It’s not that Josh Harrellson’s path to the NBA was impossible, or even unlikely. It’s not like his college career was so rocky that his coach once banished him to a locker room stall at halftime, or made him ride back to campus in the equipment van. On the same night. And it’s not as if his selection with the 45th pick in last June’s Draft had — with the benefit of hindsight — come from so far out in left field as to have been called in from the Viking satellite.
… Except that it was, it was, he was, and it was.
Missouri-bred and whelped, Josh Harrellson didn’t even play organized basketball until his Freshman year at St. Charles High School. Three years and one freakish growth spurt later, he managed to parlay two All-State selections into a bevy of Division II scholarship offers. Having already signed a letter of intent to play at Western Illinois, Harrellson — spurned by the unexpected departure of the team’s coach — tried to get out of his commitment. His appeal denied, Harrellson would spend the first year of his college career at tiny Southwestern Illinois College. After a promising year in which he averaged 14 points and eight rebounds, WIU finally released him from his commitment. By then, Harrellson had begun to draw interest from a number of higher profile programs, eventually agreeing to enroll at Kentucky and lace up Chucks for second year coach Billy Gillispie.
Sadly, Harrellson’s inaugural stat line proved as vacant as an AXO coed, with the burly forward tallying averages of just 9.2 minutes, 3.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 0.6 blocks, 2.9 switch whips, and 3.6 insult-laced Billy G tirades a game. Even after Kentucky bid adieu to the disastrous Gillispie era and placed John Callipari at the helm, Harrellson’s playing time — competing as he was against the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Daniel Orton, and Darnell Dodson — like his stats, only waned.
Prior to his Senior season, the only notion more ridiculous than Josh Harrellson being drafted by an actual NBA team 10 months later, was Josh Harrellson starting over incoming Freshman monster and lottery lock Enes Kanter. $33,000 in non-sanctioned benefits later, Kanter was out, and the jaded Harrellson — by now wearing his Jorts moniker proudly — was in.
Playing alongside a fresh NBA-bound nucleus of Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb, Harrellson thrived as the cliche hard-nosed-tough-glue-guy, abusing his body, beasting for boards, and occasionally moonlighting at the Patches O’Hoolihan School of Wrench-Throwing. More importantly, a once flat-lined output had suddenly blossomed, with Harrellson’s Senior year numbers mushrooming to per-game averages of 7.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks on 61% shooting.
And so it came to be that a player who three years earlier had been battling the likes of Logan College of Chiropractic (no, really) was suddenly being talked about as a legitimate second round sleeper in the 2011 NBA Draft — by most accounts the weakest in a decade. Some, including David Aldridge, had Harrellson ranked as high as third on the center depth chart. On June 23rd — just before this reporter was ready to call it a night and hail a Newark cab back to the Holiday Inn — Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver announced to a quickly thinning Prudential Center crowd that the Knicks had forked over in excess of 700,000 Dolan Dollars to the Hornets in exchange for the tweener Kentucky big.
It would’ve been easy to not get excited — to dismiss the pick out of hand as nothing more than a desperate reach, and to quickly commence not giving a shit. But unlike the second round fliers of yesteryear, Knick Knation seemed to take to Jorts with a suspension of disbelief unbecoming a fan base famous for booing its first round picks. Part of it can be chalked up to the team’s alarming dearth of minute-ready bigs, of course. But there’s something deeper at play; the psychic adoption of a guy who very much embodies the kind of misfit makeup constitutive of so many a Knick folk heroes. Those who paid even a modicum of attention to the college game — even if they didn’t know Harrellson’s stats by rote — understood a few things very clearly: He’d beaten the odds; he’d battled; he’d survived. Everything else, as far as Knick fans were concerned, was gravy.
Entering the summer, Harrellson’s roster spot was by no means guaranteed. But a lockout-shortened training camp left the Knick brass with little choice but to trust in their grizzled, undersized forward. Once again, Fortuna had shone a strange, beatific light about Harrellson’s mattress-like frame. And, once gain, Jorts made the most of it, distinguishing himself in practice with predictable aplomb, peppering the press with endearing promises of bruises and blood.
Harrellson might lack the athletic prowess typically coveted in a Mike D’Antoni offense, and he’ll probably never be a legitimate threat in the post (7% of his Senior year touches were had down low, according to DraftExpress). But his much-improved mid-range game, combined with enviable timing on the boards, brute strength, and a seemingly endless motor should keep him far enough from bench’s end to preclude a complete D’Antoni disappearing act.
In his first meaningful appearance Sunday against the Celtics, Harrellson’s nine minutes of burn were pretty forgettable: 0 points, 2 rebounds, a block, and an assist. But the fact that he was even out there at all — on such a grand stage and at the behest of such a notoriously rotation-shrinking skipper — speaks to the quick and very real impression Harrellson has made on his coaches and teammates, informed though that impression no doubt is by sheer necessity. More importantly, Harrellson himself seems to grasp very very clearly the niche he’s being asked to fill.
And that, I think, is the rub: Walsh and Grunwald could have reached for raw talent, upside, or limitless ceiling, and merely hoped against hope that whomever they selected would embrace the role of bounder and bruiser, if asked. Knowing they needed bodies in the pivot, they could’ve gone for the hundred story skyscraper frame; rolled the dice on completed construction and sky-shredding needle. And honestly, they would’ve been forgiven for doing so.
Instead, they went for ten flights of brick and mortar — as tall as it’s always been and probably always will be, resigned to shadows cast by Knick centers past — but sturdy just the same.