SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Unc, you know if I was out there, it would have been different.
Jerian Grant sat in the family room of his uncle Horace Grant's home last February and watched his brother's team, Syracuse, beat his Notre Dame Fighting Irish by six points.
Jerian was a continent away from the Carrier Dome in Arroyo Grande, a small town on the central coast of California. The Notre Dame star guard was crisscrossing the country—staying with different family and friends—during the Irish's second half of the season because of an academic violation that forced him to leave school at the end of the first semester.
The man he would have likely guarded that night, Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney, went for 33 points. It was the 11th game Grant's teammates had played without him and the seventh they had lost.
"Yep. If, if, if," Horace replied to his nephew's claim, before they both started chuckling.
"Players are made in the offseason," Horace would tell Jerian. "This is your offseason."
If was something he had to let go. When I get back...is what he had to embrace.
"He thought that he let his teammates down and he let the university down, and he kind of let his parents, friends and everybody who supported him down. He felt that way," his father, Harvey Grant, said. "That's why I think he was so determined to get back, graduate and have a season like they're having now. He was that determined. He wanted to try to make everything right."
To make him feel like he wasn't so far away, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey asked Jerian to email his thoughts on the Irish's performance after each game.
Grant would watch the game with his tablet, taking notes throughout. When the final buzzer sounded, he'd take about 25 minutes to go through his notes and gather his thoughts before pushing send.
"I got to almost act like a coach," he said.
His suggestion after the Syracuse game was to put a guard in the middle of the zone who was more comfortable distributing the ball—most teams put a big man in that spot. Brey would read Jerian's emails in meetings with his coaches, and the staff agreed with his idea to have a guard in the middle of the zone and put it into practice.
Sure enough, two weeks ago when Duke went zone for several possessions in Notre Dame's 77-73 win in South Bend, Jerian was occupying the middle of the zone.
"It got me excited," Jerian said of seeing his ideas getting used. "It was actually like, 'Yo, the coaches are listening to me. I've got some say in what's going on.'"
Brey got excited, too. Not because of how his team was playing—the Irish went 7-13 last year without their leading scorer and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years—but Brey had an inclination that Grant would return and make things right.
Because when Grant referred to the team, he didn't say "you guys" or "they." He used "we."
The attention from an off-the-court mistake is always multiplied when it's a star player, but add in a famous family, and it's taken to another level.
Jerian's father Harvey played in the NBA for 11 years. Harvey's twin brother is Horace, the starting power forward on the first three Chicago Bulls title teams in the 1990s. Jerian's oldest brother Jerai played at Clemson and is now playing overseas, and his younger brother Jerami played two years at Syracuse before leaving for the NBA after last season and getting drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia 76ers.
A mistake like this was a first for the Grant family.
"I was a little taken aback," Harvey said.
Jerian found out about his suspension in early December last year, but he was allowed to play out the rest of the semester without the news going public.
His final game was at Madison Square Garden against third-ranked Ohio State. His teammates were told about his dismissal in the days approaching the matchup. They knew this would be the final game of his season and possibly career. Multiple NBA scouts told Bleacher Report he would have been a borderline second-round pick in the draft had he declared.
The Irish and Jerian played their best game of the season for 39 minutes. Jerian had 17 points, four assists and two turnovers with a minute left, and the Irish led by eight.
"We tried to win it out for J," teammate Zach Auguste said.
In the final minute, the Buckeyes went on a 14-3 run aided by several uncharacteristic mistakes from Jerian. He had three turnovers and missed a free throw. The Irish lost by three.
"The clock started ticking down, I definitely started to think this could be my last college game ever. This could be it for me," Jerian said. "I definitely lost focus and made some mistakes towards the end."
After the game when the team got on the bus, Brey told his assistants to go back without him. He would walk back to the team hotel. He stopped and had a beer at an Irish pub by himself.
Jerian headed home to Maryland for the holidays, and he was not in a good place.
"When I first left, I was mad at Notre Dame," he said. "I was mad at the mistake I made."
