20 Apr 19
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
LOS ANGELES — When you’re Montrezl Harrell and you’re from eastern North Carolina and you play like a ticked-off tractor-trailer with wings, you generally don’t escape football.
Indeed, Harrell was a defensive end for North Edgecombe High. Every year he would line up against Tarboro High, which had Todd Gurley.
“I played against him,” Harrell said, “but honestly, there wasn’t too much tackling going on. A little burst of speed, and he was out. We kicked off to him in the second half and he went 98 yards. He was just a beast among talents.”
Harrell liked football, though. At Louisville, he threatened to come out for the team. The problem was the schedule.
“You got full practices all week, just for that one game,” Harrell said. “I had more love for basketball, a lot more connection.”
Fans of the Clippers have seen the two worlds converge. The result is a legitimate NBA force.
In Harrell’s fourth season, he increased his minutes by nearly 900, played 82 games and averaged 26.3 minutes, 16.6 points and 6.5 rebounds. He came off the bench in lockstep with Lou Williams, and the Clippers had a one-and-a-half average margin in fourth quarters, fourth in the NBA.
Beyond that, Harrell was a one-man ethic. His hands are elongated suction cups that pluck rebounds that most players can’t even see. He plays like an ambulance, all lights flashing. At Louisville, he lost his captaincy because he was too hard on his teammates. Rick Pitino, not known for sensitivity, had to tell Harrell that there was room for only one scold.
“I was a second Coach P, he rubbed off on me,” Harrell said. “He finally said, ‘Look, let me do this, it’s a lot different when it comes from a coach.’ And in the pros it’s different. I’m a veteran but I’m a young player, too.
“I’m blessed to play this game. In the summer, I’ll go to Venice Beach and play down there. It’s just being passionate. A lot of people have to work at their jobs and it’s tough. I don’t have nights where I don’t feel like playing.”
Harrell is not the only Clipper who, so far, has resisted entitlement. That is why they are currently playing, for however long.
Game 4 of this first-round series is 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Staples Center, and the Clippers are down 2-1 to the Warriors, who were superior for all 48 minutes in Game 3.
Harrell has a foundation that helps kids in Tarboro and Rocky Mount, a part of the Coastal Plain that has been slapped around by the economy. His 2015 draft party was in a restaurant back home, not in Adam Silver’s green room. His father Sam is the coach of the JV team at Montrezl’s high school.
He was part of the grab-bag Houston gave the Clippers in exchange for Chris Paul, who may yet win the Rockets a championship. Is it the mythical trade that helped both teams? It certainly helped Harrell.
“Kevin McHale was my coach and then J.B. Bickerstaff, and when Mike D’Antoni came along it was three coaches in two years,” Harrell said. “I usually played in back-to-backs, because Nene (Hilario) didn’t. They didn’t have time to see my game, didn’t know what I’d been working on.”
The first major coach to see it was Seth Greenberg of Virginia Tech. Assistant coach John Richardson clued him in when Harrell was a junior.
“I drove five hours there and it was ridiculous how hard he ran and how much effort he put out,” Greenberg said. “Then he came to campus and watched us beat Duke, and he said, ‘Coach, I want to play for you,’ and I said, ‘Well, Trez, you just saved me some time because I was going to offer you.’’’
[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section”]
Then Virginia Tech fired Greenberg and Harrell chose Louisville over Kentucky and Florida. The Cardinals won the NCAA title when he was a sophomore.
“I’m happy for him but sometimes I feel sick,” Greenberg said. “We would have had four possible NBA players. He’s the most competitive big man I was ever around. I wish I could have coached him, but it was just good to know him because he and his family are so genuine.”
But you get only so far with effort. The Clippers play higher than their contracts. Harrell says effort has taken him far, but other guys play hard, too. His game is positioning and footwork and those All-NBA hands.
“I tell my guys, throw it up there,” he said. “I’ll catch it. If I don’t, it’ll be my turnover before it’s yours.”
Sometimes you make improvement by making room.