At 17, Grant Riller didn’t have visions of the NBA career he has now — one that took him to the Charlotte Hornets as a second-round draft pick a year ago, and now has him with the Philadelphia 76ers.
At the time, he scaled his dreams to the size that seemed right at the time. As a two-star recruit coming out of Ocoee High School in Florida, he was starting from the bottom. Coincidentally, Earl Grant was doing the same thing in his second year as men’s basketball coach at the College of Charleston.
“I was kind of a weird kid, man,” Riller said. “I wasn’t highly sought out as a recruit coming out of high school. I had much smaller goals than that, early on as a kid. I kind of just wanted to come in and have a good college career. I knew how small of a chance it was to make it to the league coming from a mid-major.”
When Grant approached Riller and talked to him about the program he was building — and the values on which it was being built — Riller was interested.
“I knew what kind of style he had just by the way he was talking,” Riller said. “I knew he was my kind of coach just because of what he was telling me. I always got a real vibe from him. Nothing ever seemed forced or fake.”
Without knowing him long, Riller believed Grant was someone he could trust. He committed on his visit.
“During the recruiting process, all these schools, they’re fighting over you to get you,” Riller said. “You hear so many things. I got lucky. I went to C of C my last official visit. So I kind of already had some experience with other programs and other schools.
“It was just a feeling I got just being around him, being around the school. It was just a different feeling. It’s hard to describe, especially at such a young age, but I kind of just knew, and ultimately it ended up being the right decision, without a doubt.”
Grant was still in the early stages of building the program at Charleston, but going back to his time as an assistant at Clemson, he enjoyed turning over stones to find talent — the kind that can give mid-major programs the chance to put on their NCAA Tournament dancing shoes, the kind that can transcend to the professional level.
Riller and Grant were part of runs to the top of the Colonial Athletic Association and to the NCAA Tournament. In five years at Charleston, Riller went from wanting to make an impact to seeing a pathway to the next level.
All the while, Grant’s roster had NBA talent. Joe Chealey signed a two-way contract with the Hornets in 2018. Jarrell Brantley was a second-round pick of the Pacers in 2019. Charleston had NBA scouts at games and practices.
“I kind of started to believe probably my second year in school,” Riller said. “It was all on my shoulders. We had two NBA guys there that were older than me, Jarrell Brantley and Joe Chealey. I knew [scouts] would be there. I knew I would have the opportunity that a lot of players don’t have at the NBA level. He just pushed me to make it to the next level.”
Riller ended up being the third Charleston player to reach the NBA in Grant’s seven seasons at Charleston. Preparing those players for the next level is as much an indication of Grant’s success as his five winning seasons, including three with at least 20 wins.
When Grant arrived at Boston College in March, he walked into a program that’s been searching for that kind of success for a decade.
Commit to the process
Since 2011, the Eagles have put together just one winning season. Over that same stretch, BC has sent as many players to the NBA as Grant did at Charleston.
Reggie Jackson has had a successful career with three teams after being drafted in the first round by the Thunder in 2011. Jerome Robinson propelled himself to the first round (Clippers) in 2018. Ky Bowman went undrafted in 2019 but landed with the Warriors. Olivier Hanlan was drafted by the Jazz in 2015 but never played a game.
Playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where talent dictates who’s at the top, BC has lagged. Two years ago, 10 first-round picks came from ACC schools.
As an assistant and a head coach, Grant has shown the ability to spot talent and allow it to flourish.
“I just think you’ve got to have that kind of eye, which I think Coach Grant does,” Riller said. “That’s kind of been one of his biggest trademarks is his ability to recruit. He has a long history of recruiting great guys. I’m lucky to be on that list.”
That luck wouldn’t come without a commitment to the process. Early on in his coaching journey, Grant learned that the results would come if the work came first.
Grant was born in North Charleston, S.C. He played at Georgia College and to this day leads his practices as if he still had some eligibility.
He got his first coaching job in 2002 as an assistant at The Citadel. That year, the team got a visit from former point guard and renowned author Pat Conroy. He talked to the players about his time with the Citadel team, much of which he chronicled in his 2002 book “My Losing Season,” which detailed the 1966-67 team that went 8-16.
