CLEMSON -- When Jerai Grant sees the California area code appear on his phone's caller ID, he answers and listens.

He knows that's his uncle Horace calling.

Horace Grant is the former Clemson standout of the 1980s. He has credibility with Jerai, having been a key defender on three NBA title winners with the Chicago Bulls, but is perhaps better known for his iconic eyewear.

Jerai knows Horace's message well now. Be confident. Stay aggressive.

"Those words are truer than any I've heard," Jerai said. "Stay aggressive, that's when I'm at my best."

After middling freshman and sophomore seasons at Clemson, Jerai has acted on Horace's advice and enjoyed a breakout year, playing with more confidence and decisiveness, looking more like a member of the Grant bloodline. Jerai's father, Harvey, who starred at Oklahoma, also played at Clemson and in the NBA.

As the Tigers (19-7, 7-5) travel to Maryland (19-7, 9-3) at 9 p.m. today for a key ACC road test, Jerai Grant has become a defensive difference-maker and a strong weak-side finisher on offense. He's averaging career bests in minutes (20), points (7.4), rebounds (4.9) and blocks (2.0) per game for Tigers coach Oliver Purnell.

"For the last six or seven games, he's been at an even higher level," Clemson's coach said of Grant's breakout year. "Basically, he's getting us 13 to 14 points and close to double-figure rebounds every night. But what he is really doing a good job of is plugging up the middle for us defensively. He's changing shots."

To Purnell, Grant's breakout is grounded in detail as much as it is in mindset.

The first point Purnell brings up in explaining Grant's emergence is staying out of foul trouble.

While Grant is averaging six more minutes per game this season, his personal fouls per game have remained the same, allowing him to stay on the court longer.

"It's just knowing position," Purnell said. "If you are shot blocker and you are out of position trying to block a shot, you are going to foul. If you have a guy squared up and move over half a step, that is the difference between a clean block and having a foul. He's just gotten better."

Grant, like his uncle, has emerged as a defensive difference-maker this season.

Grant has made a number of critical defensive plays this season, including a potential game-saving swat of a Richard Howell shot last month at N.C. State.

"He blocks the ball with the right and left hand," Purnell said. "A lot of guys don't do that, they only block with one hand. Consequently, if you only block with one hand, you are going to come across the body if you are on the wrong side." Grant has also made offensive strides.

Clemson assistant coach Ron Bradley said Grant is playing better opposite Trevor Booker, knowing better how to seal and spin around to the basket, how better to use angles.

Since Grant's man often leaves to double-team Booker, the result is easy chances which Grant -- who added strength this offseason -- has done a better job of converting this year.

"He's gotten away from what we call the 'Jerai squat,' you know where he got so low," Bradley said. "The more you get your quadriceps (involved) the better but he was getting too low. Now he's where he can really explode, but he's not too low."

His ferocious dunks and swagger after blocked shots has resulted in another message from his uncle Horace: keep it up.

Reach Travis Sawchik at tsawchik@postandcourier.com and check out his Clemson blog at www.postandcourier.om/blogs/tiger_tracks.