Josh Hart goes to the basket against Oklahoma City

‘Bulldog’ mentality, daring drives contribute to Josh Hart’s career-best start to 2021-22 season

by Jim Eichenhofer

Herbert Jones knows what’s coming. By now, he’s seen it dozens of times, maybe hundreds. There’s not much anyone can do to stop it.

A 23-year-old rookie, Jones shakes his head and chuckles as he watches 6-foot-5 teammate Josh Hart grab a defensive rebound, race up the floor and hurtle his body toward the rim, even if there’s a 7-footer standing in the way. Hart invariably vaults in the air and banks in a fast-break layup, a common scoring play for the five-year NBA veteran. That success on breakneck buckets is one reason why Pelicans TV broadcaster Joel Meyers calls the Villanova product a “one-man band” and a “bull in a china shop.” It’s why others commonly refer to the tenacious Hart as a “bulldog.”

“There is almost nothing you can do, but just try to make the best play on the ball as you can,” Jones said of defending Hart’s aggressive drives, which Jones first faced in preseason during intrasquad scrimmages. “It’s super tough when he’s attacking in transition.”

Hart has been a problem for New Orleans opponents all over the court early in 2021-22, off to the best start of his pro career in several categories. Sidelined Tuesday vs. Cleveland due to an ankle injury, Hart has scored 20-plus points in three straight appearances, the first time he’s done that since his rookie season with the Lakers. He’s 8/16 from three-point range during that span. For the season, he’s averaging 12.7 points on 53 percent shooting from the field, while dishing out 4.3 assists per game. All are career highs.

Hart credits Pelicans first-year head coach Willie Green for the confidence Green has shown in him from Day 1. Around the league, Hart has primarily been viewed as a role player since being selected with the 30th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s already started a career-high 26 games this season. He’s never filled a more prominent role for a team than now, logging 30-plus minutes 22 times. He did that just 14 times out of his 47 appearances in 2020-21.

“It’s mostly honestly Willie, just giving me the green light to go out there and play the game how I’ve always been playing it my whole life,” Hart said. “There are even times in the game where he’s yelling at guys to give me the ball off a rebound. When you have your coach have trust and confidence in you, it’s a big thing. It kind of gives you the freedom to go out there and play the game… It’s really making me a better player and a better teammate.”

“Talking to Josh, I just felt like he had more in him to give, across the board,” Green said of his initial discussions with Hart on taking on greater responsibility this season. “I followed his career in college and he’s always been a really good basketball player. I talked to him about (how) his rightful position on this team is also a leader. He’s done a great job of that. He’s playing at an extremely high level.”

Prominent NBA writer Marc Stein recently noted that the New Orleans coaching staff drew a comparison to the 2015 Finals MVP when it visualized what Hart’s potential might be.

“I know that their message to Josh Hart is, ‘You can be an Andre Iguodala kind of player,’ ” Stein said. “That’s the role Willie Green envisioned for him. Get the rebound, push (the ball), playmake.”

Over New Orleans’ past 16 games – which have seen the Pelicans go 10-6 after a 3-16 start – Hart has been the team’s third-leading scorer (13.8 ppg), second-leading rebounder (8.4 rpg) and leader in assists (5.3 apg). He’s also second in free throws made per game (3.0), often drawing fouls on his won’t-take-no-for-an-answer drives to the basket.

“He’s excellent at it. One of the best I’ve seen,” Green said. “Once he gets going, he has that head of steam. Josh is a big, strong, physical guy, and he’s fast. He’s just knocking guys out of the way and he’s going 100 mph. It’s become a huge part of our team. His ability to put pressure on the basket, especially driving from the perimeter and in transition, it’s something we like, and it forces (teammates) to run with him."

“It’s been big-time,” Pelicans guard/forward Garrett Temple said. “I knew he was a bulldog, but his ability to get downhill and finish, he’s an elite finisher at the rim, and he can pass when he gets down there as well, which really opens everything up for us. Not to mention defensively and his ability to rebound – that’s what he’s been able to do his whole career. Offensively, his ability to get downhill and finish is amazing.”

When Jones watches Hart play, he sees a teammate he wants to emulate during what he hopes will be a long NBA career, particularly Hart’s aggression and competitiveness.

“He does whatever it takes to win, offensively and defensively,” Jones said. “He does all of the little things. He sets the example for me. I try to follow in his footsteps, see what he brings to the game and replicate that. Just go out and play as hard as I can for the entire game. He never lets off the gas.”

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