Injuries were the story of Grant Ledford's first couple of seasons at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
First, it was a kneecap that caused him to miss a month at the start of the 2019-20 season. The following year he broke the metatarsal in his foot and had a surgery that forced him to miss all but the Southern Conference tournament game against East Tennessee State.
"This time last year, I wasn't even walking. I was on crutches," said Ledford, who had foot surgery on Nov. 16, 2020. "So every day is a blessing to be grateful and take advantage of the opportunities."
To date, he's played in just 29 career games, but now that he's healthy his role has grown exponentially for the Mocs, who improved to 6-1 with an 82-65 win over Tennessee Tech Tuesday night.
Malachi Smith led the way Tuesday with 28 points and six rebounds. David Jean-Baptiste added 20 to go along with five assists, while Silvio De Sousa chipped in 17 points and 11 rebounds as the Mocs shot 61% from the field in the second half and 55% for the game. The Golden Eagles (2-5) led by as many as 13 in the first half, but the Mocs used a 16-0 second-half run to assume control, limiting the home team to just 33% shooting in the final 20 minutes.
In Ledford's first two seasons, he hadn't played more than 14 minutes in a game, and forgive him if he was a little rusty in that contest as it was the ETSU SoCon tournament game in March. This season, he's averaging 14 minutes per game through the first seven games, which is the most he's played since a standout prep career at Knoxville Grace.
Ledford has a role on the Mocs. The UTC coaching staff wants him to shoot the ball and be aggressive, which is something the 6-foot-5 sophomore has embraced. He's averaging 5.4 points per game with a pair of double-digit efforts in blowouts of UNC-Asheville and Covenant, but most of his scoring came in the second half of those games with the outcome no longer in doubt.
Some of his most important minutes came in Saturday's last-second loss to College of Charleston, when he had five points in a first-half stretch and made a drive to the basket and kick out to Jean-Baptiste for a key 3-pointer in the second half of the game. He was also a big part of the Mocs' second-half run in Tuesday's win over Tech, along with Jean-Baptiste, Smith, De Sousa and A.J. Caldwell.
"If he can shoot the ball well, it's a tremendous help for us and the spacing on our offense," UTC head coach Lamont Paris said Saturday. "It's good for Grant and good for us if he can make shots and then you have to fly at him. He's played the perimeter his whole life and we've got him at the forward spot so he's capable of putting the ball on the floor and making some reads out of that, too. So as that position continues to develop, that's a really good thing for us."
Added Ledford: "Those plays were kind of like little wins for me because I haven't had a lot of those in my career, so I just try to build on them and try to just keep making winning plays and help us get wins."
As is the case with any college athlete, Ledford arrived at UTC with certain goals for himself and for the team. Those haven't happened yet, in part due to the injuries, but now starting a season healthier than he's been at the start of any season prior, he has reason to believe he's on the road to becoming that player.
"I feel like I'm getting there," he said. "I hold myself to high standards, and I know I'll get there, so I've got to keep pushing.
"But I feel close. I'm getting there."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.