What should Kentucky fans expect from Davidson grad transfer Kellan Grady? I dialed up my alma mater to find out. Matt McKillop, Davidson’s associate head coach and son of Bob McKillop, the Wildcats’ longtime coach, was more than happy to talk about Grady, the beloved four-year starter that will use his extra year of eligibility at Kentucky next season. Based on our conversation, the Cats are gaining not only a player who fills one of the biggest voids on the roster, but a person uniquely suited for the unusual challenge ahead of him.
Grady, a Boston native, arrived at Davidson as a Top 70 prospect and a first-team all-state selection with dreams of being the next Steph Curry. The Wildcats had a summer trip to Italy planned that year, so Grady was able to join the team in June to participate. McKillop said the 6’5″ combo guard immediately turned heads.
“He had a very big reputation, so it was very easy for our older players to have respect for him. His work ethic, his competitiveness, but at the same time, his respect for all those around him, his teammates, walk-ons, managers. I think that was unique too, of a freshman. Just the way he carried himself in all those different ways allowed for you to respect what he’s capable of on the basketball court.”
In the first game of his freshman season, Grady made quite the splash, sinking seven threes to lead Davidson to a 110-62 win over Charleston Southern. That night, Davidson made 26 threes, breaking an Atlantic 10 record and coming just two shy of the NCAA’s single-game record of 28 set by Troy in 1994. He started all but one game that season, averaging 18.0 points. In Davidson’s triple overtime loss to St. Bonaventure, he had a career-high 39 points, including 16-16 free throws, two to force double overtime and two more to force triple overtime.
“He was not shy of the big stage,” McKillop recalled. “He was very prepared mentally and physically to compete at that level all the way to the NCAA Tournament.”
Grady’s fearlessness showed on the biggest of stages. In the NCAA Tournament, 12-seed Davidson drew 5-seed Kentucky, and the black-and-red Wildcats gave the blue-and-white ones all they could handle. Kentucky won the game 78-73, but the school’s nearly 30-year three-point streak was snapped in the process. Grady finished with 16 points, a performance that he told Kyle Tucker that John Calipari brought up in their conversations the past few weeks.
Grady’s freshman year went so well that there was even some buzz he could be an NBA Draft pick. While playing in the NBA has always been Grady’s dream, McKillop said dealing with those expectations was a major adjustment for Grady his sophomore season.
“There was a lot of pressure on Kellan and that was very difficult for him to handle. Basketball had always come easy for him in a sense. He had played at a very high level in high school and had a lot of success. He’d done the same his freshman year of college and he was doing the exact same thing his sophomore year but there was a little different weight he was carrying, a different type of pressure that he will face in an environment like Kentucky Basketball, but I know he was able to get through that and be better off as a junior and senior because he’d been through it and because he had to deal with some pressure that he wasn’t necessarily ready to deal with.”
Grady still averaged 17.3 points his sophomore year, shooting 45.1% from the floor, 34.1% from three-point range and passing the 30-point mark on two different occasions. In his junior year, his game took on another dimension when his coaches challenged him to become a lockdown defender.
“We made a decision midway through his junior year where we wanted Kellan to defend the other team’s point guard. We usually put him in different positions, maybe guarding a two-guard or three. I think it helped changed Kellan’s defensive mentality. Not that he was a bad defender, but it started to give Kellan some pride in being able to stop some good players because he was the first line of defense, in a sense, by having to guard the other team’s point guard. And from that moment on, we didn’t change because he became a really, really impressive defender junior year through his senior year.”
While Grady’s defensive skills are music to John Calipari’s ears, his offense is what Kentucky needs the most. At Davidson, he was a prolific scorer, averaging more than 17 points each season and topping 2,000 points over four years. He scored 20 or more points 44 times and 30 or more six times. Grady brought it consistently against big competition, scoring 14 points against No. 17 Texas, 17 points against Providence, 22 points against UNLV, 19 points against Vanderbilt and 27 points against Dayton this past season.
Grady’s numbers stayed high even though he shifted to point guard his senior season. With him running the show, Davidson had the 20th most efficient offense in the country according to KenPom.
“The biggest reason we played him at the point was because it put the ball in his hands and allowed him to be a scorer,” McKillop said. “So, a different role than maybe you would have for a point guard in the past. But we wanted to have the ball in his hands. If he has the ball in his hands, he has more opportunities to score.”
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Grady came to Davidson because he loved Steph Curry, who put the school on the map in 2008 with an Elite Eight run. It’s not fair to compare anyone to Steph, a seven-time NBA All-Star and two-time MVP, but McKillop, who has coached both, sees similarities.
“Steph is the greatest shooter potentially of all time but Kellan has done it consistently at the college level,” he said. “Kellan is a very, very impressive shot maker. He can make shots in very difficult ways.”
In four seasons at Davidson, Grady hit 240 threes, and had four or more in 21 games. As a senior, he shot a career-best 38.2% from three, knocking down 58 treys on 152 attempts. While he’s always been a good shooter, Grady has worked hard over the past few years to perfect his three-point shot.
“I think it became more consistent,” McKillop said of Grady’s outside shot. “Just little tweaks, like balance or timing or being able to plant his left foot first or being able to plant his right foot first. I think he kind of just added a little bit year after year after year to be able to do things just a little bit better.”
This is the type of play from Kellan Grady that should excite Kentucky fans. You’ll hear me say it a lot, but he plays with GREAT pace. Slow at the point of the screen, fast coming off it. Uses change of speed & physicality to create separation. Grady is a big time shooter. pic.twitter.com/clm4u4RGRg
— Brandon Ramsey (@BRamseyKSR) March 30, 2021
Whether it is catching and shooting for a three or driving inside, screens are Grady’s specialty. At 6’5″, 205 lbs., he’s big enough to work his way into the paint and has the finesse to finish at the rim.
