On the road recruiting post man Kerry Blackshear during the summer of 2014, then-Clemson assistant Earl Grant kept noticing one of Blackshear’s AAU teammates, a scrawny guard named Grant Riller. In those days, Riller was 6-foot-1 and, on a good day, 160 pounds or so, and while Grant wasn’t sure Riller was physically imposing enough to play for Clemson and handle the rigors of the Atlantic Coast Conference, he knew he was a baller. So Grant began calling friends who were assistant coaches at mid-major schools and letting them know Riller -- a talented kid with high-major skill but a mid-major body -- was out there.
After about two weeks of sounding the alarm on Riller, Grant abruptly stopped making phone calls on his behalf. That’s because, after a sudden coaching change at the College of Charleston in early August, Grant, who had worked for respected coaches Gregg Marshall (Winthrop, Wichita State) and Brad Brownell at Clemson, was deemed ready to run his own program. After landing the Charleston job in early September, Grant hoped his promotion of Riller hadn’t been too effective, because now he was at a place where Riller’s talent could overcome his lack of size.
By this time, Riller had narrowed his choices to FIU and Cleveland State, but once Grant and new assistant coach Quinton Ferrell became involved in Riller’s recruitment, and after he got a look at Charleston -- the city and the school -- he was hooked.
“Timing is everything,” Grant says.
It didn’t hurt that Riller’s Orlando, Florida homeboy, point guard Joe Chealey, was already on Charleston’s roster. Chealey would go on to sign a two-way contract with the Charlotte Hornets in 2018.
“He helped make the transition easier,” Riller says.
So easy, in fact, Grant and Ferrell were stunned at how quickly Riller’s talent translated to the college level. It was the summer of 2015, and when Riller showed up on campus along with Jarrell Brantley -- a forward who was a second-round pick of the Indiana Pacers in the 2019 NBA Draft and later traded to the Utah Jazz -- the Charleston coaches were excited about the possibilities of their first recruiting class.
From an offensive standpoint, there are no holes in his game
“With Grant, it was just like ‘wow’ ” says Ferrell, who became Riller’s position coach and is now the head coach at Presbyterian. “We obviously knew Grant was good, but to see it translate to the college level right away. … He scored the ball so easily. We thought this kid’s going to be freshman of the year [in the Colonial Athletic Association].”
Further evidence of Riller’s ability came in the fall, just weeks before the season began, when the Cougars were playing Clemson in a closed scrimmage. Riller had scored 20 points against the Tigers with seven minutes to go. And then a freak accident happened.
“The Clemson player was dribbling to the sideline,” Riller says. “I was guarding the ball. But he faked a timeout and tried to drive. My foot got stuck on the floor. I wasn’t expecting it and I got caught lagging. I knew something was wrong right away.”
Riller had torn the ACL in his left knee. The diagnosis and realization he would miss the entire season was crushing, but Riller quickly realized a year on the sidelines might wind up being to his advantage.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Riller says. “There had been a lot of questions about my weight at the time, and whether I could play at this level. The year gave me an opportunity to work on my body. It gave me an opportunity to learn the game. Joe [Chealey] had torn his Achilles a couple of weeks earlier, so I had someone to go through the redshirt year with.”
Once Riller got on the floor in 2016, he made up for lost time. Having added two inches and 20 pounds of muscle to his frame, he started 29 games, averaged 13.1 points and made the CAA All-Rookie team.
The next season, now packing 195 pounds, Riller averaged 18.6 points, racked up four games of 30 points or more, and along with Chealey and Brantley, helped lead Charleston back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 19 years.
A year ago, after Chealey departed for the NBA, Riller took over as point guard. He led the Cougars in assists but still managed to increase his scoring average to 21.9 points a game, 20th in the nation.
This season, Riller is on pace to match those statistics, and he’s also starting to turn up on mock NBA Draft boards. Choose a metric and Riller’s accomplishments are impressive. You want traditional stats? Riller is averaging 21.8 points while shooting 51.2% from the field, 38.7% from 3-point range and 85.2% from the free-throw line. He’s already attempted 162 free throws. At a glance, that speaks to Riller’s remarkable ability to finish at the rim and either score or get fouled. His ever-improving skill from the 3-point line has made him one of the more difficult covers in the college game.
Power conference coaches would attest to that.
“Grant Riller isn't only one of the best mid-major players in the country,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton, Jr. said after Riller dropped 16 points, eight assists, four rebounds and three steals on the Cowboys. “He's one of the best guards at any level, period. He could start for any team in the Big 12."
If advanced metrics are your pleasure, Synergy rates Riller excellent in overall offense (1.055 points per possession), excellent as a pick and roll ball handler (1.103 ppp), excellent in isolation (1.115 ppp), excellent in jump shots off the dribble (1.021 ppp) and very good at catch and shoot (1.138 ppp).
Riller is a stat sheet stuffer who last month put together the school’s first triple double (20 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists against Northeastern). He averages 5.0 rebounds, impressive for a point guard, along with 4.1 assists and 1.5 steals.
It was a blessing in disguise
But numbers alone don’t tell Riller’s story.
“He’s the ultimate competitor,” Grant says. “One thing people don’t talk about, but he’s won our Purple Heart Award for taking charges. This year, so far, he’s taken 11 charges in conference play. That says a lot about how much he wants to win.”
Riller’s basketball IQ and work ethic also don’t show up on stat sheets, but they’ve combined to give him a chance, like Chealey and Brantley before him, to make an NBA roster.
“He’s always had the natural ability to score,” Ferrell says. “But his ability to read the game, his playmaking, his ability to pick his spots. … He’s gone to another level with his playmaking. He’s an underrated passer. People at the next level will be very surprised at his passing ability. He’ll shoot the crap out of the ball when he goes to NBA workouts. From an offensive standpoint, there are no holes in his game.”
NBA scouts have been regular visitors to Charleston practices and games the last three years, so Riller has caught their attention. “I mean, they really like him,” Grant says.
Riller isn’t letting NBA talk interfere with his senior season. He loved experiencing the NCAA tournament -- Riller played 40 minutes and scored 16 points against Auburn in 2018 -- and would love to lead his team back there.
Grant won’t begin to focus on Riller’s NBA chances until after the season, but he doesn’t hesitate to envision what Riller might be able to accomplish at the next level.
“He can play both guard spots,” Grant says. “I think he’s going to be better as a point guard. He’s got great feel for slipping through ball screens, a great feel for passing. He’s got good size for his position. But if a team needs him to be a guy that can make five 3s in a game and defend his position, he can do that, too.”
Like any young player, Riller grew up watching NBA games and dreaming about one day playing in the league.
“A dream, sure,” Riller says. “But you never really know if it can come true. As the years have progressed and I kept working on my game, I think I’ve put myself in pretty good position. I’ll keep working as hard as I can. And if it happens one day, I’ll be forever grateful.”
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