Something special for the Bulls might have been overlooked Saturday night amidst the tension in the 96-90 overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, the injury to David Nwaba, the imminent return of Bobby Portis, Robin Lopez’ almost layups to win the game, the valiant comeback and determined effort.
Jerian Grant may have become a point guard.
“I was panicking early on because I wasn’t making shots,” Grant conceded about a one of 16 first five games on three pointers. “But coach stressed to me it’s not only about making shots; that will come. I have to keep being aggressive. I have this spot right now and I have to take advantage of it.”
Grant Saturday had perhaps the best all around game of his career with 13 points on four of nine shooting, nine assists, a career high equaling eight rebounds and zero turnovers.
Grant is now averaging for the season starting every game at point guard nine points, seven assists and 4.4 rebounds. More significantly, he is tied for ninth in the league in assists and is first among starters in assist to turnover ratio at 4.67 to one. It’s generally considered good for a point guard to have a two-to-one ratio.
“I’m adjusting for sure,” acknowledged Grant. “But I feel I’m a guy who can make plays whether I’m scoring or not.
The 6-4, 200 pound third year player from Notre Dame has mostly done that since he’s been in the NBA. He played little as a rookie with the Knicks in 2015-16 after being selected 19th in the first round of the draft. He was part of the Derrick Rose trade and had about two months of starts when the Bulls went through their benching of Rajon Rondo. But by mid March, Grant was out of the playing rotation and mostly assigned to mop up time in the six-game playoff loss to the Celtics.
With point guard Kris Dunn being acquired in the trade of Jimmy Butler, Grant was presumed to be out of the rotation again since he was more of a so called combo guard who was known for scoring in college. But Grant apparently outplayed Dunn in training camp and drew the start in the first preseason game. Then with Dunn coming on, Dunn was injured in the third preseason game and Grant retained the starting job for the regular season.
It figured to be temporary.
Especially because Grant had again began to play cautiously, clearly trying to adhere to the coaching staff wishes to be more of a true point guard. Grant seemingly interpreted that to mean handing off the ball. He has led the team in assists in every game this season, but often it was just standing next to Lauri Markkanan and giving him the ball for a shot.
“I’m still trying to figure out (the balance),” Grant admitted after the loss to the Pelicans. “We have some great shooters on this team and I try to get the ball to them. But as a point guard in this league, you still have to be aggressive. You are going up against guys who are going to attack you all game. So you also have to attack them and make sure they are not resting on defense. My shot will come, but at the same time I have to be aggressive.”
That mentality has been on display more these last few games, and particularly against the Pelicans. Grant’s drive into the paint and pass back to Robin Lopez with 10 seconds left should have won the game. But Lopez missed a pair of layups. That came after what seemed like a game saving play of a Grant steal from DeMarcus Cousins. Grant then got the Bulls going in the overtime with a three-point play. But the Bulls missed their next six shots. Grant scored all the Bulls’ overtime points until a Justin Holiday layup with 6.9 seconds left to end the scoring.
“I think he’s starting to get it now,” said Holiday. “It’s going to be a process. It’s going to take time, continue to work, continue to figure it out. He came through big at the end of the game. That’s what I tell him, continue to be aggressive whether that shot is falling or not; you have to shoot your shot.”
Grant is hardly assured to be the Bulls point guard.
Dunn is being looked at for the future, but he again was loose with the ball against New Orleans. He committed four turnovers in 17 minutes and is averaging more than four per game. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg emphasized that has to change.
Both Dunn and Grant are about the same size, but Dunn is more athletic with longer arms, more rangy. His shot is not considered as good, though Grant hasn’t shot well this season. Perhaps in part due to his hesitation in apparently trying to appease the coaches and stay in the lineup. But the message came back to him stronger: Be who you are. Just be careful.
Which meant to be aggressive and attack the lane, though keep watch over that ball.
It’s vital, even more so in this NBA era as Grant pointed out, for a point guard to be assertive. The Bulls this season have too often passed the ball around the perimeter seeking shots. It’s more effective to drive, trying to collapse the defense and pass out for the shot. What Hoiberg likes to call playing down hill. The Bulls often tend to be more into parallel parking. But the Bulls, especially without Zach LaVine, lack penetrating guards. It’s why David Nwaba replaced Paul Zipser in the starting lineup. Nwaba probably will be out at least this week with a sprained ankle from Saturday.
But Grant also knew how much cutting down on turnovers is important for the Bulls, especially with a team high turnover rate the first few games of the season. So Grant appeared to be pulling back, playing it safe and moving the ball. Which didn’t force the defense to react. Dunn seemed to be coming on fast with more direct action to the basket, especially averaging 10 points and almost five rebounds his first three games back. But his turnovers have been high, and Saturday Dunn scuffled with his shot after making a trio of threes Friday in Miami. Though Grant still was one of five on threes Saturday and 17 percent on the season, he filled up the box score with various crooked numbers and made plays that produced results and better shots for teammates.
He’s hardly guaranteed the position given the Bulls’ investment in Dunn. But Hoiberg has emphasized this season is about competition. May the better man win.
“I was able to push the ball and find my teammates,” Grant said. “If I continue to do that we can win some games and be in a game with a team like that. I want to take care of the ball. I felt my main focus was trying to be aggressive and not just find guys, be aggressive and it turned out I did have some assists.
“Coach has been telling me we have a lot of guys who shoot a lot of jump shots and when those aren’t falling you have to have someone who gets into the paint and gets guys easier looks,” said Grant. “I feel I can be one of those guys. I was able to hit a couple of shots and get my guys involved. It was a game I can look back on and maybe this is a game I can get started.”