Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and Duke's Jahlil Okafor maintain the lead in the player of the year race, but Notre Dame's Jerian Grant could be the most important player on any team in the country.
Last year, Jerian Grant heard his name on TV a lot, but he never quite got used to it. After a Dec. 21 loss to then-No. 3 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden, Notre Dame was 8-4 and preparing for its first season in the ACC. Then on Monday, Grant posted a statement to the team’s website indicating that he’d miss the rest of the season due to an academic matter. His coach, Mike Brey, somehow managed to find a positive spin, telling ESPN: “I think this is going end in a great Notre Dame story.”
After that 8-4 start, the Irish crumbled during ACC play. Grant had been averaging 19.0 points and 6.2 assists in 35.6 minutes a game, and following his departure, no one could quite fill the scoring void. Only three Irish players averaged in double figures, and none scored more than 13.9 points a game. As badly as the games ended—Notre Dame finished 15-17 overall and 6-12 in the ACC—the beginning of each game was the worst for Grant.
On almost every telecast, they’d show his picture, explain why he wasn’t there and then, of course, link it to his team’s struggles. “It was cruel and unusual punishment,” Brey says now.
This season, though, when Grant flips on ESPN, he likes most of the conversations the pundits are having about him. Despite a surprising home loss to Syracuse on Tuesday, Grant, now a redshirt senior, has the Irish turned around in their second ACC season. At 24-5 overall and 12-4 in the conference, they’re tied with Duke for second place, two games behind front-running Virginia. In our latest Bracket Watch, the Irish are a No. 2 seed.
“Before I left last year, I was having a good season,” Grant says. “But I didn’t get to show what I could do in the ACC, and it bothered me. I put in a lot of work this offseason, and I think you’re seeing it pay off. It’s not just the numbers -- it’s as a leader too. I took strides there that I couldn’t have imagined, and I know that’s helped us get more wins.”
It may not be just the numbers that define Grant as a top-flight Wooden Award candidate, but let’s start there because they are impressive. In 36.4 minutes a game, he’s averaging 16.9 points, 6.6 assists and 1.8 steals. His offensive rating of 125.4 is seventh among players who use at least 24% of their team’s possessions, trailing only Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer and Utah’s Delon Wright among high-major players. According to Synergy Sports data, Grant is averaging 1.505 points per possessions + assists. His 3.31 assist-to-turnover ratio is sixth in the country and first in the ACC.
“I think it’s the great story of college basketball this season,” Brey says. “It’s a redemption story. He didn’t live up to the standards of being a true student-athlete. And now I think he’s refreshing figure in college basketball. You watched him grow. You went through a crisis with him and you saw him get off the mat and redeem himself.”
Brey knew right away that he would have a better player this season when Grant arrived for practice in June. Before his suspension, he’d show up at the last minute for practices—“sometimes looking haggard, and often with mismatched socks and a bag of fast food,” Brey says—and not put enough effort in. By the time the team went on its foreign tour to Italy in July, Brey had discovered something more important than just Grant’s improvements as a practice player: “He gave us our swagger back.”
He also gives Brey an extension of himself on the floor. Much of Notre Dame’s offense revolves around Grant—not just as a playmaker, but as a decision-maker. The heart of the Irish’s offense involves creating space on the floor for Grant to drive and create. His penetration collapses defenses and allows him to score at the rim, or find wide-open looks for teammates (usually 6'10" forward Zach Auguste) off pick-and-rolls or on easy jumpers. “He has a brilliant basketball mind,” Brey says. “He’s like a computer out there. There’s so much trust between player and coach, in fact, that Brey even takes input from Grant on play calls and substitutions.
For better or worse, Notre Dame is an offensive team this season. Their adjusted offensive rating is 120.4, good for fourth in the country; their defensive rating of 101.3 is 145th. The split makes the Irish the least balanced team in the top 20, but it also makes for a solid argument that Grant may be the most important player in the country to his team. It’s easy to imagine Wisconsin or Duke succeeding—although certainly not to the same levels—without Frank Kaminsky or Jahlil Okafor, but Notre Dame without Jerian Grant? Well, we saw how that played out a season ago.
