Jerami Grant is far from Philly, but the process continues for Thunder's X-factor

Jerami Grant is thankful he was part of The Process. The Philadelphia 76ers picked him No. 39 in 2014 — true Sam Hinkie devotees remember that they traded Spencer Hawes to Cleveland for Henry Sims, Earl Clark and the second-round picks that would become Grant and Vasilije Micic — and, after a preseason ankle injury, threw him into the fire. This was the Sixers’ way: Find players with upside, get them in their sophisticated development program and give them the opportunity to find a niche. 

Coach Brett Brown had no idea what position Grant should play, but called him “my poster child for what hard work can produce.” After games, he routinely went to the small gym at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine that the team used as a practice facility. There, he would get shots up and see progress, regardless of how poorly Philadelphia was doing in the standings. 

“The motivation, I think, is what inspires you,” Grant told CBS Sports. “Where do you want to get to? What are your goals? I think my goals, they still are extremely high. When you have certain goals that you want to reach, you have to do whatever it takes to get there. I think that was my motivation to go back to the gym at night and get as much extra work in as I can.”

Grant was considered raw, a label he considers fair because he associates it with untapped potential. He knew that other 20-year-olds did not have the same chance to play regular minutes and learn from mistakes. This was particularly true of those selected in the second round. The losses — the Sixers went 28-138 during his tenure — wore on him, but it rarely showed. He was close with the always enthusiastic and encouraging Brown, and he thought he could help the team by simply staying upbeat.  

“Definitely it’s times when you get down, but I think obviously losing that much is hard on anybody,” Grant said. “But you can’t let that affect who you are as a person. It should only be able to affect how you feel for a certain period of time. For me, I wanted it to be a good environment for everybody. I just tried to keep everybody together. It was definitely tough times, but I think just trying to lift everybody’s spirits, just joking around with everybody, keeping it kind of loose in the locker room — even though we were going through the situation we were going through — was important.”

Jerami Grant is far from Philly, but the process continues for Thunder's X-factorJerami Grant is no longer raw, but still has plenty of untapped potential.

Grant’s phone rang while he was napping on his couch at about 3:30 p.m. the day of Philadelphia’s third game of his third season. General manager Bryan Colangelo, who replaced Hinkie seven months earlier, told him that he was being traded to Oklahoma City. By 5 p.m., he was on a plane there. The next day, he played 18 minutes in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

The new team brought new responsibilities. When coach Billy Donovan first played the 6-foot-9 Grant as a center, it took him by surprise. The Sixers had reduced his minutes at small forward in his second season, but it took time for him to get used to the idea of playing the position that used to belong exclusively to giants. 

A better way of looking at it was that he did not have a position at all. Grant knew how the game was changing, and the Thunder wanted him to play inside and outside on both ends. 

“Now I’m a 3-4-5,” Grant said.

In Oklahoma City, those trips to PCOM started to pay off: Grant made 37.7 percent of his 3-pointers in 2016-17. Then, after getting his first taste of the playoffs as a supporting cast member in the Russell Westbrook show, the front office traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. With big men Enes Kanter and Domantas Sabonis gone and the bench looking thin, Grant has been counted on to protect the paint, defend on the perimeter and finish plays set up by the stars. 

“For me, it’s just kind of doing whatever they need me to do,” Grant said. “Some games, somebody might be off, you gotta pick up the slack. Some games, they need you to rebound and block shots, just to be able to do that. I think for me it’s more being the mold guy, kind of figuring out what they need in certain situations because every game isn’t the same.”

For the first time in his career, Grant entered the season excited about having real expectations when it came to winning. He soon learned this has its drawbacks, as the Thunder lost 12 of their first 20 games and everybody wanted to know why the offense wasn’t clicking. As they struggled, some blamed Westbrook, others suggested Anthony should come off the bench and rumors swirled about George potentially being traded. 

“It wasn’t fun,” Grant said. “Obviously, you’re losing when you’re supposed to win, losing to teams that you’re supposed to beat. But at the same time, I think it just was going to take a little bit of time to get acclimated. Now — we’re in stride right now. We kind of got a lot of things figured out; I’m not going to say everything [is] figured out, but we have a lot of things figured out. And now we’re moving. So we definitely took a lot of heat when we were losing games, but now that we’re winning games, yeah, everybody loves us. It’s a love-hate relationship with everybody.”

Grant said this last week, a day after a 37-point win against the Los Angeles Lakers. Oklahoma City had a couple of close losses at the end of December, but those followed a stretch of 12 wins in 15 games where it looked like it had turned the corner. Now, the Thunder have lost three straight games, dropping to 22-20 and sixth in the West. They are clearly a work in progress, and things are getting serious. 

The same can be said of Grant. He will turn 24 in March and be an unrestricted free agent in July. Compared to that raw rookie, he is more disciplined and less prone to chase blocks at the expense of team defense. Thanks to his job requiring him to switch onto point guards and box out centers, he estimates he could provide a sound scouting report on 85 percent of the players in the league. He’s still trying to establish himself as more than an elite athlete, though — most observers associate him primarily with his violent blocks and dunks, the latter of which regularly result in bruises to his hand, wrist and forearm. 

“Off the court I am like a nice guy, I guess I’d say, but on the court you kind of gotta change your mentality,” Grant said. “You don’t want to be a nice guy on the court. It’s not going to get you anywhere.”

Those mean highlights might actually obscure how hard he has worked to become more polished. Grant knows, however, that he is still far from complete. He has fully bought into his role as a complementary player, but would like to earn the opportunity to be more than that eventually. 

If that is going to happen, he must recapture the consistency he showed behind the 3-point line last season. Grant has only made 25 percent of his 3s in 2017-18, but remains optimistic that this will turn around.

“I’m shooting the ball horrible right now,” he laughed. “But I’ll continue to shoot it. I’m not really worried about the misses. I know my confidence comes from getting in the gym and shooting extra shots and getting as many up as I can. Until I stop working hard in the gym, I won’t stop shooting.”

Every couple of games when the Thunder are at home, Grant will leave Chesapeake Energy Arena and head directly to their practice facility, where he will stay past midnight, honing his form and building his confidence. The process continues.