Josh Harrellson’s path to the NBA was the road less taken. It wasn’t the four-lane freeway of AAU stardom and courtships from a college basketball who’s who, but country roads pocked with orange construction barrels.
His one big break, though, came as a Kentucky senior when the type of bad timing that had previously besieged him struck incoming hot-shot UK freshman Enes Kanter. While Kanter fought a losing battle with the NCAA over eligibility, Harrellson benefitted by playing nearly 30 minutes a game for a team that John Calipari and a freshman point guard named Brandon Knight would carry all the way to the Final Four.
The Pistons caught an eyeful of Harrellson that winter of 2010-11, assistant general manager George David spending many nights in Lexington. The Pistons needed a big man to pair with Greg Monroe and Kanter – who would become the No. 3 pick of Utah despite never playing a college game – intrigued them. Kentucky practices were the only opportunity to see him play as his eligibility battle dragged on.
But Harrellson impressed NBA scouts enough during his one season with a significant role at Kentucky to get drafted 45th, spending his rookie season with the Knicks and playing well, averaging 4.4 points and 3.9 rebounds in nearly 15 minutes a game. When the Pistons needed a backup big man this summer after including Slava Kravtsov in the trade that also sent Knight and Khris Middleton to Milwaukee in exchange for Brandon Jennings, Harrellson emerged as a strong candidate and eventually won out over a long list of considerations.
The Pistons completed their 15-man roster by signing Harrellson, 24, to be their No. 3 center behind Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Monroe is projected as the starting power forward, but he’ll likely spend at least half of his minutes at center, as projected starting small forward Josh Smith will do at power forward.
One of the appeals of Harrellson, no doubt, was the contrast in styles he represents to both Drummond and Monroe. While Drummond is as athletic as any NBA big man and Monroe uniquely skilled, Harrellson – slightly undersized at 6-foot-10 with average athleticism – is extremely comfortable stepping away from the basket. He hit 34 percent of his 3-point attempts as an NBA rookie.
After his rookie season, the Knicks included him as part of a package to obtain veteran Marcus Camby from Houston. The Rockets, attempting to clear cap space to trade for Dwight Howard at the time, waived Harrellson. He latched on with Miami, but was cut in January before his contract would have become fully guaranteed and eventually landed in China, where he earned Player of the Year honors by averaging 22.3 points, 18.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals while leading the Chongqing Fly Dragons to a 14-4 record.
The Pistons talked to several players to fill their last roster spot, but worked out only Harrellson and one other, choosing Harrellson, a Missouri native who originally signed a letter of intent with Western Illinois but never played there over concerns the coach who signed him was about to be fired, opting for a year in junior college instead. His recruitment heated up during that one juco year and Billy Gillispie recruited him to Kentucky, but by the time he landed in Lexington Gillispie had been broomed and Calipari installed as his successor.
After sitting behind Calipari recruits and NBA first-round draft picks DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton, Harrellson might never have gotten his shot but for Kanter’s NCAA entanglement. He made the most of it, displaying physical toughness, a shooting touch and a nasty competitive edge.
What he lacks athletically on defense, he’ll make up for with brute strength to hold post position. Offensively, Harrellson’s wide frame and comfort level on the perimeter makes him a likely candidate to be used in pick-and-roll situations. If Monroe and Drummond stay healthy, Harrellson figures to have a limited role. At minimum, he’ll be a valuable practice player because of his versatility and capacity to mimic matchups that demand Monroe or Drummond to defend away from the rim.
We’ll have more on the Harrellson signing in the days to come on Pistons.com.