The gist was simple: It was miserable, but there were lessons in losing.
Conroy recommended Grant give it a read. Coming off an 8-20 season, Grant wanted no part of it.
“I said, ‘I don’t need to read that book,’ ” Grant remembered. “ ‘We just went 8-20. So I know exactly what’s in that book.’ ”
Eventually, though, he read it. And he took away something that still sticks with him.
“Fall in love with the process of being great,” he said. “As a young assistant, what I realized is you need to fall in love with the process and you need to appreciate when you win. Because winning can be fleeting. Sometimes losing is a part of the process before you can win.”
The Citadel went from an eight-win team to a 12-win team by the time Grant moved on in 2004 to join Gregg Marshall’s staff at Winthrop. Winthrop went from a 16-win team in 2003-04 to one that reached three NCAA Tournaments while Grant was an assistant.
When Marshall took the head coaching job at Wichita State in 2007, Grant went with him. They won 11 games their first year. They were a 25-win team by the time Grant left to join Brad Brownell’s staff at Clemson in 2010.
The Tigers won 22 games and reached the tournament their first year. They won 23 games and narrowly missed another NCAA appearance when Grant left in 2014 for his first head coaching opportunity.
Grant inherited a Charleston program that was in disarray after the firing of Doug Wojcik amid an investigation of verbal abuse toward players. The Cougars won nine games in Grant’s first season. It took four years to get them to the tournament.
“There’s a process to get to winning,” Grant said. “And some of it is day after day having good days and doing the right things and giving a good effort, and eventually the winning will catch up to you.”
Being on the ground floor of so many rebuilds and turnarounds has become Grant’s signature.
“He has that ability to take on a challenge and see it through to fruition,” Charleston athletic director Matt Roberts said. “I think a lot of it goes back to his personality. He’s tough, his work ethic is phenomenal, he does things the right way. His toughness, his ability to engage and connect and communicate is just built for that.
“He’s taken kids and developed them and the kids have obviously bought in and done the work. He’s proven that as a head coach he can do it, even at a mid-major.”
It shows up in the way Grant recruits. The Eagles already have the No. 23 recruiting class in the country for next year, according to Rivals.com, headlined by four-star recruits Prince Aligbe, a 6-foot-7-inch, 225-pound forward, and 6-5, 185-pound guard Donald Hand Jr.
“At Boston College, you’re not always going to get the same kid that a Duke or a North Carolina is going to get,” Roberts said, “so you have to dig a little bit deeper and find a kid that was maybe overlooked, and that’s what he’s done.”
Grant’s steadiness makes it easy for players and staff around him to buy in.
“The man that’s sitting on their couch when he’s having that conversation trying to convince them to come is going to be the exact same person when they get their degree,” Roberts said.
At the same time, Grant creates a culture of competitiveness in practice that seeps into games. Everything matters.
The Eagles were midway through a late-October session, drilling in effort and intensity as much as concepts and scheme, when Grant had the team break into three groups of five players for free throws.
Each player had to take 10 free throws, and the target was to hit 40 collectively. If the makes came in under 40, the team would have to run baseline to baseline five times for each one they fell short. But if they came in over 40, the coaching staff would have to run.
The number came in at 37, but Grant was in the mood to make a deal. The team had to run three sets of five, but he’d knock one off if they chose a player to go to the line and he made a one-and-one.
They took the deal, and the first player knocked down both free throws, so they were down to two sets.
Grant offered it up again. Knock it down and they’d have just one set to run — but the shooter couldn’t be the same person. They took the deal, but the player came up empty on the back end of the one-and-one.
They were back up to three.
They ran one off and Grant put the deal in front of them one more time. They carefully chose who went to the line. He sank both free throws.
They were down to one. Then it got interesting: Go to the line again or simply run the last set.
The team chose to run.
The gym buzzed.
“Just run!” one player yelled.
But the lightbulb went off. The game inside the game was seeing who wanted to be on the line when the pressure was on.
An assistant summed up the moment: “Scared money don’t make no money.”
“That’s what his life is built on,” Riller said. “Just always competing. Always trying to take that next step.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.