CHICAGO – With an uncle who played in the NBA for 17 seasons and a father who stuck around for 11 years himself, Jerian Grant has been around professional basketball since childhood and one of the many things that he learned was to always keep working.
Keep working if you’re in the rotation, as Grant has been much of this season as a backup point guard for the Orlando Magic. And keep working if you’re out of the regular rotation, as was the case for Grant last week for two games.
Rather than reacting angrily or pouting upon getting demoted, Grant leaned on his wealth of basketball experience and put in even more work on trying to better his game. As fate would have it, Grant’s extra work kept him sharp when the Magic lost two players to injury on Sunday and needed him to start on Monday in Charlotte. Staying ready was a lesson taught to him by uncle, Horace Grant, who is a Magic legend and a four-time NBA champion and his father, Harvey, who played professionally for more than a decade.
``I knew that I was going to get another opportunity,’’ said Grant, who had nine points, five assists, two rebounds and a steal in his first start with the Magic on Monday. ``I’ve been around the league for a few years now, so I know how it goes. When you’re not playing well, and you get taken out of the lineup, your opportunity usually does come back, and you have to be ready. It’s just about me playing my game, playing with confidence and doing the things that I know will help my team.’’
With D.J. Augustin and Jonathon Simmons both nursing ankle injuries, Grant could be the Magic’s starter again on Wednesday they face the Chicago Bulls at the United Center. That’s just fine with Grant, who was traded to Orlando last July by the Bulls, and he said a second victory this season over his former team would give him a measure of sweet revenge.
``One thing is we need a win, and for me to potentially start and be a part of that, it would be great,’’ Grant said. ``I want to beat (the Bulls), I want to beat them bad. Of course, I want to play well, but getting the win would mean everything. To play well and get the win, then I’d have a little something to say.’’
The Magic (16-20) had little to say after they got smashed 125-100 by the Charlotte Hornets on Monday in North Carolina. It’s no secret that the team has been significantly better this season with Augustin on the floor than off it and that was never more evident than on Monday. Charlotte led by 13 points in the first quarter, expanded its advantage out to as much as 35 points and beat the Magic for a 13th consecutive time.
Even if the Magic had Augustin – statistically their second-best player all season – they likely wouldn’t have had enough firepower to keep up with Kemba Walker (24 points and seven assists) and a Hornets’ team that has had their number for three years.
Still, raw data is pretty clear when it comes to highlighting Augustin’s importance to the Magic. There’s a significant gulf between Orlando’s offensive production when Augustin is on the floor and when he’s off it. And the veteran point guard’s net rating for the season is second only to that of center Nikola Vucevic, meaning the Magic are 13.5 points worse per 100 possession without their smallest player on the floor.
``Obviously, D.J. is a huge part of what we do, and he’s been playing great, especially when he’s as aggressive as he’s been, and he gives us so much,’’ said Vucevic of Augustin, who had 26- and 27-point efforts last week prior to suffering his ankle injury. ``(Losing on Monday), it wasn’t because we missed (Augustin) or (Simmons). We just weren’t good enough. But we hope to get everybody back, especially a guy like D.J. who brings so much to our team. He does all the little things and runs our team, so hopefully he gets back sooner than later.’’
It remains to be seen whether Grant – or rookie backups Isaiah Briscoe or Troy Caupain – can give the Magic what they lost when Augustin and Simmons went down with ankle injuries. For much of the season, Grant has struggled with his confidence and his outside shot, causing him to play tentatively. He missed his first three shots on Monday in Charlotte – two of the attempts from 3-point range – before finally getting on the scoreboard late in the first half. In 36 games this season, Grant has averaged 4.3 points and 3.2 assists while shooting 39.2 percent from the floor and 32.9 percent from 3-point range.
Magic coach Steve Clifford insisted that Grant’s play had nothing to do with Orlando losing in lopsided fashion on Monday. In fact, he said that he’s been impressed with the attitude of the fourth-year pro since he was recently removed from the rotation.
``One thing I’ve liked is that even with Jerian not playing, he’s been in early and has stayed late working to stay in rhythm,’’ Clifford said. ``He’s played some very good games, we have confidence in him and this is a very good opportunity for him.’’
Grant was in and out of the starting lineup in Chicago over the previous two seasons, and he said his mindset is the same whether he is being used by the Magic to open games or come off the bench. The goal now for the Magic is to get Grant back to playing the way he did last season for Chicago when he averaged 8.4 points, 4.6 assists and 2.3 rebounds – all career highs. He was even better as a starter last season for the Bulls (9.8 points, 6.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds) and the Magic would gladly take those numbers this season, Clifford said.
Grant desperately wants another victory over the Bulls on Wednesday. When the Magic defeated the Bulls in Mexico City in mid-December, Grant had bragging rights over his former teammates and he used them with some good-natured ribbing. Not surprisingly, those same Bulls chirped back at him with some trash talk after the Bulls throttled the Magic in Chicago two weeks ago.
More than anything, Grant wants to be a player the Magic can win big with at the point guard position. His favorite memories while playing with the Bulls came in the 2016-17 season when Chicago pushed the Boston Celtics to six games in the playoffs. He appeared in five of those postseason games, made two starts and contributed six points, four assists, two rebounds and a steal in a Game 1 victory. He feels the Magic have all the necessary pieces to make it to the playoffs this year, and he wants to be a big part of the push to get to the postseason.
``Being able to be in the playoffs and being in the rotation for the first few games and help our team win, that was big for me,’’ Grant said. ``I want to get back there because there’s nothing like the NBA playoffs.’’
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