Two days into the New Year, Kansas welcomed Oklahoma to Allen Fieldhouse and embarked on its annual quest to capture the Big 12 title.
After 14 years, Kansas' streak has become something of a college basketball cliche. The last time a team other than the Jayhawks won the conference, Georgia Tech was in the Final Four, LeBron James was a rookie in Cleveland and Donald Trump was starring in the first season of The Apprentice. Now, the streak is older than some of the high school prospects Kansas is beginning to recruit.
But streaks, like rules, are meant to be broken. No team can dominate indefinitely. And with under three minutes left against Oklahoma, the Sooners appeared to have Kansas on the ropes. They were down by six points but on a 9-2 run during which Kansas' offense had stagnated. To generate some scoring, the Jayhawks ran an offensive set through freshman Quentin Grimes on the right wing. But as Grimes rounded the corner and drove into the lane, Oklahoma guard Aaron Calixte popped the ball loose. For a brief second, it seemed like the latest disappointment for Grimes.
The most highly touted prospect of Kansas coach Bill Self's spectacular 2018 class, the 6'5", 210-pound guard began his Kansas career with an incredible splash. He dropped 21 points on 14 shots against Michigan State in the Champions Classic, and then followed that up with 10 points and 10 assists against Vermont. But the rest of 2018 was something of a struggle. Grimes only scored in double figures two more times in 10 tries. His offensive rating coming into the Oklahoma game was a paltry 82.2, according to kenpom.com, making him the only Jayhawks starter with a mark south of 100. And this was his third turnover of the night.
Then, as quickly as he lost the ball, he forced it loose again. In the ensuing scramble, he dove to the floor, slid between the legs of an Oklahoma forward and somehow, with two Sooners crashing into him, slipped a pass to his point guard, Devon Dotson. Dotson drove in for an and-1, and the Jayhawks coasted to the win. After the game, Self called Grimes' effort "the best play he's made all year."
After losing a road game against unranked Iowa State on Jan. 5 and losing center Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending wrist injury, Kansas needs Grimes more than ever.
"I expect for him to impact every possession in some shape or form," Self says. "And that's a compliment to a guy. There are some guys who can only impact certain possessions in certain ways. And he can impact by passing, by vision, by IQ, by plugging himself in. Anything less than that is unacceptable and not pushing him to be who he is. He didn't come here to play half-assed. He came here to do something special."
Those who know him best insist that Grimes has a killer instinct that's ready to be revealed. Now the question is: Can it emerge in time for Kansas to keep its Big 12 streak alive? Could Quentin Grimes help Kansas return to the Final Four?
Marshall Grimes and Tonja Stelly, Quentin's father and mother, each played college basketball. Grimes played point guard at Santa Clara in California and later at Louisiana Lafayette, and Stelly played two seasons of forward at Fort Hayes State in Kansas before quitting basketball and transferring to KU. Together, they shared in the early joys of watching their toddler take to the sport they both loved. Despite their backgrounds, Grimes and Stelly agreed that Quentin shouldn't specialize in one sport too early. There was just one problem: Quentin had no interest in anything besides basketball.
Stelly asked him to try out for soccer every year of elementary school, but he wouldn't so much as step foot on the field. And his football career lasted less than a week. He tried out at the behest of one of his best friends, Mike Woods, who now plays wide receiver at Arkansas. Woods' dad was the assistant coach on a pee-wee team, and he encouraged Grimes to join.
"He made it three practices," Stelly says now. "He didn't even play a game before he was gone. Basketball has always been Quentin's love."
Marshall never coached Quentin, but he did help his son build his game in the backyard. Marshall began by showing Quentin the greats of his generation. They'd watch full games featuring Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, whose basketball primes ended years before Quentin was born in 2000. When either father or son saw a move that intrigued them, they'd walk outside into the Houston heat and practice until it was perfected.
But his favorite player was one he'd watched live: Kobe Bryant. Marshall and Quentin studied the Lakers star from head to toe, analyzing everything from his footwork to his shooting stroke.
"Everybody respects the older generation and how good they were," Quentin Grimes says, "but I don't know if they watch them like I do. I'm trying to work my way up to that Mamba Mentality. It'll take a while to get to that level, but I'll make it one day."
