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Blossoming big man Montrezl Harrell earns high praise from coach Doc Rivers

Image Credit: DownToBuck/YouTube
Image Credit: DownToBuck/YouTube

When the Los Angeles Clippers shipped Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets last June, the package they received in return was highlighted by 2014-15 Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, two-time All-Defensive guard Patrick Beverley, and a first-round draft pick. Nearly nine months later, however, it seems that perhaps the best asset the Clippers received in the deal was center Montrezl Harrell.

Beverley suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, the draft pick will likely be a crapshoot-type selection at the end of the first round, and while Williams has been a spark off the bench as usual, he is a 31-year-old, 13th-year veteran. Harrell, meanwhile, is a healthy 24-year-old who leads the Clippers in Player Efficiency Rating at 24.7—a full 3.5 points higher than Williams, who is second on the team in that metric.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers is no stranger to talented big men. The 56-year-old has coached players like Kevin Garnett, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, and he shared the court with greats such as Patrick Ewing and David Robinson during his playing days. What Rivers says about big men carries weight, and he had plenty of praise for Harrell over the weekend, via Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times.

“When we got him, we looked at him as an energy guy, a guy that can play defense,” Rivers said of Harrell, who played just 14.9 minutes per game over 97 contests during his first two NBA seasons with the Rockets. “That's what he did everywhere he's been. And then every practice he gets in, he keeps scoring. And scoring. And then we started thinking, 'Maybe he can score a little bit.' He's been better than that. He's been great. He just plays hard too.”

Rivers is right about Harrell being more than a mere energy guy. The Louisville alum has seen an uptick in usage on offense this season and has made the most of it, posting a career-high 10.3 points per game in just 16.2 minutes (good for 23.0 points per 36 minutes) and a 65.1 true-shooting percentage that ranks fourth in the NBA. Harrell has also gotten better as the season has progressed, posting 14.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in 20.4 minutes over 26 contests since January 10. The Clippers even seem to play better when Harrell sees extended action—when he plays fewer than 14 minutes, the Clippers are 13-16, but when he is on the floor for more than 14 minutes, the team is 23-13.

Rivers understands that he has more than a hustle player on his hands, and he spoke on how the team looks to Harrell to score the basketball. “We throw it to him,” Rivers said. “Our game is speed and transition, so if he's open, we give him the ball. We want him to early post, so I guess that would be his play, is through early post.”

Harrell has been showing flashes of expanding his game, as well. He's taken a career-high 24.6 percent of his shots in the range of 3-10 feet from the basket, hitting 47.4 percent of those attempts—the best mark among Clippers who have played at least 10 games. Though the sample size is quite limited, Harrell has even connected on 45 percent of his shots from 10-16 feet from the hoop, suggesting he could force opponents to defend him away from the paint.

Not due to turn 25 years old until January, Harrell is still a young, unfinished product, but he has already shown the Clippers everything they possibly could have hoped for—and perhaps more—when they acquired him last year. The former Rocket has now scored in double figures in each of the Clippers' past nine games, averaging 17 points per contest over that stretch. If he can keep expanding his game away from the paint while continuing to bring his patented energy night in and night out, he could end up being seen as a hidden gem from the blockbuster Chris Paul trade.

This article was originally published on @matthewshovlin