His parents didn't want him sitting at home moping, so with their help, he hit the road. He visited Horace in California, his godparents in St. Louis, old high school teammate Victor Oladipo in Orlando, his brother at Syracuse and his grandparents in Wichita, Kansas. He spent his days in random gyms—usually YMCAs and local rec centers.
In Wichita, he'd accompany his 77-year-old grandfather John Baker to his construction job during the day. And his grandmother, Trudy Baker, whom he calls every Sunday, was there to listen.
"I just kind of allowed him to talk to me and not me talk, because he can shut down on you," Trudy said. "I wanted to keep our communications open."
Those talks with his family, providing him a sounding board, helped him let go of the anger.
"I talked to them, and they said everybody makes mistakes," Jerian said. "The most important thing was owning up to the mistake that you made. I forgave Notre Dame. It was my mistake. It wasn't their fault. After that, I could move past it."
Jerian rejoined his teammates for the first time at the ACC tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina. He watched them lose their opening-round game to Wake Forest from behind the bench. Afterward, Brey asked the returning players to meet back at the hotel.
When the coach walked into the room, Notre Dame forward Pat Connaughton had his arm around Jerian. Brey told his players that it was time to move on.
"Let's forget all the stuff," Brey said about all the losses and what had happened with Jerian.
He then looked at Jerian and Connaughton, who would be the two seniors returning. "This is your team," he said.
"It definitely helped me move on," Jerian said. "To have all the guys in there and for him to tell them that, and them to be like, 'It's over. We're on to a new season and what happened last year is over. Let's move on and move forward to something new.'"
Jerian's first games back with his teammates took place over the summer in Italy. After the team returned to South Bend, Brey was studying the stats from the trip and something didn't add up.
The Irish had shot just 35.8 percent from beyond the arc the previous season—a number that dipped to 33.8 percent in ACC play. Overseas, the three-point line is 15 inches farther out, and they play with a different ball. Yet the Irish had shot much better from deep.
"How does that happen?" Brey asked himself.
Then it clicked.
"Jerian was the reason we were shooting so well," he said. "He was getting easier shots for everyone."
Jerian's return this season has been even more impactful than anyone in South Bend could have dreamed. The Notre Dame offense has thrived because of ball movement and Grant's ability to make plays. The Irish are shooting 40.0 percent from beyond the arc—16th-best nationally—and an NCAA-best 58.5 percent inside the arc. Their 22-4 record is the program's best start since the 1980-81 season.
|Most efficient offenses since 2001-02|
|1. Gonzaga (14-15)||121.9|
|2. Notre Dame (14-15)||121.8|
|3. Wisconsin (14-15)||120.9|
|4. Missouri (11-12)||120.8|
|5. Creighton (13-14)||120.5|
Notre Dame's offensive efficiency of 121.8—that's points per 100 possessions—is the second-best mark of any team in Ken Pomeroy's database, which covers the last 14 seasons.
The Irish have four players shooting better than 38 percent from distance, and Connaughton ranks second in the ACC in three-point accuracy (45.2 percent).
"I get a lot of easy shots based off (Jerian's) ability to create and based off his ability to not just see the basket, to see other guys in white jerseys," Connaughton said.
The Irish have gone to a small-ball attack that puts Connaughton, 6'6", at power forward, spreading the floor with four shooters and a mobile big man in Auguste.
Jerian studied all of his teammates when he was away, and every player in the Notre Dame rotation is shooting the best percentage of his career.
"I got to learn a lot about the young guys," Jerian said. "I knew I was going to come back and get to play with them, so I had to really figure out their strengths and weaknesses."
Brey says that Jerian's basketball IQ is so high that the coach is constantly asking for his input.
A few weeks ago at North Carolina State, Connaughton picked up his second foul with 13:34 left in the first half, and Brey sent him to the bench, planning to sit his best shooter until halftime.
About seven minutes later with Notre Dame trailing by 11, Jerian pointed at Connaughton and told Brey the Irish needed him. Connaughton checked in right away.
"Jerian has a lot of say on this," Brey said.
