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Top College Basketball Freshmen Quick to Go Pro

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USA TODAY

 

No one in college basketball smiles quite like Harry Giles. His whole face lights up as his grin stretches ear-to-ear, and you can clearly see the goofball inside who teammates adore.

Which is why it has been tough, not only for the Duke freshman but for everyone in the Blue Devils program to witness the kind of season Giles has had. Another knee surgery -- his third -- in early October set him back after months and months of rehabilitating his knees, hips and core after the previous surgery.

But outside expectations didn't adjust to the reality and how careful Duke wanted to be to work him back into practice, and then games, because of his potential and dreams of playing at the next level.

To the outside world, this was an at one point the No. 1 player in the 2016 recruiting class, and he should be a breakout star in college basketball -- not playing limited minutes off the bench, which is what he has been doing since mid-December, when he made his debut. Giles averages 4.3 points and 4.0 rebounds in 11.9 minutes per game.

"It's a roller coaster, and it's life, too," Giles said. "I've been through so much. I've had to learn how to handle things like this. I have to focus on the team and not let my personal problems take away from the fact that it's for the team. I just have to deal with what I'm going through and make the most of it, play 40 minutes in 15, make sure I'm giving the best I can."

Giles is coming off, for him, a terrific Atlantic Coast Conference tournament performance. He had highlight-reel-worthy moments on both ends of the court, from blocks to dunks, that have -- finally -- made him a significant contributor to the Duke team he has wanted to help all season long. His best game came in the ACC semifinals against rival North Carolina: six points, seven rebounds, four blocks and a steal in 15 minutes.

"If he didn't have that setback in September, I think he'd be really far along," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "For (him) to stay with it, not look ahead, like, 'I'm going to the pros and whatever.' ... A lot of people said, 'Well, Harry shouldn't play.' Harry wants to play. Harry wants to be at Duke. Harry wants to be their teammate. Harry wants to be a college kid and be on Duke's team. I love him for that, and these guys know that, too, and they love him."

Said Giles, "Coach, everyone gets in my ear and tells me to wait for my moment." Which came, in waves, this past weekend at Barclays Center. And was followed by smiles in the locker room.

Talent everywhere

This is the Giles everyone hoped to see, though not everyone understood the work required to get here. Other freshmen -- from Duke teammate Jayson Tatum and UCLA's Lonzo Ball to Kansas' Josh Jackson, Kentucky's Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox and Arizona's Lauri Markkanen -- have made it look, at times, very easy to live up to the insane expectations placed upon highly touted freshmen. (Freshman star Markelle Fultz, who has declared for the NBA draft, played for a team in Washington that did not qualify for the NCAA tournament.)

But it's never that easy, not to jump into college basketball for one season, excel quickly and frequently, and then expect to carry your team on a deep run in the NCAA tournament -- which, by the way, you have no experience playing in. It's a fascinating subplot for a fascinating group of extremely talented players.

And there are unique coaching challenges to dealing with the likely one-and-done guys.

"If you think about it, like 40% of your roster changes from one season to the next," Arizona coach Sean Millers said. "A lot of the teams, programs like ours, do it. You're right. From one year to the next, you're looking at so much change. It affects, in some ways, how you coach your team, like when you have a system, for example. Part of what makes a system great is the experience within the system.

"I remember watching Maryland, when Gary Williams was the coach; you could watch him run the flex and press and do the things that he does so well.

"And you watch these guys grow within it from one season to the next, to the next, then become upperclassmen, and it's like they could do it in their sleep. Now, if you really are a system type of program, you don't have time to allow them to grow and gain that experience. I think all of us kinda take a look at what we're doing. Is it still effective? Is there a better way of doing things when some of your best players you're only going to coach for one season? That system -- they're never gonna master everything. No matter how talented they are."

There just aren't enough practices -- or game experiences -- to get there. So coaches adjust, in terms of system and style but also how to figure out ways to put the ball in their best players' hands. For example, late in February, during Markkanen's three-point shooting slump, Miller's approach was never about making him shoot hundreds of shots alone in a gym to get better. It was about finding ways to help other players get him better looks. "He's too good a shooter for us not to do that," Miller said.

Another challenge coaches often face is getting one-and-done guys to fully buy in to the coaching staff and the idea of playing together as a team. It's not about one person averaging 30 points per game to get on the radar of NBA scouts, but rather what you're doing now where you are.

Kentucky's John Calipari has always been masterful at this, at getting his all-star freshmen to not only buy in to the idea of selflessness but also little things, like getting back on defense faster, scrambling for loose balls -- in short, hustle plays that you wouldn't necessarily expect from future NBA pros who are months away from becoming millionaires.

Overcoming distractions

But that often comes down to the player and those around him. Markkanen, Miller said, is refreshing to coach because the Finnish freshman is so focused on improving in the areas his coaches want him to that he truly eliminates outside distractions and blocks out whatever other people are saying about him.

Ball, despite his father's largely outrageous comments and playing in a city full of distractions such as Los Angeles, is quite similar, UCLA coach Steve Alford said -- and that's what makes it enjoyable about coaching the types of players who are too talented to stay in college basketball for long.

"He's been tremendous to coach," Alford said. "I've been fortunate because, over the last couple years, I've had guys that are one-and-done or two-and-done, and they've all been high-character guys. They cared about their teammates. I think there are some that you deal with and that all they do is think about themselves. But Lonzo is so unselfish. He is all about being a great teammate. He's made everybody around him look better, both offensively and defensively. If you talk to him, he doesn't even talk about next level or anything, it's about our next game and our next practice, and that's the thing that I've appreciated most about Lonzo is that we've known from the get-go, from last June, that come early April, he's gone."

Which leaves about three weeks to see and root for -- and get the most out of -- some of college basketball's youngest superstars. The ones who began the season hot and never let up, like Ball and Monk. Or the ones who have grown throughout the season to peak in March, such as Tatum.

And even the ones, such as Giles, who have struggled mentally and physically to get to a point where they're thrilled to provide a spark off the bench, though others might consider his freshman season a disappointment.

"That's a given, coming in with that type of publicity," Giles said. "But in addition for me, there were high expectations, and I had the injury. I can't blame it and use it as an excuse. I have to use it to motivate me. Every basketball player is going to hear something said about him. It makes you better as a player.

"But I'm getting better. I'm walking off the court healthy. I'm playing for a championship. Those were some of my goals coming in. I'm checking them off by the day."

He smiles.

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March 13, 2017
 
 
 

 

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