Summer league breakthrough for Harry Giles begs a what-if for 2017 Duke

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Back in the fall of 2016, Duke received 58 of 65 votes for the top spot in the preseason Associated Press Top 25. The Blue Devils, you’ll remember, were loaded. They brought back Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson, which would be enough of a core to compete in the ACC and the NCAA tournament itself.

But that’s not why Mike Krzyzewski’s team was the overwhelming national title favorite to start that season. It was the addition of two top-five phenoms that really had expectations for Duke championship-or-bust. Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles (and we shouldn’t forget 11th-ranked Marques Bolden) were going to be the one-two punch to make Duke not only the best team in the country, but maybe a dominant one, one that we would be comparing teams to for a decade.

It didn’t exactly work out that way.

Duke went 11-7 and finished tied for fifth in the ACC. They were upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament by South Carolina. Though Tatum did deliver on his star power, eventually being drafted third in the NBA draft by the Celtics and looking like a potential future MVP candidate during Boston’s playoff run, Giles’ fortunes were more in line with the Blue Devils’.

Once regarded as a potential top pick in the 2017 draft, Giles struggled at Duke to return to the form that made him a top prospect before two ACL tears during his prep years set him back significantly. After undergoing a procedure on the knee in the preseason, he played a total of just 300 minutes for Duke, averaging 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He was drafted 20th overall by the Kings last June simply on the strength of what he used to be before the knee injuries seemingly sapped him of his undeniable upside.

When Giles didn’t play a minute last year as the Kings sidelined him to get his knees right, it only furthered the belief that his best basketball, even at just age 20, could be behind him.

Giles is offering an alternative theory this summer, though.

The 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 12.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in two Las Vegas summer league games after a strong showing in the Sacramento league previously, but even more importantly is showing an explosiveness that belies his injury history.

That Giles, the version who could make plays like the one above with regularity, was what had everyone so excited about that Duke team just two years ago. If the Blue Devils would have had something approximating this Giles, who looks bouncy and aggressive and fluid, alongside Tatum – plus that veteran core – watch out. That was the thinking then, and it’s hard not to think about it again now with what looks to be a Giles renaissance upon us.

Super teams are all the rage in the NBA, but Duke had the look of a potential one in November 2016.

“I’m starting to put more stuff together,” Giles told the Kings’ website last week. “I’m starting to show more parts of my game. More and more each game that you might not’ve seen in my the few games that I played.

“I’m getting my groove back.”

What could be for Giles suddenly looks to be a high ceiling once again. It’s hard not to look back at what could have been.

Unless you’re partial to Carolina blue, I suppose.