Jacob Grandison spent the first two seasons of his collegiate career with Holy Cross, averaging roughly 30 minutes per game.
After sitting out the 2019-20 season as a transfer, Grandison has jumped on to an Illini team that is expected to contend for a title his junior season — but he has taken on a role that he was not familiar with in the past.
For Grandison, it has been making the adjustment from being the go-to guy at Holy Cross, to the grit guy at Illinois.
“We need an energy guy. Making those dirty plays that people don’t want to make,” Grandison said Monday. “I think it’s one of the best ways to impact.”
That has been his impact as of late.
For most of the season, Grandison has come off the bench and played somewhere around 10 to 15 minutes per game. His skills were obvious; even in those limited minutes he had games where he scored 8 or 10 points, and tallied 7 or 8 rebounds.
That comes just two years removed from averaging over 13 points a game, a point total he has not topped even once in an Illini uniform.
But recently, Grandison has seen his role elevated, and he’s thrived.
After the Illini dropped two in a row at home (Ohio State and Maryland), head coach Brad Underwood was upset with his team’s lack of energy, especially from the opening tip.
“We can’t just keep taking body blows and we can’t just keep coming out flat, lifeless, emotionless and with no spirit,” Underwood said after the loss to the Buckeyes. “I don’t know what the right word is. It’s a blasé start, and we can’t do that.”
It was in that Ohio State game that Grandison truly began to emerge, taking some late shots and sinking some of them, keeping the Illini in a game they trailed by as many as 16.
Despite traditionally being stubborn to alter the starting lineup, Underwood looked to his energy guy to turn things around in the starting five.
Grandison has now started back-to-back games (his first two starts in Orange and Blue) and the Illini have won two in a row. Not to mention, their point totals at the under-8 media timeouts have been 27 and 28 points respectively — safe to say the ‘slow start problem’ has been erased.
“Stay in the moment, it’s basketball, you have to be ready whenever,” Grandison said of his time on the bench. “Be confident in yourself.”
But in Illinois’ crucial game against Iowa on Friday, Grandison was especially good.
The junior picked up his first double-double of the season — his first double-double since March 2019 (22 points, 16 rebounds). Grandison’s 11 points against the Hawkeyes came at pivotal moments, including a late second-half three to boost the Illini down the stretch.
However, it was Grandison’s 10 rebounds and two steals that paid dividends, and he was rewarded with 30 minutes of playing time — twice as many as he had in any previous game this season.
The transfer was getting those minutes because of his energy, if nothing else.
“I have a lot of energy to give,” Grandison said. “It’s one of the best ways I can help this team.”
It’s been noticed by his head coach, as well.
“He only has one speed, and that’s all-out,” Underwood said.
The Oakland native knows he’s a leader, and said he knows the 80-75 win over top-10 Iowa isn’t the end goal this year.
“Forget about it and refocus ourselves and looking at our next steps,” Grandison said. “It’s the next game of the season.”
And as Illinois chases its first NCAA Tournament berth in nearly a decade, Grandison said he knows he’ll be playing a big role in the stretch run.
“Right now we’re in a good spot to hit our peak in early, middle February. We had that last year,” Grandison said. “We talk about and share the same goals of winning Big Ten Championship and a national championship.”