BROOKLYN — In practice, it comes in spurts.
Behind closed doors, Harry Giles III, who was the best high school basketball player in his class before dealing with a pair of devastating knee injuries and a third surgery just this past September, show flashes of being the player that he was. But it isn’t consistent, and it hasn’t translating to gameday.
Giles, who one veteran scout told ESPN was the best prospect he’d ever seen as a freshman prior to his first torn ACL, has been anything but for the Blue Devils this season.
But on Friday night, as the Blue Devils squared off with arch-rival North Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, we all saw it. In a pivotal stretch during a nationally-televised game in the throes of March, Giles put together the three best possessions that he’s played to date. It started with a block, one of four that Giles had on the night, that turned into an alley-oop at the other end of the court after he sprinted to beat Tony Bradley down the floor. Back at the defensive end, Giles batted away an entry pass and dove on the floor to create a turnover, which led to a Duke bucket at the other end of the floor. On the very next possession, he grabbed a defensive rebound in the middle of UNC’s pair of dominant big men — Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks — and by the time it was all said and done, the Blue Devils had a 77-70 lead that UNC would never recover from.
The Blue Devils would go on to win 93-83 after trailing by 13 in the second half.
“One of the big reasons we won today is because of that incredible stretch he had,” Jayson Tatum. “It’s all effort. That’s what we needed today. I have the utmost faith in him that he’ll do that the rest of the way. ”
Tatum knows everything that Giles has been through. Not just this season, but since the injuries started. Tatum and Giles are best friends. They planned this season together at Duke. It’s not a mistake that they are on the same team in college, which means that Tatum knows better than just about anyone what Giles has dealt with in his short career. It also makes seeing Giles finally have his break-through just that much better.
“We have the utmost confidence him, especially I do,” Tatum said. “But I think for him it’s just believing in himself that he can do that. Mentally, it’s tough for him.”
“Confidence, mental things,” Giles said of why it’s taken him this long to come back around. “A lot of it is mental. My body is good.”
The Duke staff had just about given up on seeing this from Giles. They haven’t quit working with him, and they haven’t stopped hoping that the star is in there somewhere, but they had reached the point where they had just about accepted the fact that Giles was simply going to be a fill-in, a guy who are the minutes that Amile Jefferson couldn’t play, whether it be a result of fouls, fatigue or injury.
They weren’t expecting this, a performance that isn’t done justice by a stat-line of six points, seven boards and four blocks.
For Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the issue wasn’t just Giles’ confidence. It was how he was playing.
“You’re the most enthusiastic kid I’ve ever been around, and you’re not bringing your enthusiasm,” Coach K said. “That was never hurt. But I think you’re not using it. Just be enthusiastic and see what happens, and I think he’s done that. Instead of being methodical and trying to think about everything, he’s been more athletic.”
Part of it was an adjustment to a new role, one where Giles is coming off the bench and playing 15 minutes instead of starting and starring. Grayson Allen has helped him with that.
“You might feel like a role player, but you’re not,” Allen recalled telling Giles. “You’re extremely talented, and when you get out there, act like it. Don’t be shy. Don’t be trying to play into a role. Do what you can do.”
“Put in 40 minutes of effort in 15 minutes,” Giles said.
How this turns out is unclear.
At the end of the day, Giles played just 15 minutes and was truly dominant for just three possessions in those 15 minutes.
Was this a change in the player or a blip on the radar?
The answer to that question may very well determine Duke’s ceiling.
“I hope,” Tatum said, “we haven’t reached our ceiling yet.”