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Montrezl Harrell needs to break through for Rockets

Montrezl Harrell of the Houston Rockets slams dunk against New Orleans Pelicans during a preseasons NBA game in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

An athletic, long-haired, 6’8″ power forward who can’t shoot? The NBA already has a Kenneth Faried, and his name has constantly been thrown around in trade rumors over the last year. There simply isn’t much of a place for guys like Faried anymore. At least in a starting role, that is.

Someone who can’t space the floor or serve as a stout rim protector in the paint on defense is going to have a hard time playing almost 30 minutes a night as Faried has over the last four years. But such a skill set is ideal for many teams when coming off the bench.

For the Houston Rockets, now led by point guard James Harden, Mike D’Antoni’s all-offense approach and more shooters who can’t defend than just about any team in the NBA, that up-and-coming role player in 2016-17 could be Montrezl Harrell.

As Harrell enters his second season while the Rockets move on from Dwight Howard and shift to the young, talented Clint Capela at center, there’s more room for Harrell to step up. They don’t have a former All-Star calling for the ball in the post anymore, and they don’t have their best interior defender and rebounder anymore. They need to make up for that, and there’s no way Harden and new additions to the starting lineup such as shooting guard Eric Gordon or Ryan Anderson will help the defense. They’ll do exactly the opposite. Even the addition of Nene Hilario, who will be valued, can only do so much and still doesn’t completely round out the frontcourt rotation.

This is where Capela, a mobile, athletic, long 6’10” center, and sophomore Harrell come into play.

Harrell isn’t the biggest power forward at 6’8″, and that’s already a knock to his potential, although he starts to make up for that fairly significantly with his monstrous wingspan of just over 7’4″, an imposing amount of reach that would be even more formidable if it was placed on a taller frame. Add that length to his explosiveness and effort, and you have a potent combination to form an impactful, fairly high-upside energy guy off the bench.

The numbers for Harrell in his rookie year in 2015-16 aren’t too eye-catching. He played in 39 games for the Rockets and spent plenty of time with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the NBA D-League, recording moderate averages of 13.3 points (64.4 percent shooting), 6.2 rebounds, one steal and one block per 36 minutes.

In particular, it’s that rebounding rate which isn’t too sightly. That’s something the Rockets will be looking to see increase, although Harrell has the perfect opportunity to do just that if he continues the surge of hustle he’s provided in the preseason and benefits from the increased need for it after losing Howard and adding Anderson (a weak defender and defensive rebounder — 4.8 per 36 minutes last season).

The meaningless nature of preseason aside, Harrell has at least used this platform to show what he can do.

Through the preseason so far, Harrell has hardly been worked too hard by Mike D’Antoni with 16 minutes per game, but his level of production per 36 minutes has been tremendous — 18.4 points, 12.5 rebounds (13th among players who’ve played at least four games) and 4.5 blocks (second in the league altogether). Even in the small, technically meaningless sample size of preseason, that’s impressive.

It’s impressive because Harrell thrives from energy, which is an attribute that he can deliver at any time for the Rockets if he’s engaged. In controlled minutes off the bench if he can consistently crack the rotation, that type of hustle and anything remotely close to that level of production would be appreciated by a team that will rely so heavily on offense to win games. His offensive rebounding rate would be valued, too.

When they want to complement their starters with some defensive frontcourt energy outside the likes of Capela, Harrell can be used for this kind of impact.

Using that length, registering the drive of Alonzo Gee and flying in to help Anderson (who was beaten by Gee’s speed and a fake, mistiming his jump to leave space for Gee to finish), Harrell was able to make a powerful rejection:


In 24 minutes against the Pelicans, Harrell tallied 11 points (with a rare three-pointer, too), six rebounds (three offensive) and two blocks.

In Harrell’s strong showing against the Memphis Grizzlies on Oct. 15 when he got to step up with 27 minutes, he took his game to an even more energetic level. Racking up 20 points, 10 rebounds (eight offensive!) and three blocks in a hurry, he showed that spark-plug potential again.

On this play, Harrell put his length and determination to use, fighting between two defenders (including the tough, albeit athletically-challenged Zach Randolph) for the offensive rebound. He swiftly turned and flung the ball to a wide-open Eric Gordon, and the Rockets did what they want to do non-stop all season: put up a constant stream of three-pointers:


Harrell has fought well for aggressive positioning when going after offensive rebounds this preseason, looking to position himself under the basket and on the inside of his man when possible. While someone like Anderson is on the floor to stretch a defense, this is when Harrell can be used in smaller lineups at power forward to attack the offensive glass.

The following play shows Harrell having his way against the Grizzlies, again, thanks to persistence and length. He quickly shifted over the paint to begin with to force an incredibly high layup attempt (to hoist the ball inaccurately over Harrell’s reach) before tearing away down the court. He then looked for good positioning under the basket, and after missing his first attempt, he fought through several defenders to corral two offensive rebounds and finish the possession with a score:


The issue here, of course, is that Harrell was competing against a fairly weak Grizzlies team featuring a host of backups playing large minutes. Yet, even still, not all players deliver that kind of hustle (especially not those in Houston), and that’s something Harrell can bring to the table.

It’s no sure thing that he’ll be a frequent feature in the Rockets’ rotation, though. Both Anderson and Nene will take heavy minutes at power forward, and there’s no doubt D’Antoni will be shifting some wings to the 4 in order to maintain as much pace and spacing as possible.

Because, in Houston, it’s all about buckets, buckets and then a load more buckets.

Just like his play on the court and the impact we’ve seen him make at times, it comes down to effort and hustle for Harrell. A desire to outwork his competitors to succeed on that aggressive, athletic basis alone.

The same applies to whether he can establish himself on this Rockets team as an energy guy with promise, and whether he can showcase that presence consistently to stand out.

If this preseason is any kind of indicator, Harrell is clearly capable. And the Rockets are clearly in need of such a skill set.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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