Grant’s thoughts drift back to last season on occasion. He’ll find himself watching TV and hear his name mentioned on a Wooden Award list or see a highlight, and he’ll think about how painful every mention of his name was a year ago. But he doesn’t let himself get too caught up in the player of the year hype, either.
“To say I was part of an ACC championship team,” Grant says, “that would mean much more than any individual honor. That and a trip to the Final are my goals for this season.”
Even if he doesn’t accomplish those goals, he’s proved his coach prescient. No matter where the season goes from here, the final chapter of Grant’s Notre Dame story has been great.
1. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Stats: 17.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.4 apg, 54.4 FG%
Last week, SI’s college hoops think-tank conducted an internal survey on our player of the year candidates. And I was happy to discover that a majority of our writers and editors gave the edge to Frank the Tank. I’ll chalk that up to my persuasive writing each week. On kenpom.com’s player of the year rankings, Kaminsky has a 0.456-point advantage over No. 2 (who is Northern Iowa’s Seth Tuttle, by the way; more on him below). To give you an idea of scale, that’s larger than the gap between players No. 2 and No. 10. Before Tuesday night’s loss at Maryland, the Badgers had won 10 straight. The loss damaged Wisconsin’s hopes for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but it doesn’t hurt Kaminsky, who went for 18 points and eight rebounds, in his player of the year candidacy.
2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
It’s difficult to add too much to the Jahlil Okafor conversation this week. After landing awkwardly on his ankle a week ago in that thrilling win over North Carolina, Okafor missed his team’s only game of the week, a 22-point home win over ACC doormat Clemson on Saturday. After praising Okafor’s immediate adaption to college basketball and hinting at his very bright pro potential all season, one concern was finally exposed this week during his absence. No, not that he is injury-prone; he just really needs to work on his suit game:
A sport coat, man? Come on. You’re better than that.
3. Delon Wright, Utah
Stats: 14.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 5.4 apg, 52.3 FG%
Utah fell into a classic late-February trap on Saturday, losing to a desperate Oregon team on the road. Don’t blame Wright, though. The Utes' leader in just about everything was the only man on his team in double figures, scoring 20 to go with five assists and three steals. He also again showed off his ability to finish in incredible, acrobatic ways, like this second-half spot-up drive against the Ducks. That layup at the end is behind his back and over two defenders. (Hover to start.)
4. Jerian Grant
Stats: 16.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 6.6 apg, 49.5 FG%
Two leftover Grant notes: I asked both him and Brey who they liked for the Wooden Award, with the caveat that Grant couldn't pick himself and neither could his coach. Grant, then, favors Ohio State's D’Angelo Russell. The freshman guard had been a regular on this list when it was at 10, and he’s certainly still in that range, but he hasn’t quite cracked our top five yet. “I’m a guards guy, first off,” Grant says. “And second, I probably think Okafor is in the lead, but I can’t give an ACC opponent that much credit!”
Brey had a bias, too, but for seniors, which is why he likes the man atop our list. “I like his story,” Brey says. “I like a guy who is unheralded, takes some time to develop and then earns it. No knock on Okafor or any of the other candidates, but I’d go with Kaminsky.”
5. Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa
Stats: 15.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.2 apg, 63.3 FG%
With Willie Cauley-Stein slipping back into his single-digit scoring tendencies and Kentucky generally cruising through the softest stretch of its SEC schedule, it’s time to recognize another player. Although Russell, as well as Arizona’s Stanley Johnson and Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer have legitimate arguments to be placed prominently here, I’m going with Tuttle. The Panthers have been one of the best stories in college basketball this season. They’re 26-2 and have a chance to take the Missouri Valley conference title out of the hands of Wichita State one year after going 16-15. Tuttle will be the reason why. In addition to anchoring kenpom.com’s No. 12 defense in adjusted efficiency, he is using 30.6% of the Panthers’ offensive possessions with a rating of 119.8. His effective field goal percentage (66.9!) and true shooting percentage (70.2!!) are fifth and fourth in the country, respectively. You may not know it yet, but Northern Iowa will be a sleeper Sweet 16 team in your bracket a couple weeks from now.