By middle school, Grimes had developed a local reputation, but his national status was still uncertain. A 2014-15 preseason blurb about College Park High School in the Houston Chronicle noted that as a freshman, he was "expected to play an important role, potentially developing into an impact player early in his career." He put up a respectable 8.8 points and 3.4 assists per game as a starter, but the pressures of that first season and a coaching change in his AAU program shook his faith in the game a bit. On the Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend that year, Grimes told his parents he didn't want to play basketball that summer.
"Quentin was miserable," Stelly says. "The light had gone out. I'd never seen him like that. Basketball is his whole life. It's what he loves and he's passionate about it. As a parent, it was, 'Oh my gosh, what has happened?' We weren't quitters, and he had to fight through the battle. It was so bad I was looking into sports psychologists. I was like, 'Something is wrong, and if I can't get it pulled out of him, then I need a professional.' We decided not to play that season."
Grimes rediscovered his passion for the sport by returning to the process with his dad. And he found the fun again by playing pickup games. He balled out with former college and NBA players in the Houston area in games organized by his dad, and together, he and Marshall ran the floor at the 24 Hour Fitness by his house.
"I'm a little past my prime," Marshall jokes, "but I can still play some. And when teams needed a player, they'd start asking Quentin to play with them. At first, I thought they were doing me a favor, being nice to my boy. It took me a little too long to realize they weren't helping me out. They were trying to win games."
After one game at the end of the summer, a stranger told Marshall that Quentin was good but really needed to get stronger. Marshall looked at his son—then a 6'2", 165-pound rising high school sophomore—and wondered, Could he really be behind? Then the man asked Marshall when Quentin was leaving for college that fall. And Marshall knew his son was ahead of schedule. In his second season at College Park, Quentin posted 16.6 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. That next summer, he jumped to a new AAU team, Basketball University, and broke out.
"Most 16- to 18-year-olds like to play video games, chase girls or drive their cars," says Clifton McNeely, Quentin's high school coach. "Quentin wasn't that way. He went to work not only on his skills and playing but also on developing his body. What separates the elite kids is not only the natural athleticism but also the work it takes to develop that. There's no glory in the weight room, but Quentin had a different drive. He just gave everything to basketball."
McNeely likes to tell Quentin that the only repayment he needs when Grimes makes it to the NBA is a new microwave. And Tonja Stelly likes to tell her son that she misses him in her house but she's thankful to have her weekends back. When Quentin was in high school, Tonja would spend her Sundays chopping, searing and steaming healthy lunches and snacks for him to bring to school during the week. And so rather than eat in the cafeteria, Quentin would go into the coaches' office and heat up what his mother had cooked for him.
"It was funny," McNeely says, "because he was so polite. Every day, he'd knock before he came in. And every day, he'd say thank you when he left. Even though he knew he was welcome. The only things anyone ever got upset about was when the tennis coach, who is a Wichita State grad, found out he was going to Kansas—or when he [had] fish and stunk up the office for the rest of the day."
For Grimes, a methodical approach to meals mirrored his take on the game. When he realized he needed to improve his agility, he started working out at Dynamic Sports Training, a gym known primarily for improving the skills of baseball players. When he needed to narrow his recovery window as he played more and more minutes, he started going to a cryotherapy chamber twice a week with his mother. And when he was asked to play more often off the ball after a childhood of playing point guard, he went back to the film room with his father and picked up more moves from Bryant.
"I'm a natural scorer," Grimes says, "so I feel like if I'm a shooting guard, it makes it look better if I have a nice pass, because I'm supposed to be off ball. If I'm on ball, it's the same when I score. When I was younger, I could score, but I was kind of small, so they classified me as a point guard. But then I just kept growing and growing, so they labeled me something different. Whether I play on the ball or off the ball, it doesn't matter to me. I really feel like I'm just a guard."
It was that measured approach to building his basketball career that led him to stay at his high school all four years, despite prolific offers from prep programs. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August of 2017, Grimes was glad that he hadn't left, so that he could be part of the relief effort in his hometown. His parents' houses hadn't been affected, but he didn't have to go far to see the devastation the storm had caused. One afternoon, a few days after Harvey had passed, Grimes went to his room and stared at the stacks of sneakers, backpacks and clothes he'd been given on the AAU circuit. Much of it had never seen the outside of the box—much less the outside world. He and his parents packed up their SUV with thousands of dollars worth of premium basketball gear, and spent the day delivering it to relief distribution centers.
