PORTLAND--There’s no great motivator like inactivity.
Jerian Grant arrived in Chicago through the Derrick Rose trade before draft night, and had done little to impress those watching him since—as Robin Lopez was crowned as the chief piece in the Bulls trading away a former MVP.
As a 2015 first-round pick, Grant found himself among the clutter in the Bulls’ roster and on opening night, couldn’t even put on a jersey for his actual debut. The feeling was probably something like no other he’d felt in his entire basketball career, even if the intention wasn’t to embarrass.
“When you’re inactive you feel like you’re the last guy on the team,” said Grant, who was on the Bulls' inactive list the first three games. “Everybody else is out there suited up, so I wanted to prove to myself, to everybody out there that I’m not the last guy. I’m a guy that can contribute to this team.”
Fast forward to 11 games in the season, and Grant found himself center stage in the Bulls’ wire-to-wire win over the Portland Trailblazers as a surprise starter when Rajon Rondo couldn’t go with an ankle injury.
It didn’t matter that Damian Lillard, the league’s third-best scorer, was on the other side. All Grant saw was opportunity and he seized it as quickly as it appeared at his doorstep.
“You talk to people that have been in that position, and they just tell you stay ready,” Grant said. “Your opportunity is going to come. Eighty-two games in this league, things happen, so just stay ready. That’s been my mentality.”
Grant introduced himself to the Bulls fans who stayed up late to watch the romp, barely letting Lillard out of his sights while also scoring 18 points and getting five steals in 30 minutes.
He knew he had help defensively but his long 6-foot-4 frame was the first line of defense in making Tuesday the second-worst night of the season for Lillard (he went one for 10 against the Clippers a week ago).
“Keep the ball out of his hands, once he gets the ball he’s dynamic,” Grant said. “So really keep it out of his hands.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
Playing next to Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler eased the burden on him having to be a primary playmaker, something he struggled at in the preseason, leading to his inactive status for the opener.
“Yeah, it’s great playing with those guys. They give you a lot of confidence,” Grant said. “When I was named the starter they came to me, sat me down, and said, ‘You’re the point guard, so let’s go.’ That gave me a lot of confidence to just go out there and play my game.”
Butler said he saw some type of success coming for Grant, simply because he put in the work by being “constantly in the gym, asking the right questions, wanting to do well”.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg noted the inactive status didn’t deter the second-year guard, monitoring Grant during the competitive 3-on-3 games following Bulls practices.
It was a blow to Grant’s ego but not his competitive spirit. Dwyane Wade said he was glad Grant wasn’t just a player happy to be on a roster to start the season.
“It’s definitely tough. At first you’re shocked, but then it makes you work harder,” Grant said. “It puts things into a reality check, and makes you get back into the gym and work that much harder. As disappointed as I was, it makes you work harder, and I stayed ready.”
Staying ready meant staying attached to Lillard, being ready to knock down open shots and also, picking and choosing the right times to attack defenses when the ball swung to him from Wade or Butler.
“I just feel like I’m out there trying to make plays,” Grant said. “Today I felt like they were kind of playing me as a guy that is going to be out there trying to pass, so it helped me be more aggressive.”
The chatter about the Bulls being a better unit without Rondo will certainly begin over the next couple days, but the revelation that they’ve found a dependable option who looks comfortable in the most critical of settings—playing next to Wade and Butler—should be the grandest one of all.
“He wasn’t intimidated at all. He went out there and battled,” Hoiberg said. “Lillard, you could argue he’s as good as we have in this league at that lead guard position. Just to play with that poise that he played with really for his first meaningful minutes and to guard one of the top players in this league, I thought he handled it great.”