January 10, 2006
RALEIGH -- Coach Herb Sendek may be reaching the point where he has to make a corporate decision on how to utilize sophomore swingman Gavin Grant in the weeks ahead.
The one common denominator in State's two early losses during a mostly impressive 12-2 start was that Grant has been in way over his head, overwhelmed by playing against good competition in hostile environments. He clearly has been State's biggest liability when he has been on the floor in those situations.
Nobody expected Grant to turn into a polished player instantly this season, and nobody is blaming him for all of the Wolfpack's problems when they lose. But Sendek has to start weighing the value of sticking with Grant through thick and thin and developing him at the expense of an important road win here or there.
All coaches are willing to let a player play through some growing pains, as long as they are confident that he is talented enough and determined enough to learn from the bad experiences and fight through the adversity. No coach wants a sophomore dragging down a senior-laden team that has designs on a special season, though.
This is a complicated issue. There are many, many reasons for Sendek to do everything in his power to see that Grant improves, succeeds and contributes. But Grant can't be driving his teammates into potholes every time State goes on the road, either.
Grant had five points (2-7 FG), three rebounds, three assists and five turnovers in 24 minutes as a starter in the 45-42 loss at Iowa. Those numbers don't accurately reflect how completely out of sorts he was, either, unable to handle Iowa's pressure defense and frazzled on both ends of the court. Sendek took him out of the starting lineup after that game.
Grant struggled even more in State's 82-69 loss at North Carolina. He converted only one of seven shots from the field, for four points in 18 minutes, with two rebounds and one turnover. Those numbers, too, failed to reflect how he forced up bad shots and was beaten continually on defense, which led in part to foul trouble among State's big men.
Grant wasn't on the floor down the stretch in Chapel Hill, when Carolina scored the last 13 points, after the game was tied 69-69. But that was because he already had proven he couldn't handle the situation.
Here's perhaps the best example of how the tone of the game shifted whenever Grant was on the floor. When he entered for the first time, State led 11-0 with 16 minutes remaining in the first half. By the time he went out, with 12:21 left, the lead was down to 15-13. Carolina took a 16-15 lead with a three-pointer on the next possession. If officials gave out plus-minus statistics, as they do in hockey, Grant's numbers at Iowa and at UNC would have been ugly.
Clearly, Grant's early season explosions -- 22 points and nine assists against Delaware, 13 points and 10 assists against Stetson -- were more a product of weak competition in a friendly setting than they were a preview of things to come.
Giving up on Grant probably isn't the solution, though.
There's no question that Grant has the raw ability and the athleticism to be a significant contributor on this team. At 6-7 and 212 pounds, he is big and quick enough to match up with small forwards and big guards, and he is versatile enough to play at several spots. State has other athletic players, but Grant is the only one in that mold with that size. He also is second on the team in rebounding, already a problem area for the Wolfpack.
Beyond that, Sendek would like to continue to distribute minutes the way he has so far. The coach has been going with a seven-man rotation, with each playing at least 15-20 minutes per game. He has used freshman forward Ben McCauley only as a spot eighth man.
That makes Grant the only backcourt backup in the rotation. If Sendek wants to continue to have three guards on the floor a majority of the time, Grant must figure in, if nothing more than to spell Tony Bethel, Cameron Bennerman or Engin Atsur from time to time. Bethel, in particular, is not yet able to handle 35 minutes per game on a nightly basis, even though his health continues to improve.
GRANT'S PROGRESS WORTH WATCHING
Sendek likes the notion of having "seven starters," and selling his team on the fact that any of them might step up and play the prominent role on any given night. This team's chemistry and all-for-one, one-for-all attitude needs Grant to play well and contribute.
Sendek has other vested interests in Grant's success. Grant is from The Bronx, and Sendek wants to keep his New York City ties -- which started with Julius Hodge and also include top 2006 recruit Larry Davis -- as strong as possible. The best way for Sendek to continue to recruit New York is for New Yorkers to succeed once they get to State.
On a very personal level, too, Sendek -- and everyone else involved with the State program, for that matter -- wants to see Grant do well. Those close to Grant rave about what a good, personable young man he is. He has been through an emotional wringer with the controversy surrounding his status with U.S. immigration officials, and he is having to endure the taunts and insults from opposing fans whenever State goes on the road. UNC's students weren't brutal, but they did hold up green cards at the Smith Center.
Still, Sendek has limits on how much rope he can give Grant now that the ACC season is heating up. The coach can't continue to try to force a square peg into a round hole if Grant doesn't produce -- especially in big games, especially on the road. Sendek can hide Grant a bit at home, and Grant hasn't been as much of a liability at home, anyway. But road games ultimately will determine State's status in the league.
Remember, the longer Grant struggles, the more the word will get out around the league and the more opponents will turn up the pressure a notch higher when he's on the court. This is not a conference for the weak of heart, or young players still finding their way.
The X factor in all of this is when, and if, Grant might break through and settle down. If it happens soon, then the growing pains will have seemed worthwhile. If it happens soon, his struggles at Iowa and UNC will go down as a blip on the screen, and it will seem as though Grant made it through his tough times relatively quickly. If it takes a little longer than hoped, it probably still will be worth the wait.
Those are big ifs and whens, though. That's why the situation will be so interesting to follow as the season progresses.