Jerami Grant and the question of what versatility the Suns value

Nov 9, 2020, 11:20 AM

Jerami Grant #9 of the Denver Nuggets with a slam dunk over Utah Jazz during double overtime at The...

Jerami Grant #9 of the Denver Nuggets with a slam dunk over Utah Jazz during double overtime at The Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 08, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

While the NBA hasn’t officially announced a date for free agency, the speculation is it’ll happen shortly after Nov. 18’s NBA Draft.

Empire of the Suns will run through some of the names you need to know before then. Kellan Olson’s three-part offseason preview is a good starting point to get a full understanding of what the team could look to accomplish this offseason, especially when it comes to cap space.

The short answer is that there are plenty of intriguing possibilities.

What’s the first thing you think of when someone brings up versatility in basketball?

Defense, right? Most of the time, it’s defense.

That question very much relates to not only Denver Nuggets forward Jerami Grant, but any potential interest the Phoenix Suns could have in signing him.

Grant has a $9.3 million player option he will surely be declining to get a more expensive long-term deal, and the timing is outstanding following Denver’s trip to the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.

The 26-year-old got to show why he’s one of the better defensive players in the league, more so for his versatility than anything else. Being the primary defender on LeBron James while also spending stretches on Anthony Davis earns you notice.

Mikal Bridges has provided Suns fans a proper lens for how much on-ball defense against star ball-handlers is about multiple efforts to simply contain those guys while being a nuisance along the way, and that’s what Grant can do.

Grant picks up LeBron fullcourt on this possession and sticks with him, doing his job to the point where teammate Paul Millsap’s verticality at the rim takes over to force James into a difficult angle.

Little things of containing the downhill drive as best he can by separating so James can have the jumper are key. It’s so he doesn’t get blown by, but then he still meets him for contact at the elbow so it’s not a clean take. He finishes the play with a twitchy jump toward the rebound that the Lakers’ Dwight Howard nearly gets a hand on. Those are some awesome traits to have.

Grant’s 7-foot-3 wingspan means he reaches Bridges levels when it comes to deflections and getting his hands on balls that 95% of wings can’t.

Grant glides around on defense in a way where he’s persistent in his presence on guys. He’s a pain for these stars to deal with.

At times, he and the help alongside him were even able to cut James off from the rim, and this is an excellent recovery into a strong contest after doing so.

He clearly earned the respect of James, who took some time once the Lakers had advanced to talk to Grant as the confetti was coming down.

James wasn’t limited in this series by Grant, and neither was Davis. Players performing at that level are rarely restricted by individual defenders in the playoffs, which is why Andre Iguodala got that NBA Finals MVP in 2015 for his job on James.

Davis is the best player in the league at scoring on players smaller than him, but even Grant was able to get a leg up on him a handful of times through the five games.

That is the value in a player like Grant.

As you can see by the foot speed, he can guard 1-4 with ease. There are less than two dozen NBA players who can do an effective enough job defending up and down the depth chart: from James Harden to Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic to Damian Lillard and so on. He is one of them, and so is Bridges.

Therein lies the appeal of the Suns going after Grant in free agency. They’d have two All-Defense caliber pieces on the wing, and a duo that has the quickness and length to limit guards as well. If Deandre Ayton’s improvement trajectory since being drafted continues on the defensive end, that’s enough of a foundation for a future premier defense.

That would be pretty neat, huh? So the obvious question now is about Grant’s offense, and that’s where we go back to our discussion on versatility.

Over the course of Monty Williams’ first season as head coach of the Suns, it became more and more obvious the type of players he and general manager James Jones covet. Williams spoke highly of the Miami Heat when they came to Phoenix last November, seeing a rotation with five-plus guys that can not only score for themselves off the dribble but create for their teammates as well.

He praised the Boston Celtics in a similar light, and looking at how Williams’ “0.5” offense produced a league-leading 27.2 assists per game, it had a lot to do with Jones and Williams sharing a vision on the personnel to achieve that.

And that goes beyond high-level playmakers like Ricky Rubio and Devin Booker. Players like Bridges and Cam Johnson showed they can make the zero-to-two dribble quick decisions to keep the flow of the offense chugging.

So can Grant be one of those guys too?

In a word, maaaaaybe?

Grant shot 68% at the rim last season, an average number for a big and a pretty good one for a wing. He shot only 35% from the midrange while taking 24% of his shots there, so that’s an area for him to avoid and adopt some Moreyball philosophies on just shots at the rim and from behind the three-point line.

That’s because Grant has gone from a non-shooter coming out of the draft in 2014 to a reliable one.

On 3.6 attempts per game from the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, Grant shot 39.1% from deep. Looking across the NBA, only 29 players matched his average attempts and efficiency over those two seasons, per Basketball-Reference.

From a shooting percentage standpoint, you like what you’re seeing.

What about the dribbling decisions? Ehhh.

Grant is not much of a turnovers guy, which is a noteworthy part to include in this whole equation. His turnover percentage was under 10% each of the last three seasons, terrific numbers, something he must do as a low-usage player.

But his assist numbers are woeful, at a career number of 1.1 a game, and his 1.2 for Denver was his highest mark in four years.

Most of those are going to come off simple passes through sets and such, so it wasn’t much to uncover.

Grant’s handle is sound as a line-drive guy without much wiggle. He’s a limited scorer, but because of his speed and finishing ability, he can do enough to get a team 10-15 points a night off transition opportunities, threes and drives like this.

Because of his physicality on defense and those rim attacks, you’d be correct in guessing that Grant gets to the line at a fair rate as well. He attempted 2.8 a game last year, shooting a career-high 75.0%, and was one of 16 players outside of centers to get to the line that often while taking less than 10 shots a game.

To put a bow on it, Grant’s an effective slasher, proving himself as a competent three-point threat and great finisher to punish defenses enough that don’t respect him.

Is that enough offensive versatility to meet Jones’ and Williams’ standards? Hard to say. Let’s analyze the big picture to try and answer that.

Firstly, there would be no more “forwards” on the Suns. Just wings. Even if Kelly Oubre Jr. stayed, as long as Williams went Point Book at times and welcomed playing three of the four wings together, there’d be enough minutes to go around. The Suns would certainly be smaller than the average team, and there’s not a clear answer yet as to whether or not Jones and Williams would want that as part of the long-term identity.

Possibly the side street we should quickly swing down is if they are looking for more out of a wing.

Yes, Oubre, Johnson and Bridges have proven themselves as good NBA players and all have their own ways they help the Suns win basketball games. But you wouldn’t describe any of the three as dynamic offensively, let alone versatile.

Do the Suns want a different skill set on the wing if they are to add another piece there? Something with a little bit more kick to it, perhaps?

Free agents Danilo Gallinari and Davis Bertans bring mixes of high-level scoring and shooting. It’s highly unlikely that Israeli forward Deni Avdija will be available when the Suns pick 10th in the NBA Draft, but a point-forward of sorts like him could be of more interest.

In terms of another long-term commitment at the wing, Phoenix might want something a little different. Or, they just want to keep stocking up on straightforward glue guys, and there are certainly worse ideas to have when building a team around Booker and Ayton.

If that’s the plan, Grant certainly figures to be high on the Suns’ shopping list this offseason.

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