipped the following year, last season he shot 39.2% from distance on a healthy 3.7 attempts per game.
A more-accurate three-point shot has unlocked an offensive game that at one point was strictly based around the rim and in transition.
“He was always a gym rat. We never had to question how hard he was going to work,” said Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce who was an assistant with the 76ers when Grant was in Philadelphia. “What I’m proud of is he’s developed that shot. We spent a lot of time working on it. You have to guard him out there, because you have to deal with him around the basket, slashing, cutting, catching lobs, and running in transition. For him to add that extra element, him making threes, it’s a huge part of his growth and his development. I know he’s spent a lot of time on that.”
An efficient three-point shot is partly what caught the Nuggets’ eye when perusing the rest of the league for big men this summer who would not only fit with their roster as currently constructed but could also be an ideal long-term pairing with Nikola Jokic on their front line. Grant checked off every box Denver was after. He’s a hyper-athletic forward that can guard all five positions, a smart, high IQ offensive player, and skilled off-ball mover. Now armed with a three-point shot, he fit the Nuggets’ spread attack perfectly.
“You can tell he works hard,” said Will Barton who grew up in nearby Baltimore and played against Grant on the AAU circuit. “Knowing him as long as I’ve known him, you’ve seen facets of his game mature. He couldn’t really shoot that well when we were younger. He was really just an athlete; tall, gangly. But as he grew up he honed his skills more.
“When he got to Syracuse I think he got more comfortable being a scorer and opening up new facets of his game. He got to the league, especially when he got to OKC, and he realized he could put the ball on the floor. He got to the rim and he wasn’t just relying on catching lobs, stuff like that. Now he’s shooting threes, and that all comes from hard work. When you go from stage to stage and things you couldn’t do before you’re doing now, you know you’re working hard.”
The Nuggets liked Grant’s on-court fit but were also well-versed with the type of person he was off the floor and how he’d fit their culture, an aspect of roster building that Denver has placed a premium on. Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly has known Grant since he was barely walking. Grant’s father Harvey played for the Washington Bullets, and then Wizards from 1996-98 in his second stint with the franchise. Harvey went on to work for Wizards for two years in the mid-2000’s and overlapped with Connelly who was hired by the organization as an intern in 1996 and spent the next several seasons with the team.
“Our culture has been something we’ve hung our hat on,” Connelly said. “I think it’s very positive and it’s developing. We look very extensively into who we bring in and I don’t think you’ll find someone who’s going to be a more seamless and equipped fit than Jerami.”
Something else that’s always stood out about Grant to Connelly and the Nuggets over the years and the times he has matched up with Denver is the forward’s competitive spirit. Grant is a gamer who thrives off of competition whether it’s King of the Court battles after practice between himself, Jamal Murray, and Malik Beasley, or the never-ending 1-on-1 games he and his brothers played growing up at nearby Bowie Gymnasium.
His mother Beverley remembers shuttling her four boys — Jerami, along with Jerian and Jerai who are both older, and Jaelin, who’s the youngest Grant brother — to Bowie well and how the inter-family matchups would end in fights, disagreements, and more often than not, tears.
“I think that’s what made Jerami so tough and strive to get so much better,” Beverley said. “He had two older brothers ahead of him. He just kept trying to win.”
Those battles shaped Grant into the fierce competitor he is today. He hates to lose more than he loves to win, which is exactly the type of player that the Nuggets have stocked their locker room full of.
“Being around my brothers it was always very competitive,” Grant said. “No matter if we were going at it playing 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 it was always extremely competitive. And I’ve always carried that with me.”
It’s not easy ingratiating yourself with a roster like the Nuggets’ that’s had more year-to-year continuity than any other team in the NBA, but Grant’s fit has been as seamless inside the walls of Pepsi Center as Nuggets brass expected it to be.
He’s been able to find his place in Denver’s locker room because more than anything, his personality fits. Grant’s a genuine person who is down to earth. Those around him preach how low-maintenance Grant is and that he has kept the same circle of friends since high school.
“He’s never been the type to get into any trouble,” Jones said. “He minds his business, does what he’s supposed to do, and works very hard. I think we’re all very proud of that. He grew up in a no-nonsense household and he literally has always been the most polite guy. That smile is infectious and he’s never really a moody kid even when he wasn’t in a great mood. He’s truly the same kid now that he was in high school. He’s just a little bit taller and stronger, and obviously much more high profile.”
