Film Study: Jerami Grant’s Defense Is Exactly What The Nuggets Needed

When the Denver Nuggets acquired Jerami Grant earlier this month in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, it didn’t create the Internet-breaking shock waves around the NBA which the movement of superstars such as Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis generated.

But for the Nuggets, it’s a big deal. Literally.

Grant, who Denver acquired by sending out a top-ten protected future first-round draft pick, is listed at 6 foot 9 with an enormous 7-foot-2 wingspan, and that in combination with great athleticism and a strong, sturdy frame means he brings – among many other important qualities and skills – a body type the Nuggets roster has long been lacking. If one had designed from scratch a prototypical player who possessed the skill set and physicality to fill Denver’s most glaring defensive needs, he’d almost certainly bear a striking resemblance to Grant.

That said, none of that would mean much without the defensive skills and aptitude to put those physical tools to their optimal use, and fortunately for Denver, Grant has been honing his game on a team which had the fourth-best defensive rating in the league last season, and as the video below will show, he has emerged as a legitimate force to contend with on that end of the court. He can competently guard one through five, and the Thunder were not afraid to leave him on an island with some of the league’s most lethal offensive weapons when switching on pick-and-rolls.

For the purposes of this film study on Grant’s defense, I’ve selected clips which feature the types of players who in recent years have given the Nuggets major headaches. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Blake Griffin represent the sizeable, athletic wings and bigs who Denver has struggled to find an answer for (most notably in recent memory being unable to stop Rodney Hood in the playoffs), while James Harden, Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell hold the fort for quick guards who excel at dribble penetration and can do a lot of damage from beyond the three-point line. It should also be noted that I have focused here on individual on-ball defense, so Grant’s prowess on help defense will not be explored here.

Film Study: Jerami Grant’s Defense

Contesting Three-Point Shots

One of the areas where Grant’s length proves extremely useful is in contesting three-pointers. Even when an opponent shakes him off, as Harden does in the second clip, his long wingspan and foot speed allow him to rapidly close the distance on shooters. This in turn affords him the luxury of sagging off a little to prevent and contain drives. Grant has good instincts for positioning, and the lateral quickness to stay in front of the player he’s guarding.

Sticking Like Glue To His Man

One aspect of Grant’s defense which immediately stood out when watching film for this project was just how great a job he does at staying joined at the hip to the players he’s guarding when they drive to the basket. This will be welcome news for the Nuggets, who have had serious problems with both preventing dribble penetration at the point of attack, and containing drives once they’re in motion. Grant shows solid awareness and discipline in funneling his opponent into the help defense, and it will be interesting to see how quickly he can jell with Denver’s returning players in establishing the kind of communication and trust this requires. But he needn’t always rely on backup, as he’s often capable of finishing the play with a block, as seen most dramatically where he stuffs Mitchell in the final clip.

Contesting Layups, Floaters And Mid-Range Jumpers

With the help of a high-running motor, Grant has a real knack for being a pest by staying in front of his man and hounding him at every opportunity. Of all the plays I reviewed for this film study, none is better representative of this than the fourth clip here, where Grant first impedes Giannis’ initial drive, helping Paul George get the steal when he doubles, then faces up again against the now-MVP, forcing him off balance and finally blocking his shot. Except for perhaps the later clip where Grant first blocks Marc Gasol and then recovers to contest and alter Leonard’s attempt at a putback layup. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone is going to love Grant every bit as much as he does Torrey Craig for his tenacity, hustle and grit. (Note: I must confess to slipping up and including a contested three-point clip at the end here.)

Getting Back In Transition

Here we pile on to the reasons Malone will love Grant with a look at how fervently he not only gets back in transition on defense, but stays with the play all the way. The second clip may be the most impressive in this respect, when Grant falls down out of bounds after a driving layup, then sprints back down the length of the court to get in position ahead of Giannis. A huge component of great defense is effort, and Grant leaves it all on the court.

Conclusion

Denver’s acquisition of Grant may prove to be one of the most underrated moves of the 2019 NBA offseason. He looks to be a prime candidate for fitting seamlessly into the Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets offense, but perhaps more importantly, filling the hole in Denver’s roster which he seems to fit like a puzzle piece, along with another year of growth and continuity for the returning players, could well elevate the Nuggets’ defense, which was 10th in the league last season, to a legitimately elite level.

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I've covered the Nuggets since 2005, writing for Forbes, BSN Denver, Roundball Mining Company, and more. Follow me on Twitter at @JoelRushNBA, where my views are my own

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