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How Montrezl Harrell made the leap from NBA’s fringe to Clippers’ ‘heart and soul’

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LOS ANGELES — When Montrezl Harrell was a junior at North Edgecombe, a tiny 1A North Carolina high school that sits an hour east of Raleigh and two hours west of the Atlantic, he was a little too fired up for an upcoming rivalry game against Tarboro High. He hadn’t yet grown into his current 6-foot-8, 240-pound frame, but he was still big and strong enough to dunk so forcefully in practice that he dislodged the rim from its mount. As he clung to the rim, he could hear the backboard shattering above him.

“I let go and got to running,” Harrell said. “I looked back, and there was a pile of glass on the floor.” Without a replacement on hand, the rivalry game was delayed until later in the week.

The Los Angeles Clippers forward told the story almost offhandedly, then tried to recall the location of his next demolition. “Oh, Hillsborough Community College down in Florida,” he said, recalling how he brought a pickup game to an early end with another rim attack.

Harrell hasn’t torn apart an NBA backboard, a la Shaquille O’Neal, but it’s not for lack of trying. His signature plays unfold in three parts: He dunks with two hands and swings on the rim, then flexes both biceps and screams as he returns to Earth, and finally meanders toward the Staples Center’s baseline seats like a man possessed, sometimes going three or four rows deep to soak in the cheers. One such sequence against the Philadelphia 76ers in January rankled all-star center Joel Embiid, who dismissed the undersized, overexcited Harrell as “nobody for me to worry about.”

Yet the former G Leaguer has emerged this season as someone opponents must account for in their game plans. As the engine of the post-“Lob City” Clippers, “Trezz” has blossomed into a candidate for the most improved player and sixth man of the year awards.

“I’m an instigator,” Harrell said. “I want everything the other team can give me, and I get in people’s heads. I’ll instigate with the refs, too. I’m from down South, where talking junk is part of the game. A lot of guys have fight and grit, but when someone talks to them, they get locked in on that. Not me. I can talk and still play.”

Grinding out his place

In his fourth season, the brash Harrell has proved to be one of the NBA’s busiest bodies, ranking among the league leaders in everything from dunks to contested shots to boxouts to technical fouls. His colorful sense of style matches his unapologetic game, making him a natural fan favorite, from his trademark Kung Fu headband, to his Black Panther hoodie that reads “F--- racism,” to custom airbrushed sneakers that have paid tribute to everyone from Serena Williams to “The Simpsons.”

Harrell, 25, has been fighting for attention since his childhood in Tarboro, a town of roughly 10,000. His father, Sam, worked for a custom door manufacturing company, and his mother, Selena, is a nurse at an assisted living facility. His paternal grandmother, Mamie, ran the show, overseeing a household of nine that included Harrell, his two younger brothers, his parents, his two aunts and his grandfather.

“It was definitely country,” Harrell said. “That’s how we were raised up: a tightknit group all in the same house. I wasn’t going to bed hungry, but we didn’t have five-star meals laid out every night. On Monday, we’d eat spaghetti. On Tuesday, we’d eat leftover spaghetti. Maybe some soup on Wednesday or a fried bologna sandwich and some canned vegetables. I know those types of hard times. My parents did the best they could. We were regular people who did what we could to get by.”

A natural athlete, Harrell played four sports for North Edgecombe, which has a current enrollment of less than 300, and caught on with the North Carolina Raptors AAU team. In search of academic assistance, better competition and sturdier rims, Harrell left home during his senior year to play at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., a three-hour drive away.

The long-established basketball prep school — which has sent David West, Josh Howard and Terry Rozier to the NBA — helped connect Harrell with then-Louisville coach Rick Pitino. After a commitment to Virginia Tech fell apart, Harrell joined the Cardinals, where he won an NCAA title as a freshman and gradually worked his way onto the NBA’s radar. He declared for the 2015 draft after his junior season.

The draft lottery that year was filled with centers who could shoot like guards and protect the rim such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner. Harrell, by contrast, measured just 6-7 without shoes at the draft combine, and his scoring range was strictly limited to the paint. The response from pro scouts was tepid: They wondered whether he could shoot well enough to play power forward and whether he was too short to play center.

Despite harboring first-round dreams, Harrell dropped to the Houston Rockets in the second round with the 32nd pick.