On the court, Grant’s showing why the Nuggets thought he’d be such a seamless fit. Grant’s skill-set means he can play next to any one of Denver’s frontcourt players from Jokic to Millsap and Mason Plumlee. Defensively, he can switch out and guard point guards and also bang with like-sized big men inside. He also gives the Nuggets a shot-blocking presence who’s rangier and can cover more ground quicker than any other big on their roster.
“I always had a tremendous respect and admiration for his game,” Michael Malone said. “You look at his size and length and wingspan, you look at his defensive versatility. He’s guarded almost every position and every player from Damian Lillard to James Harden to Anthony Davis, you name it. And his length is something we value. He’s 25-years-old and it’s great when you have a coaching staff and front office that’s aligned in their pursuit of a player.”
On offense, Grant’s shooting just 30% from three but the Nuggets are confident that number will start to creep up towards the 39% he shot from distance last season. One reason for his poor three-point shooting numbers this year is Grant is shooting just 30.8 on catch-and-shoot threes, per NBA.com, after converting 39.7% of his three-pointers of that variety last year.
He’s gradually learning to play with Jokic too, and is continuing to get acclimated to the Nuggets’ democratic offense which centers around continuous ball and player movement after he spent the last couple of seasons in Oklahoma City’s your-turn-my-turn system. Grant has played just 15 minutes alongside Jokic and Denver’s four other starters this season, but so far the results have been promising. With Grant, Jokic, Barton, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris on the floor, the Nuggets are outscoring their opponent by an average of 20.3 points per 100 possessions.
“It’s an adjustment trying to learn everything on the fly,” Grant said. “(Jokic) sees a lot of plays that you don’t think he sees. You just got to get used to it. You’ve got to get used to being ready at all times.”
With the Nuggets, Grant has had to sacrifice. Last season he made 77 starts at power forward for the Thunder and played nearly 33 minutes per game. But that type of playing time isn’t available in Denver with Millsap firmly entrenched as the Nuggets’ starting power forward. Malone has flirted with Grant playing small forward, but Denver has plenty of options there as well. The Nuggets still want to try Grant out at center too but already have a more than capable backup five-man in Plumlee.
It’s not the first time Grant has had to sacrifice. With the Thunder, he deferred to Russell Westbrook and Paul George. In Philadelphia he played behind lottery picks Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel. He’s accepting of a secondary role again in Denver because he’s been in similar positions throughout his entire playing career.
“He sacrificed a lot while he was at DeMatha too and played with a lot of good players,” Jones said. “He was always someone who we all could see the potential he had but he definitely sacrificed a lot to be the best teammate he could be. He was good enough to be featured but he played with a lot of really good players.”
Perhaps it’s something in the water in the D.M.V. (the Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, basketball hotbed where Grant grew up) that helped him fall in love with the game. Or maybe it was having a father in the NBA and how Grant learned to walk in the very gyms where he now runs.
Grant is a true hooper at heart who says being a professional basketball player is all he ever wanted to do. He’s lives and breathes the game 24/7. One of the only times that he took a step away from the gym this summer was for a solo two-week trip to India. Grant said he wanted to experience the culture there.
“He’s all basketball all the time,” Barton said. “When you come from that area, to make it out sometimes it’s just basketball. You got to take it serious.”
Grant was surprised when he was initially dealt to Denver, but he got off a sinking ship in Oklahoma City who fresh off trading George to the Los Angeles Clippers dealt their franchise icon in Westbrook to Houston and then Grant to Denver. He was relieved to get traded to a contender where he’d have a defined role. Grant’s level of familiarity with the Nuggets’ front office helped ease the anxiety of getting traded too.
Denver acquired Grant, who’s slated to hit free agency next summer, with the thought in mind that he’d be here for the long haul. He fits the Nuggets’ work culture and selfless locker room, and embodies the qualities Denver preaches and has built its organization on. One day he could become the Nuggets’ full-time starting power forward supplanting Millsap who’s also set for free agency next offseason.
No matter how Grant’s role evolves over the next several seasons, the Nuggets know he’ll never stop working. It’s what has gotten him to this point.
“He’s a good person. He plays incredibly hard. He’s grown his three-point shot. He’s an elite athlete. He’s a flyer, and he’s a hell of a teammate. It doesn’t surprise me at all where he is.”