The seven-foot rising sophomore had a trying freshman season, plagued by injuries as he tried to adjust to big-time basketball.
There was the chronic knee trouble, the ankle sprain and lastly the torn ligaments in his thumb. As a result, he was never 100%.
"There's no recovering during the season," Grant said in March. "It's going to take rest and it's not going to come until the offseason. Right now it's just a matter of me playing through it and not paying too much attention to it. It's kind of hard when you're hurt – when it just hurts to sit there and bend your knee – but you just got to learn to play through it.
"It's very frustrating. I mean you want to get out there and contribute. You want to do what you can to help the team win, but when you are hurt you can't do much sitting on the bench. It's very frustrating."
Grant arrived in Chapel Hill last summer from Wolfeboro (N.H) Brewster Academy. The native of Portland, Jamaica appeared on the UNC radar late in the game and committed in January. Because of confusion regarding international players, the NCAA didn't clear him to play college ball until August.
Even though there was a great need for post help at Carolina, the expectations were low for Grant, who had been playing the game for less than two years. The hope was for 5-10 minutes per game at best in reserve time, though the first sight of his 265-pound frame upon his arrival in the fall might have unfairly raised expectations.
Had Grant been injury-free, and had a chance to get in shape, he likely would have seen the 5-10 minutes of court, but instead was relegated to the bench for most of the year, appearing in 19 games, averaging 1.6 points, 1.5 rebounds and totaling 15 blocks.
There were some promising showings for Grant in 2002-03, especially when he played double-digit minutes:
Dec. 19 – 4 points, 3 blocks in 11 minutes vs. Vermont
Feb. 18 – 7 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 17 minutes vs. NC. A&T
Feb. 22 – 5 points and 5 rebounds in 12 minutes vs. Maryland
And the season highlight came in a March 1 win over Georgia Tech, when Grant threw down a vicious two-handed dunk on Tech's 7-1 center Luke Schenscher (pictured) that rocked the Smith Center.
Grant is a work-in-progress, but don't call him a "project."
"I really don't like that word," he said. "I've only been playing basketball before this year for a year and a half, really, and I've come a long way in that time. This term ‘project,' every time I hear it it makes me mad and makes we want to go out and prove I'm not a project. A project wouldn't go out there and block shots and grab rebounds. A project would go out there and be tossed around and not know what he's doing.
"I just try to go out there and play my part and do nothing big and try to go over my head or anything. I just go out there and try to rebound, block shots and just play my role."
As planned, Grant is spending the offseason healing and preparing for his sophomore season under new coach Roy Williams – and that's why he's not in Chapel Hill.
"He's currently in New
Jersey with his guardian," said Jason Smith, Grant's former coach at Brewster Academy, on Tuesday. "Damion isn't on campus because
he just had his left knee repaired and his right thumb. He's been going
to physical therapy three times per week and is working hard to get back at full
"Also, he's been paying special attention to his diet in an effort
to shed some pounds before he returns to Chapel Hill. Damion also saw a
podiatrist, who determined that Damion had flat feet and needed to be
fitted for arches. Believe it or not, the doctor suggested this had a huge
impact on Damion's knees."
Carolina's strength and conditioning coordinator, Thomas McKinney, said the biggest offseason key for the muscular Grant is improving his lower body.
"In the past, he's suffered from poor lower body strength," McKinney told UNC's official site. "The biggest thing is for him to get his lower body in shape so that he can physically handle the pounding a seven-footer takes running up and down the court."
Smith refuted the transfer rumors and said Grant, who has been in frequent contact with Coach Williams, is dedicated to improving.
"Damion is very happy at UNC and determined to silence his critics by
working hard this summer to get back in playing shape and contributing to
the program over the next three years," Smith said.
With no frontcourt help arriving in this fall's freshman class, the Tar Heels remain dangerously thin in the frontcourt and would greatly benefit from an improved Grant. There's no question he has improved, but it's not yet enough to contribute on the ACC level. He'll need to accelerate his development to see playing time as a sophomore.
"I think I've come a very long way – a very long way from where I was [last] summer," Grant said. "I think I'm a lot more aggressive, rebounding a lot better, just getting to the boards better, using my size to my advantage. But there's still a lot I need to learn – I'm not going to deny that – but I've come a very long ways."
And if he can stay both healthy and in shape, he will have an opportunity to make a significant impact in Chapel Hill in the coming years.