2018-2019 Off the Glass Breakout Players Series: Montrezl Harrell
Orange County Register
With the 2018-2019 NBA season fast approaching, Off the Glass is making predictions on who the breakout players of each team will be. Today we look at Montrezl Harrell from the Los Angeles Clippers.
Drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 32nd overall pick in 2015, Montrezl Harrell was never really expected to be something more than a solid rotation NBA player. This was his role during his two-year stint as a Rocket, but the team had really no use for him by the end of the 2016-17 season. It had become clear that head coach Mike D’Antoni required shooting from his power forwards, which is certainly not Harrell’s specialty.
Fortunately, he received a new opportunity on a new team as he was included in the last-second trade that brought Chris Paul to Houston just before the start of 2017 free agency. Harrell was headed to the Los Angeles Clippers, where he would eventually show what he is capable of doing on the court and continue to learn from an experienced veteran with a similar skillset in DeAndre Jordan.
Harrell played just 17 minutes per game last year for the Clippers, but he still found ways to make an impact. In 76 games, he averaged 11 points, four rebounds, and one assist on 63.5% shooting from the field. His most productive stretch came after the All-Star break, when he averaged 14.6 points and 4.3 rebounds on 65.8% shooting. It felt as if he scored much more though, as his loud, rim-breaking dunks resounded all around NBA arenas.
He accomplished this while playing 68% of his minutes as an undersized center; Harrell stands at 6-foot-8 but plays close to the rim with the recklessness of a seven-foot monster. Per 36 minutes stats are often misinterpreted in the wrong context, but I do believe his numbers on as much playing time would match – or even exceed – the 23.3 points and 8.5 boards Harrell averaged per 36 minutes this past season.
It is no secret that Harrell works best on offense when he operates close to the rim. His offense took a huge step forward last season, as the Clippers looked like an offensive juggernaut when he was on the court. Among all players who appeared on at least 15 games this season, Harrell was 58th in offensive rating (109.7) at around 85th percentile and on par with the likes of Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton. He was third on the team with 4.3 offensive win shares, trailing only Jordan and Lou Williams, who played double the minutes Harrell did. He also led the Clippers on win shares per 48 minutes (0.205), more evidence that shows he was one of the most impactful bench players in the league.
Sticking to his role on offense is something he also does well, as his shots were taken from an average distance of 3.5 feet away from the basket, which is what allowed him to remain an overall efficient player. He shot 73.4% within three feet and had 115 dunks throughout the season. Harrell was second to Jordan in pretty much any categories related to at-the-rim offense and the similarities between both are certainly evident.
Harrell can also work pretty well on the pick-and-roll as a roll man, averaging 1.4 points per possession last year, though on just 1.5 possessions per game. Leading his team with 40 and-one plays this past season, he should continue to work on aggressively attacking the rim as both a roll man and as a backdoor cutter. Earlier this year, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers spoke about Harrell: "You never know a guy until you coach a guy. When we got him, we looked at him as an energy guy, a guy that can play defense. That's what he did everywhere he's been. And then every practice he gets in, he keeps scoring. And scoring. And then we started thinking, 'Maybe he can score a little bit.' He's been better than that. He's been great. He just plays hard too."
Harrell has truly been a pleasant surprise for the Clippers, though he still needs to take another step before solidifying himself as a starting big man in the league. We could look at the obvious stuff like suggesting he should improve his free throw accuracy (just 62.2% from the line last season) or work on his low post game. But the one aspect Harrell really needs to be better at if he wants to become an impact, starting-caliber player is defense.
As Rivers pointed out, Harrell had mostly been a defensive commodity in Houston. He had little opportunity to showcase his offensive abilities near the rim because of the three-point-happy system coach D’Antoni preached. And even when he had stuck to playing defense for most of his two seasons in Clutch City, he has never been a defensive stopper by any means.
He is prone to some silly fouls inside the paint and lacks size to become an elite rim protector, but he might as well learn a trick or two from Draymond Green’s bag and work on his lateral mobility and weak-side blocking. Being able to switch without getting absolutely destroyed by smaller guards is a common issue for big men in today’s NBA, and improving on that area would boost his defensive presence and help his team big time.
If Harrell is going to have a breakout year, there is no better time for it to happen than this season. The starting big men spots in L.A. are seemingly void after the departure of the longtime lob city brothers. I think Harrell would be a solid replacement in Jordan’s place, as we saw both share some qualities and have very similar skillsets.
The one issue with starting Harrell at center would be the team would have to give up height inside the paint. Assuming 6-foot-9 Tobias Harris continues playing as a small-ball power forward, it is up to Doc Rivers to make a decision on whether he wants to fully commit to small-ball lineups after almost a decade of running a typical duo of power forward and center.
Perhaps having 6-foot-10 Danilo Gallinari return as a starter would not be the worst of ideas, as Harrell, Harris, and Gallinari could split the defensive rebounding duties and collectively switch after screens.
I would like to see the team run a starting lineup of Patrick Beverly, Avery Bradley, Gallinari, Harris, and Harrell. On paper, they look like a dangerous defensive group, especially after you factor in the backcourt help both Beverly and Bradley bring to the table. If things do not work out, Rivers can always change the game plan and start Marcin Gortat at center.
At the end of the day, Harrell does not even need to start to have a breakout year. As long as he gets enough playing time and gets paired with the right teammates on the court, he should be better than he was last year. Even if he splits playing time at center with Gortat, it would still be a huge win for him and an upgrade over the 17 minutes per game he received last year. There are few players who reflect their passion for the game the way Harrell does; his energy brings life to an otherwise middling team in a very wild Western Conference.
All data and statistics obtained from NBA Stats and Basketball Reference.
You can follow Jorge on Twitter @CantuNBA