BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Once upon a time, Harry Giles was supposed to be one of the first guys to walk up to the stage, receive a dap from Commissioner Adam Silver and put on the hat of his new NBA home. Instead, on Thursday night, Giles was among the first players called whose selection was met with applause followed by an awkward silence filling the room. He had declined an opportunity to be at the Barclays Center, likely fearing a slide down the 2017 draft.
It was a story without the fairy-tale ending. That wasn’t how things were supposed to go down.
Once upon a time, many would have salivated over an opportunity to build around Giles, but come draft night, most shied away. That is until the Sacramento Kings came along, trading for Giles—selected 20th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers—and North Carolina forward Justin Jackson in exchange for Gonzaga center Zach Collins.
It’s an ideal situation for Giles, who goes to the Kings with few expecting him to be a knight in shining armor, the franchise savior—a departure from expectations set just a few years ago. Sacramento isn’t expected to win right now, so the pressure is off. And as Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer sees it, Giles’ being in any position to make an impact is enough of a start.
“Nobody in this draft has overcome more than Harry,” Scheyer said. “Nobody.”
Once upon a time, Giles ranked as the No. 1 recruit in his class, with some scouts telling Chad Ford of ESPN that Giles was the best high school prospect since LeBron James. Then came the pile of injuries. Giles tore his ligaments and the cartilage in his left knee while playing for the United States in 2013. In 2015, he tore a ligament in his right knee during a high school game. Last October, he underwent a left knee arthroscopy. Three knee surgeries since 2013 for a kid who hadn’t played a minute of college basketball.
The effect of the surgeries was evident once he came back. He hobbled through his only season at Duke, averaging 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds in 11.5 minutes per game, a far cry from the high-flying dreams many envisioned for him. It scared away the scouts, and in October, one told Gary Parrish of CBS Sports, “If you can get Jayson Tatum with no red flags or Markelle Fultz with no red flags, it’s just not worth to risk things with Giles.”
NBA teams hold the right to be reasonably cautious with players who’ve suffered two ACL tears. Ford, on The Basketball Analogy podcast, said some general manager felt that Giles was the best prospect in the draft, while others wrote him off their boards in the first round.
“There’s a fear level that I’ve never seen before … [Giles’] ceiling is so super high, but the risk is also, in most peoples’ mind, super high,” Ford said. “… I can’t think of another prospect that I’ve covered in the last 10 years with his upside but with his medical concerns that really have teams in a conundrum.”
Some players, like Michael Redd, never recover. Others, like Shaun Livingston, whose horrific knee injury was well-documented, rebound to become contributors. The jury’s still out on guys like Jabari Parker, who continues to rehab his second ACL tear, and Dante Exum, who tore his ACL while playing for Australia. But the injuries that kept Giles out of his entire senior year of high school and a large chunk of his season at Duke ate a lot of crucial development time for the prospect.
“You can’t rewrite a certain journey that happened,” Giles told Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee. “So for me it was just about accepting what happened and moving on from it and using it as motivation going forward.”
It doesn’t take a seasoned NBA scout to recognize the talent in the former Blue Devils forward. It’s all right there, all 6’11”, 222 pounds of him, with a world-class athleticism that draws comparisons to Kevin Garnett.
When Giles came out of high school, ESPN, who had the prospect ranked at the top of his class, wrote: “Giles’ upside is off the charts, and with his talents, he should be at or near the top of his class throughout his senior year. … Giles is a program-changing player when healthy…and his production is a direct correlation. … A special talent and person.”
If he can stay healthy—and that is a big if—the combination of length, quickness and touch makes him potentially the most game-changing player in the draft, the prospect so many raved about before the knee injuries.
In Giles, the Kings rolled the dice for the second straight year on a player who once stood atop a recruiting class. In 2016, Sacramento acquired Skal Labissiere—the No. 1 prospect in the 2015 class, according to Scout—with the Phoenix Suns’ 28th pick.
There’s quite a road left for Giles to conquer to live up to the expectations many had for him before his injuries. It all starts with trust, according to Scheyer. Trust in his legs. Trust in his abilities. Trust that he can be himself again.
“He’s one of the most talented players in the country,” Scheyer said. “He’s capable. He’s got all the mobility, all of the smarts; he’s got the mindset. He just needs to trust his body and get his feel back. He needs to play basketball like Harry Giles again.”
It’s not a secret that Giles has his supporters in the basketball world.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski issued a statement when Giles declared for the draft, saying that the forward had “been a joy to coach. He is only beginning to scratch the surface of how good he can be on the basketball court.”
Chris Paul tweeted that he almost came to tears watching the Kings select Giles:
Scheyer says that if Giles makes the transition to the next level, his attitude in part will be what helped him succeed.
“You watch him in the gym, you watch him anywhere, and he just lights up a room,” he said. “The fact that he went through what he went through and still had a positive attitude, I think it says a lot about who he is and his character. It’s going to be a big thing once he goes onto the next level.”
Once upon a time, Harry Giles was supposed to be one of the first guys to walk across the stage at the 2017 NBA draft. And while the former can’t-miss prospect missed his first opportunity in the NBA limelight, Thursday night marked the beginning of a new chapter.
He still needs to write that ending.
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