Fringe players are hardly ever the topic of conversation in sports. Only rarely do they find their names on newspaper headlines or magazine covers. There is nothing abnormal about this – usually these players barely made the team they’re playing for and are easily replaceable. They drift geographically and professionally and just a few people ever notice. Such is the case with Josh Harrellson, former Knicks second round pick and recent signee of the Detroit Pistons. However, the fact that this Kentucky-bred brute is still struggling to find job security in the league astounds me.
Unlike most players still trying to find their spot in the NBA, “Jorts” has always struck me as one of the most skilled and well-rounded players stuck in limbo. Harrellson was waived by the Miami Heat in January after an extremely limited stint, this following being waived by the Houston Rockets who acquired him from the Knicks in a trade. New York gave up cash to nab Harrellson with the Hornets’ second round pick in the 2011 Draft, and it was with the Knicks where Jorts received enough playing time to properly display his talents.
Harrellson was a gritty center in college – doing the dirty work and filling up the hole that was supposed to be covered by Enes Kanter before he was declared ineligible. Jorts collected 23.2% of his team’s boards and 31.5% of their offensive rebounds in his final year at Kentucky. His true-shooting mark of 62% conveyed his solid finishing down low, in an offense not tailored to his skillset whatsoever. Projected to be undrafted, it came as a shock when the Knicks took him in the second round – but even more of a shock when he excelled.
A lumbering 6’10”, 275 lb. big, Harrellson has somehow maintained both a tough presence and adept smoothness in the few minutes he’s been on an NBA court. In his rookie year, his per-36 averages of 10.8 points and 9.7 rebounds were but a vague look into why Harrellson is more than just a fringe big man. Jorts immediately showed a sweet stroke from downtown, catching fans of the Knicks off guard when first meeting the rookie in a pre-season game. Astonishingly, he was reliable at both being a floor-spacer and swallowing up offensive boards at the same time. Harrellson shot just under 34% from downtown in his freshman year as a Bocker, averaging 0.97 PPP on all spot-up attempts per mySynergySports. His rebounding rates of 10% offensive, 15.4% defensive and 15.4% total translate to the 55th, 48th and 48th best rankings respectively among players who played 500+ minutes that season.
Harrellson isn’t just a jump-shooter either, but unfortunately this is what Mike D’Antoni’s offense limited him to doing. Although he was hardly granted the opportunities, Jorts showed legitimate skill in the post. His bulky frame is merely a false representation of his actual strength, but his soft touch allowed him to make 5 of 9 post-up attempts per Synergy. Sure this is a tiny sample size, but reviewing the film, Harrellson seems to have developed or is in the process of developing a consistent right hook.
As for his defense, Harrellson is slow-footed but one-on-one he is a tough man to score on. His 6’11” wingspan and 275 pounds of of bulk make him a physical terror for big man trying to body their way to the basket. As far as quickness, Jorts can’t keep up one-on-one or on help defense. However, in today’s small-ball oriented NBA Jorts will likely find himself at the center spot, where very few players will look to take him off the dribble. Per Synergy, Harrellson limited his opponents to 0.67 PPP in post-ups and 0.68 PPP in isolations. Still, his pick-and-roll defense needs a lot of work – but it’s mostly due to his slowness on the court. Fundamentally, Jorts’s defense as a whole is years beyond his experience. At only 3.2 fouls per-36 minutes with a strong sense of how to stay vertical and owning pinpoint timing, Harrellson understands principle defensive concepts even if his physical structure limits him on this end of the floor.
If all of this doesn’t quantify how valuable Jorts is – or rather should be – of any Knick that played 500 or more minutes in the 2012 season, Harrellson had the best on-court NetRTG. With Jorts out there in his big goofy frame, the Knicks allowed 6.5 fewer points per 100 possessions and scored 1.9 more points per 100 possessions compared to when he wasn’t. In Harrellson’s 4 career starts, he averaged 10.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on 45% shooting from the field and 35% from downtown. Whichever way you slice it, Harrellson’s fringe player label is inaccurate for someone of his proficiency. Detroit now possesses what is likely a diamond in the rough, found on the outskirts of professional basketball. Now it’s up to the Pistons to give Jorts a chance, and for the big man to show he belongs.