A few days later, he went to shootaround at Legends Sports Complex, a gym near his home in The Woodlands, and found it had been damaged by the hurricane, too. He asked the director there how he could help, and he told Quentin he could dig. So Quentin found a shovel and began clearing the debris. Only after an afternoon of manual labor did he head inside to do the work he'd originally intended to do on the court.
"I've had college coaches ask for years, and now I've got NBA scouts doing their background checks," McNeely says. "They always ask: 'Where's the flaw? What aren't you telling us?' The truth is, there's nothing. He's a great player and a great person."
The only thing coaches have ever wanted from Grimes is more. And his production progressed with each year at College Park. As a junior in 2016-17, he averaged 28.1 points and 8.0 rebounds a game. And as a senior, he averaged 29.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. In one game that season, McNeely pulled him late in a game without realizing that he was at 48 points. After a timeout, Grimes created a clandestine plan with teammates to check himself back in without his coach's permission. Grimes got in, got the ball, got the bucket and got right back to the bench.
Last year, he became a McDonald's All-American, a Jordan Brand Classic participant and the Gatorade Texas Player of the Year. And that was all before playing for his future coach, Bill Self, in the FIBA U18 Americas Championship, where he won a gold medal and was named the tournament's MVP.
"Quentin fools people on the court sometimes still," Marshall Grimes says. "He seems like a nice kid, but when he smells blood in the water, he'll put you away."
At that competition in Canada, Grimes felt more confident than ever in his college decision. No matter how well he played in any game, Self would pull him aside to watch footage afterward and show him scoring opportunities he'd missed. And when Grimes didn't perform a fundamental—like a lob pass to the post—perfectly, Self would make him stay in position until he got it right.
"I told him later on," Self says sarcastically, "'Wouldn't you hate to play for a coach who wants you to score every time you touch it, or wants you to make a play every time you touch it? That'd be awful to play for a coach like that, wouldn't it?' And then he understood where I was coming from."
Late in the summer, Stelly worried that her son might have taken on too much. After all, his schedule was so slammed that he only had a five-day window when he would be able to get his wisdom teeth removed. But what she saw next reassured her. Everyone had always wanted more from her son, but she could see he was still glad to give it. On the day after his operation, in the one week off he had during the summer, Quentin grabbed his car keys and headed to his old high school gym to shoot hoops.
Quentin Grimes couldn't have asked for a better college debut than his performance at the Champions Classic, but much of the rest of the season has been a struggle. His numbers have improved in conference play after a quiet December—his effective field goal percentage is in the top 20 in the Big 12, and his two-point percentage is in the top five—but he knows that's not enough.
"People have always told me to be more aggressive," Grimes says, "but I like to go out there and figure out the game and figure out the flow. People want me to go out there and be in attack mode. My coaches have always said the same thing: 'We want you to shoot, and we want you to score.' I'm real unselfish on the court, so I had to figure that out. It took me a while to learn that. I'm going through that here with Coach Self. They brought me here to be a scorer, and they tell me every day to be more aggressive. I'm progressing."
Self still has full confidence in Grimes, too.
"Quentin is probably the most well-rounded young guard we've ever had here," he says. "When you think about guards, his handle, explosiveness, strength, range, vision, toughness—he checks a lot of boxes. But still, that doesn't mean it's going to happen for him. That doesn't guarantee anything for him, but I'd still rather have those things than not have those things. I hope he can play to the talent level I think he has."
To break through the slump, Grimes is doing what he's always done: returning to the process that made him great in the first place. A few years ago, Kansas built McCarthy Hall, an $11.2 million dorm for its basketball players. The building has a full court. And every other night, after he's gone to workouts, practices, classes and study halls, Grimes grabs the rebounding gun and begins shooting. He doesn't play music because he likes to listen to the ball rip through the net. He shoots until he's made 300 three-pointers. There in the quiet, he makes sure he's ready for the next big moment. He knows how far this process has brought him, and he knows it'll take him to the next level, too. He feels like it won't be long now.