In Houston, playing time was sparse. As a rookie, Harrell asked to be assigned to the G League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers so that he could play rather than languish on the bench behind Dwight Howard and Clint Capela. The next year, Harrell gained more regular minutes thanks to Howard’s departure and an injury to Capela. When the playoffs rolled around, though, Coach Mike D’Antoni returned to his veterans.

Once Houston crashed in the second round, General Manager Daryl Morey pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade with the Clippers for Chris Paul. Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and a first-round pick headlined L.A.’s return haul, and Harrell was one of multiple prospects added to the package. “We didn’t know what we were getting,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “The book on him was all energy and no offense, but then he kept scoring in training camp. Finally, I told my assistants, ‘I think Trezz might be able to score.’ ”

Still, Harrell appeared stuck in another logjam: Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were frontcourt linchpins, and Danilo Gallinari had just arrived on a three-year, $65 million contract. Harrell played just 10 minutes total in L.A.’s first five games of the season, and he seemed at risk of becoming the next Kenneth Faried — another undersized forward passed over in favor of better shooters and more imposing defenders.

Harrell’s big break finally came during a torrent of injuries as five Clippers, including Griffin and Gallinari, were sidelined in quick succession. He moved into a regular rotation role around Thanksgiving and was drawing standing ovations for his dunks and scowls within weeks. Even when Griffin returned from injury, Harrell often received more enthusiastic responses.

In the run-up to the trade deadline, Clippers President Lawrence Frank decided that the franchise’s identity should align more closely with Harrell than Griffin. Preaching the virtues of “blue-collar” basketball, Frank abruptly traded Griffin, then let Jordan walk in free agency.

Williams, an electric bench scorer who came over in the Paul trade, was re-signed to a three-year, $24 million extension. Harrell re-upped for two years and $12 million, with Frank hailing his “tough, hard-playing, gritty” game. Instead of a top-heavy roster built around name-brand stars and max contracts, the Clippers were competitive underdogs.

The team’s ‘heart and soul’

The Clippers’ pivot has mostly been successful. Thanks to the potent inside-outside combination of Harrell and Williams, L.A. boasts the NBA’s top-scoring bench (51 points per game). And despite pessimistic preseason predictions, the Clippers remain in the West’s playoff picture, battling neck-and-neck with the same-town Lakers while receiving a fraction of the attention paid to LeBron James and company.

“I’m not trying to disrespect the Lakers,” Harrell said. “Their accomplishments are legendary. But that’s not them now. You can’t keep sitting here talking about what happened 15, 20, 30 years ago. That’s not coming back. Whether you like it or not, there’s two teams in L.A. No matter how much you boo us, we’re here, and we’re not going anywhere. I’m rolling with my guys 100 times out of 100 in a playoff series against their guys. Good luck to them.”

While Harrell’s chirping has only gotten louder, his game has shown signs of refinement. Over the summer, his trainer preached the importance of rebounding discipline by having him chase rebounds while absorbing blows to his back from a body-sized pad. To prepare to defend massive centers, Harrell worked on gaining early position in the paint, staying straight up and down to avoid fouling, and picking his spots for opportunistic steals, swipes and deflections.

He has grown up off the court, too, becoming a father since moving to L.A. His 1-year-old son, Amari, and 6-month-old daughter, Alyeshia, live with their mother in Kentucky, but he stays in touch with the help of FaceTime. After a recent practice, he carefully scanned a text message from Alyeshia’s day-care center, which included a detailed breakdown of her nap times, meals and potty usage.

As Harrell has put up a career-high 15.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, most of the pre-draft concerns have subsided. He has shown that he can capably handle minutes at power forward and center, and the Clippers’ net rating is far better with Harrell than when they utilize 6-11 Marcin Gortat and 7-3 Boban Marjanovic.

In recent weeks, Rivers has shifted Harrell in and out of the starting lineup. “The bench is his better role,” Rivers said. “He clearly has starter talent, but Trezz is the guy you can throw in at any point to change the game.” Rivers often closes games with a small-ball lineup, entrusting Harrell as the back-line defender so that he can play a potent, offensive-oriented group.

One Clippers executive singled out Harrell as the franchise’s new “heart and soul.” Harrell called that a “huge honor,” knowing how far he has come from the bent rims and dubious scouts.

“Trezz fits us,” Rivers said, noting that the onetime mismatch target has transformed into a mismatch generator. “You can tell he’s good because he’s forcing other coaches to sub guys in. They’re worried about their centers being too slow or their power forwards getting overpowered by him.”