“I think the best things that Kellan does to get shots at the basket are the way he uses screens and the way he cuts. Potentially, the offense being different at Kentucky than at Davidson, maybe there will be more opportunities to take advantage of some of the things that Kellan can do in terms of getting into the paint with his physicality and his athleticism but the things that he is special at are how well he uses screens to get shots in the paint. He’s very capable of making difficult things look easy.”
…like another Davidson great…
“One thing that Steph does is he has the ability to finish around the rim and Kellan has that ability to be very creative, be very crafty. Put it in off the glass, or footers or teardrops, he has the ability to be very effective getting in the paint and finishing with some impressive style against very good teams.”
“So much more than a kid who steps on the court and makes jump shots”
Another characteristic that Curry and Grady share is adaptability, which could be the most important factor to his success at Kentucky. McKillop first noticed how easily Grady fit in with the team on the trip to Italy in 2017, and was reminded of it throughout his career at Davidson.
“Kellan is just such a unique person. He can get along with the 71-year-old head coach at Davidson or the 24-year-old youngest assistant at Davidson or his sociology professor. He can kind of adapt to any environment that he’s in and he’s so relatable to so many people from so many different backgrounds. That’s probably the most impressive thing about him. And that’s one thing I would also compare to Steph Curry. Steph seemed like you could put him in front of anybody and they could have a conversation and you’d think they’d known each other for a while. I would say the same thing about Kellan.”
The most poignant example of this came during the team’s summer trip to Poland in 2018. Bob McKillop took his team there not to play basketball, but to learn about the Holocaust. The Wildcats toured Auschwitz and met with survivors, one whom Grady sat down with while the rest of the team explored the site.
“Kellan sitting down with her and having a 45-minute conversation within 20 minutes of us touching down in Poland,” Matt McKillop recalled. “It’s those moments where it makes it all come together. Alright, this is why we do what we do. This is why Davidson is special because you get to attract kids like Kellan that can be so much more than a kid who steps on the court and makes jump shots. He can sit down with an Auschwitz survivor that is 70 years older than him and carry on a conversation that he’ll remember for the rest of his life.”
That kind of empathy and desire to make the world a better place is in Grady’s blood. His grandparents were leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1950s and 60s, and now, he’s making his own stand for social justice. Last summer, he launched College Athletes for Respect and Equality, or C.A.R.E., in conjunction with the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust, the group that organized Davidson’s trip to Poland. C.A.R.E. seeks to unite college athletes for the greater good and raise awareness about systemic injustice. Over the past year, the Kentucky Basketball team has also made calls for social justice, and John Calipari started the McClendon Minority Leadership Initiative to help diversify college athletics. Basketball is the obvious reason Grady is coming to Kentucky, but the program’s efforts in activism are an added bonus.
Playing basketball at Davidson and playing basketball at Kentucky are two very different things. Belk Arena seats 5,295 (in non-pandemic times), less than a fourth of Rupp Arena’s capacity. If Davidson’s campus is a beautiful, idyllic bubble where sports comes second to academics (or even third to community service), Kentucky’s is a gilded fishbowl where every move, Tweet, and play will be scrutinized by a fanbase desperate to return to the top. Add in the fact that by the time the season begins, Grady will be a 24-year-old on a team of mostly 19- and 20-year olds and that’s a huge adjustment, but McKillop knows he’s up for it.
“I think this will be very new for him, not just a new environment and a different level of basketball program, but a different makeup of roster. Also, him being older, I would hope that these freshmen come in and realize they can learn a lot from Kellan. His production at the college level vs. the Atlantic 10, it’s not the SEC, but it’s a very good league and we always had a very challenging and competitive schedule and I think Kellan has proven, even in his freshman year against Kentucky, that he can play and compete and score with the best people in the country and I hope that some of the young players that are coming into the program, I do hope that Kellan can be a leader to them.”
Grady’s goal has always been to play in the NBA. After four years at Davidson, he has a decent draft resume, but thanks to the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility for COVID relief, he’s got an opportunity to make it even better. Davidson does not have graduate programs, so Grady has to transfer to another school if he wants to keep playing college basketball. Transferring was an option McKillop didn’t even know Grady was considering until he handed him the paperwork to declare for the NBA Draft a few weeks ago.
“Kellan walks into the office and I said, ‘Oh great, I just printed this out and put in your name, you just need to sign it.’ He said, ‘Actually, I have something else I’m thinking about.’ We were pretty surprised. It’s just new to us. Knowing that Kellan has always wanted to be an NBA player and worked to go down that path as much as he could to get there. He mentioned that he was thinking of going in the transfer portal and seeing if there were options he thought could put him in better standing for the NBA Draft.”
A few days later, Grady returned to McKillop’s office “a bit stressed and overwhelmed” by the attention he’d received from college coaches across the country, but already had a few destinations in mind.
“There were some coaches that had made an impression on him in those 24-48 hours that obviously led to the decision that he made,” McKillop said. “I know that getting to the NBA was such a big part of his decision and the track record for Coach Calipari and for Kentucky in helping produce players that can play and succeed in the NBA level is probably second to none, so I’m very excited that Kellan has this chance to go to Kentucky and compete at a high level and hopefully put himself in better standing for being an NBA player.”
If this past season taught us anything, it is to temper expectations; however, it’s easy to see how well this could work out for both sides. Kentucky gains a much-needed scorer with boatloads of experience and intangibles and Grady gets a chance to make his case to be a professional on college basketball’s biggest stage. One Wildcat to another, an unlikely match years in the making.