Brey has also given Jerian the freedom to decide what kind of ball screens he wants. Late in games, Brey likes to set a high-ball screen for Jerian to get him the ability to attack in space. But in the win against Duke, Jerian waved off Connaughton because he noticed Duke had all its guards in and would likely try to switch a ball screen.
Jerian put the Irish ahead by three when he went one-on-one against Tyus Jones and hit a shot near the free-throw line right before the shot-clock buzzer went off. On the next possession, he backed down Quinn Cook, who is three inches shorter than him, planning to shoot over Cook once he got to the right elbow.
As Jerian got in the air, he noticed that Duke guard Matt Jones had run to the basket for the rebound and left Steve Vasturia wide-open in the corner. Jerian threw a perfect pass, and Vasturia put the game out of reach with a three-pointer.
"With Coach Brey, it's always been a lot of freedom, but this year it's taken it to another level," Jerian said. "He lets me call the plays. He lets me decide what I want in the ball screens. It's been fun. None of the guys ever complain. We all get to touch the ball on every possession, so it's fun."
Brey and Notre Dame's players all say that the unselfishness of the group comes from Jerian. It's easy to be unselfish when your best player doesn't care who is scoring.
"He's always been a kid that makes the right play," Connaughton said. "It's not about him getting the points. It's all about him making the winning play."
The numbers have followed anyway. Jerian is averaging 17.0 points and 6.2 assists. He'll likely be a first-team All-American and has a shot at National Player of the Year.
But the individual accolades do not factor in at all to what drives him. At a preseason team meeting without the coaches, Jerian got up and spoke to his teammates about what he wanted to accomplish his senior season and started with an apology for what had happened in his junior campaign.
"Everybody came back at me, 'Jerian, that's over. Let's move on.' That definitely meant a lot to me," Jerian said. "Guys weren't thinking about what happened last year. They were excited for what's coming."
Then he told his teammates the real driving force behind why he had returned to school.
"Guys, this is my last year, and I want to do something special at Notre Dame," he told his teammates. "And I can't do anything special without winning."
The day after the win against Duke, Brey sat in his office and gave an answer he never thought he'd give.
Was what happened to Jerian a blessing in disguise?
"He needed that, in hindsight," Brey said. "If ever a guy needed five years, it was Jerian Grant."
Jerian, who redshirted as a freshman, had been a productive player his first two-and-half seasons, but he was never a leader, and he had his immature moments.
Whenever something would go wrong in a game or a teammate would mess up, Jerian's expressions and body language were poor. "AAU stuff," Brey said.
Last month, Jerian had one of his worst games of this season at North Carolina—he scored eight points on 1-of-8 shooting—and he fouled out with 2:07 left and the game tied.
Harvey kept his eyes on his son on the bench as the Irish went on to win the game by one point.
"It showed me something," Harvey said. "To see him on that bench, cheering for his teammates, that's what leadership is all about. He didn't mope. He was cheering for his teammates, and they ended up winning that game."
Jerian has stepped comfortably into a leadership role, and NBA scouts are noticing too.
Scouts view Jerian as a guy who has played himself possibly into the first round, and the focus is strictly on what he can do as a player.
"At the end of last year, there were questions about his character and how good he really was," a scout told Bleacher Report.
"He got off to a great start, but because he only played a few games, he hadn't gotten a chance to prove that he could sustain that level of production during the conference season. This year he's proven not only that he's matured and grown as a person facing adversity, but he's also proven that the start he got off to last year wasn't a fluke."
"I think what happened last year is not even a factor," another scout said.
If Jerian goes in the first round, he'll be the seventh fifth-year senior to do that since 2005 but the first point guard. He'll also enter the league as a graduate of Notre Dame. He needed just three credits entering this semester to graduate.
That's one reason he returned to school. Graduating was important. But more so than anything else, he didn't want to be remembered for getting kicked out of school.
When he and Brey would communicate last year over text messages, the coach would end every message with, "Our work isn't done."
"I came to Notre Dame wanting to do something special, and I hadn't done that," Jerian said. "I hadn't left my print here. I hadn't left anything that was really special yet. For him to say 'Our work isn't done,' it meant 'Come back Jerian, and let's do something special.'"
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR.