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Local college basketball notes: SU benefits with Grant’s improvement

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Syracuse basketball fans are becoming spoiled. Every game they expect one or two highlight plays by sophomore forward Jerami Grant, spectacular efforts that not only draw local but national attention.

There was a two-hand rejection of a St. John’s shot that was the top play of the day on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” A rim-rattling follow dunk of a missed shot against Villanova that brought the huge Carrier Dome crowd to its feet.

And a spinning drive down the lane that culminated in a two-handed jam during SU’s long first-half run against North Carolina last Saturday.

Those are the things fans notice the most about the 6-foot-8, 210-pound rising star. But Grant’s improvement in almost every aspect of his game is one of the reasons he has become a vital cog in the Orange’s 17-0 start and rise to near the top of the national polls heading into a huge home game Saturday against Pittsburgh.

As well as skyrocketing Grant higher and higher in the eyes of NBA draft experts.

Through the first 13 games, Grant was SU’s energy guy off the bench. Proving an immediate offensive and defensive spark when either starters Rakeem Christmas or DaJuan Coleman lacked is what coach Jim Boeheim was looking for.

When Coleman went down with a nagging knee injury four games ago, Boeheim didn’t think twice about moving Grant into the starting lineup. Though the Orange missed his bench spark, he has responded with three terrific games, including back-to-back double-doubles vs. Virginia Tech and North Carolina.

“Jerami was really comfortable coming off the bench because he knew he was going to play a lot of minutes anyway,’’ Boeheim said. “As a starter, he’s had to conserve his energy a little bit more, but he’s still giving us a big lift every time he takes the court.’’

Grant is SU’s third-leading scorer behind C.J. Fair and Trevor Cooney. He’s averaging 12.5 points and has reached double digits in 12 of 17 games.

Along with shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor, Grant leads the team in rebounding (6.6 per game), has 24 assists and 13 blocks. And he’s playing nearly 30 minutes per game.

For Grant, this entire season has been one big learning experience.

“I knew I could contribute, but I wasn’t quite sure what my role was going to be when we started,’’ said Grant, who came out of one of the powerful high school programs in the country, DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md. “Coach told me that he was going to use me in a variety of ways, and that I needed to work on my entire game. Last year I was just a post-up guy. Now I’ve expanded my range and I think I’ve really learned how to play the position.’’

SU fans got just a small glimpse of Grant’s talents a year ago. He played in all 40 games, starting nine, and averaged just 3.9 points and 3 rebounds. Grant said the adjustment from high school to college was tougher than he expected.

“Just the speed of the game,’’ he said. “Moves I made in high school were too slow for what I saw in college. And now I was playing against guys my size or bigger every game.’’

Grant hoped to gain valuable experience this past summer when he was selected to USA Basketball’s Under-19 squad that was to compete in the world championships. But he contacted a case of mononucleosis before the trip to Europe, and couldn’t play.

“That was really disappointing,’’ Grant said. “So when I was healthy enough, I really worked hard on my game to get ready for the season.’’

Boeheim and his teammates saw immediate results during SU’s four-game Canadian trip in August. Grant averaged 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds.

“He was like a different player than as a freshman,’’ Fair said. “He played much more confidently, he is a lot stronger and just able to more things than a year ago.’’

Grant began the season with a 16-point, 10-rebound effort against Fordham and has not slowed down since.

For Boeheim, Grant’s improvement is tied to “an outstanding work ethic and a desire to be a great player. To that end, he’s worked tirelessly on his jumper and his ball-handling.’’

Grant’s athleticism has never been a question. He has a non-stop motor, he’s agile and can leap with the best in the country. His huge wing span is perfect for the back of SU’s 2-3 zone. But his offensive game still needs refinement.

“My jumper is a work in progress,’’ Grant said. “Coach (Gerry) McNamara has really helped me a lot with my release and my timing. Now I’m starting to hit a few of those in games.’’

Grant’s bloodlines suggested he would be a star. Father Harvey was an All-American at Oklahoma and had a distinguished career in the NBA. Uncle Horace was a standout at Clemson and spent over a decade in the NBA, mostly with Chicago.

Oldest brother Jerami also played at Clemson, and Jerian was an All-Big East performer at Notre Dame before leaving school for the spring semester.

“We had some great pick-up games in the back yard,’’ Grant said. “We just have a basketball family, and I’ve been around the game all my life.’’

“He’s just touched the surface as far as the kind of player he can become,” Boeheim said.

Most draft services have Grant going anywhere from the top 10 to the middle of the first round in a projected draft. According to NBA Draft.net, “He’d be a first-rounder if he came out. His athleticism is too hard to ignore. Has to improve his shot, but what a talent he is. The upside is huge when he rounds out. His bloodlines will help.”

Grant said he has not thought about leaving school early. His only focus is on helping the Orange to an Atlantic Coast Conference and national championship before he leaves.

“We’ve got something special going on here,’’ he said, “And I want to be a part of it. There will be lot’s of time in the future to think about playing pro basketball.’’

SU fans are hoping that Grant gives them at least one more year of highlights.

THINKING AHEAD

In case Orange fans are thinking ahead, and I know a lot of you do at this time of the season, prospects of SU playing close to home in the NCAA Tournament are growing stronger with every win.

Should SU be a top one or two seed, and there is every reason to believe they will remain at least in those spots, they will likely play the first two NCAA games at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo.

Boeheim’s team win two games there, as they did in 2010, Syracuse would move on to the East Regional at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

As of today, NCAA Bracketology guru Joe Lunardi has SU as the No. 1 seed in the East, playing either Florida Gulf Coast or Hampton in the second round.

Other second- and third-round sights include: Milwaukee, Orlando, Fla., Spokane, Wash., Raleigh, N.C., San Antonio, San Diego and St. Louis.

The three other regional sites are: Memphis (South), Anaheim (West) and Indianapolis (Midwest). The national semifinals and final are at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

VOTE FOR BOEHEIM

Boeheim is among the participants in an ESPN contest that will decide which college coach’s charity wins $100,000.

The voting In the Infiniti Challenge is done by fans, who must register at ESPN.com. Fans are permitted to cast one vote per day. The contest stretches over 10 weeks, and those underperforming coaches will be cut every few weeks. The list will be trimmed to 24 by Jan. 26, until the final four remains and a national champion is crowned in mid-March.

Boeheim is playing for the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation. The foundation is currently in the middle of a campaign to refurbish three local Boys & Girls Clubs.

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times. He can be reached at jday@Gran

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