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Jerian Grant: The Future of Basketball?

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Grantland author Kirk Goldsberry wrote James Harden looked like "the future of basketball" based on his offensive contribution to the NBA's Houston Rockets. A closer examination of Harden's past and present draw some interesting similarities to Notre Dame's Jerian Grant.

The best offensive weapon on the best offensive team
The best offensive weapon on the best offensive team
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

(Statistics used in this article are compiled from ESPN.com, NBA.comtheACC.com and KenPom.com)

A few weeks back I read a great article on Grantland.com that declared Houston Rockets forward James Harden the future of basketball. Here's the opening paragraph of Kirk Goldsberry's piece:

As of today, James Harden is the leading scorer in the NBA and the most important offensive force on a team in the thick of the Western Conference title race. He's a legitimate MVP candidate, quite clearly the best shooting guard in the league. And yet, he's more than that. Those plaudits only scratch the surface of what he's doing this season.

Let me swap out a name and a few details and try this on for size with you:

As of today, Jerian Grant is the most important offensive force on a team in the thick of the ACC title race. He's a legitimate PoY candidate, quite clearly the best shooting guard in the league. And yet, he's more than that. Those plaudits only scratch the surface of what he's doing this season.

Fits, doesn't it? Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Jerian Grant is the fourth leading scorer in the ACC at 17.26 ppg, only 1.17 ppg behind Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas. Grant is the top assist man in the ACC, with 6.35 apg, nearly 1.5 per game clear of Pitt's James Robinson. Grant is 8th in the entire country in assists. Grant is the only ACC player to rank in the top 10 in the conference in both assists and points per game. If you consider that Irish players other than Grant have made 536 shots from the floor this year and 31% of those were three's, it is reasonable to assume 31% of Grant's assists are for 3's. That makes Jerian directly responsible for 32 of Notre Dame's 81 ppg this season or 40% of the most efficient offenses in the country.

On Grantland, Goldsberry calls Harden the "manifestation of trends in offensive basketball... a leaguewide harbinger of what's to come." At a time where people are calling for wholesale dramatic changes to the college game because defenses are progressing ahead of offensive play, Grant and his Irish team are an important beacon of how NBA moneyball practices could filter their way into NCAA basketball.

Like Houston's GM Daryl Morey and Head Coach Kevin McHale, Notre Dame's Mike Brey has built his team around 3's and paint shots. While the college game doesn't provide access to the types of shot and efficiency charts that Goldsberry uses in his Harden article, look at how the Irish score 32.6% of their points from behind the arc, 4.3 percentage points above the NCAA D1 average. Furthermore the Irish shoot 60% on 2's, good for first in the country. This isn't good mid-range shooting on 15 footers. To shoot 60%, a large number of your attempts have to be at the rim.

If Brey is emulating Morey and McHale's model for winning basketball, then Jerian Grant is filling that same valuable role for the Irish that James Harden is for the Rockets. When you start digging in on these 2 guys and look at some of the numbers, you start to draw some very distinct similarities. Both are listed at 6'5" and Harden plays at 225 where Grant is listed at only 204. Both men have remarkable vision and basketball IQ to go along with an instinctive ability to get to the rim against nearly any defender. Harden departed Arizona State after the 2008-2009 season to enter the NBA draft where he was selected 3rd overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder at 20 years old. Grant will almost certainly hear his name called in the early stages of this spring's NBA draft at 22 years old.

When we start looking at stats for the two men, we also see some similarities. Let's take Grant's final college season and compare it to Harden's and Harden's current season with the Rockets that prompted Goldsberry's article:

minutes/gm utilization (poss%) % of team shots ORTG (eff.) eFG% FTRate FT% % scoring from FTs Assist Rate Assist/TO Ratio
2015 Grant at ND 36 25.4 23.5 128.0 58.1 41.6 78.4 21.9 32.0 3.24
2009 Harden at ASU 36 32.7 29.8 112.5 55.3 59.7 75.6 29.0 29.2 1.25
2015 Harden at Houston 36 31.3 29.0 107.2 52.5 48.6 88.3 29.1 34.2 1.71

With both the Sun Devils and the Rockets, Harden carried a large percentage of the offensive load for his team. Harden was used in nearly 1/3rd of the possessions and took 30% of the shots for the 7th best offense that year according to KenPom.com ratings. Grant is carrying a similarly heavy load for the Irish, but the balance of the Irish roster is allowing him to flourish while taking only 24% of the shots for the 2nd rated offense this season. His 128 ORTG is a function of outstanding shooting and minimal turnovers despite his remarkable assist rate.

As Goldsberry points out, a major component of Harden's value is his ability to get to the line and convert. Even in college, Harden got a big chunk of his scoring from the line. While Grant isn't shooting FT's as well as Harden is this year, he is hitting a better percentage than Harden did in his final season at ASU. Not accounting for and-1's,Grant's current 78.4% shooting from the line means the Irish score at least 1.57 points every time he earns a trip to the stripe. Not bad for a team averaging 1.16 points per possession in ACC games. Now if we could just convince the ACC to help him out with some of those NBA superstar whistles.

Harden's role for the Rockets goes beyond his own scoring. He also facilitates for them and generates a high number of assisted 3's in Houston's offense. While the college game lacks for some of the advanced stats and analytics of the pro game, even a cursory glance at the statistics shows just how proficient Grant is in creating offense for others. His remarkable 3.24 assist-to-turnover ratio soars above Harden's at both levels and that's only for the ones that get recorded. Watch any Notre Dame game and you'll see that Grant is responsible for a good number of "hockey assists." Grant's ability to get to the rim forces defenses to react, and that motion delivers openings that the Irish use to deliver their incredibly sharp shooting. Look at how a Grant drive collapses the Pitt defense, causing all four of his teammates to run to the arc, and leading to a hockey assist on this Beachem three:

Like Harden, Grant isn't particularly known for his defensive prowess. Unlike Harden, there aren't entire YouTube videos dedicated to the comedy of Grant's defensive effort. His defense in winning situations against NC State and Duke proved that Jerian has the skills and knowledge to be a lock-down defender, even if it isn't his calling card.

Much of the hype leading up to the Irish beating Duke in Purcell Pavillion last week centered around the clash of Wooden Award candidates. As the Observer's Mike Monaco pointed out, there was no shortage of NBA interest in that game.

Of particular interest was South Bend Tribune's Tom Noie's observation (not just for his grammar):

If one assumes that Duke center Jahlil Okafor is going to be the first pick in spring's NBA draft, then there are really only 3-4 teams engaged in the tank-tacular that would need to scout the Duke big man. This list is populated mostly by teams in playoff positions and a few on the edges. Only the Lakers and Sixers and Magic are likely to figure in to the race to the bottom, whereas many of the rest will be picking outside the lottery. What really stands out to me are the number of teams on that list that rely on moneyball analytics to drive their franchise. Both of James Harden's NBA employers are on the list. The new ownership group in Milwaukee has promised local fans they're going to use the latest in analytics and scouting to find a way for the small market to compete with the big boys.

The 20 scouts in attendance were treated to a 40 minute delight by Jerian Grant. As his head coach pointed out after the game, Grant's 23 points, 12 assists, 6 boards, 3 steals and 2 blocks against the Blue Devils earned Jerian a nice sum of future NBA cash. As the most important player on one of the top teams in the toughest conference in the country, Jerian Grant just might be on his way to becoming the future future of basketball.