College basketball became a young man’s sport at Duke over the past decade, as a parade of one-and-done players starred for the Blue Devils then moved on to NBA riches.
Jacob Grandison runs counter to that narrative.
Oh he’s new to Duke, just like all but a few of his teammates on this season’s Blue Devils.
But he’s 24 years old, playing at his third school — surrounded, running plays and playing defense with 18-year-olds like Dereck Lively, Dariq Whitehead and Kyle Filipowski.
He’s heard the old man jokes and knows why. And yet…
“Of course, there’s jokes and stuff about the age thing, but honestly, I don’t really …” Grandison, his voice trailing off during an interview with The News & Observer, before declaring, “Put this out there. I don’t really want to be asked too much about my age, because I’m on my own journey, I have my own path.”
It’s been quite the wandering trip, from high school in Berkeley, California, to prep school in New Hampshire. Even then, his only college offer, from Holy Cross, came after his prep school season ended.
Now, having earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Illinois after transferring there from Holy Cross, he’ll begin practice later this month with the Blue Devils.
“I didn’t have any stars come out of high school,” Grandison said. “Went to a mid-major, low major. Transferred up. Sat out. I’ve been handling my business. I’ve been, you know, grinding.”
‘On my journey’
Now the grind has put Grandison in an important role in one of the nation’s premier college basketball programs.
And he’s grateful.
“I’m just another basketball player on my journey to where I want to be,” Grandison said. “And now I’m at Duke. Thank God.”
He’s also thankful to be healthy again.
The 6-6 forward injured his left (non-shooting) shoulder last March while playing with Illinois. A starter prior to the injury, he missed two games before returning as a reserve to play a total of 13 minutes over the Illini’s two NCAA tournament games.
Were it not for that injury, Grandison planned to turn pro. Instead, recovery and rehab last spring meant he couldn’t work out for NBA teams.
“Jacob went from, `I just took my last final exam ever’ in mid-May, to hearing from many coaches in top programs by the end of the same month,” James Grandison, Jacob’s father, said in an email to The News & Observer.
Jacob Grandison’s visit to Duke, and the frank answers he got during conversations with the coaches, sold him on the Blue Devils.
“I’ve seen it all,” Jacob Grandison said. “With what I’ve seen you can’t you can’t lie to me. You can’t BS me. So it was just, it was very professional. Like, wow, this is this is where I need to be.”
Recovery from the injury limited him during Duke’s summer practices to non-contact situations. But he’s healed now and ready to go. That’s a testament, James Grandison said, to his son’s diligence but also what he called “a seamless transition” from his California doctors to Duke’s medical staff.
“They have really done the most outstanding job in rehabbing Jacob’s shoulder to get him ready to compete for the season,” James Grandison said. “For the last three weeks, he has been hooping away on the Duke campus.”
When healthy last season, he provided reliable shooting, hitting 45.5% of his shots from the field, including 41% of his 3-pointers.
He averaged 9.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists as Illinois shared the Big Ten regular-season championship with Wisconsin. Houston eliminated the Illini, 68-53, in the NCAA tournament’s second round.
“I tried to play on my shoulder,” Grandison said. “But it was just realistically not something I was able to do.”
Duke coach Jon Scheyer sought an experienced, perimeter scorer to add to his freshman-dominated roster. What he saw from Grandison, when healthy, intrigued him.
“We love the experience and high-level basketball that Jacob brings to our roster,” Scheyer said. “He is battle tested with a high IQ for the game and a very good shooter. What makes him special is his ability to play seamlessly on the court with his teammates.”
That last trait is a product of everything Grandison has been through.
A talented athlete growing up in California, Grandison excelled in swimming and was a late-bloomer as a basketball player. A 6-foot freshman at Berkeley High, he worked with a private trainer to change his body and his game.
He eventually made varsity as a junior but was a reserve and he didn’t play his senior season.
He played grassroots with Team Lillard and, although an excellent student, had no college prospects as a player.
When he reached Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire for his post-grad year, the 6-6 Grandison excelled, scoring 20 points while leading his team to a win in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council Class A championship game.
Still, no college offers had come his way. Finally, three days after that game, Holy Cross offered him and he accepted.
‘A bunch of opportunities’
Grandison started 50 games over his two seasons at Holy Cross, averaging 11.5 points per game. But when the coach who recruited him, Bill Carmody, retired following the 2018-19 season, he decided to transfer.
For the first time, Grandison was sought after by the kind of major colleges where he’d dreamed of playing.
“That was one of the first or second years where the transfer portal was becoming really big,” Grandison said. “I wasn’t really thinking about it. Then I did it and then all of a sudden I had a bunch of opportunities. “
He landed at Illinois where NCAA rules forced him to sit out the 2019-20 season. Once again, had to prove himself at a higher level.
The following season, 2020-21, Grandison averaged 4.6 points while hitting 52.6% of his shots, including 41.5% on 3-pointers. He started 16 games as Illinois won the Big Ten championship.
Now, it’s on to another challenge at Duke, where the annual goals start with winning the ACC and competing in the Final Four to win the NCAA tournament.
Grandison is ready to face that challenge.
“I’ll do anything it takes to win,” he said. “I’ve had a different role, a different percentage of the responsibility. I’ve had different things I’ve needed to do, and I can showcase them all. I’ve felt like I kind of slipped under the radar because I’m not like the spectacle, jumping out of the gym with 100 dribble moves. But if you look at my resume, I’ve done a lot of winning.”
That is what he was brought to Duke to do.
“Having a guy like that is going to help you,” said Duke junior guard Jeremy Roach, the only player on Duke’s roster besides Grandison to have started an NCAA tournament game. “He’s been through it.”
Back in California, his mother, pediatric neuropsychologist Carina Grandison, said for all her son has been through, he’s far from done.
“I know,” she said, “he has even more to offer.”