Sophomore Spark: Montrezl Harrell’s Energy Ignites High-Powered Rockets
It’s remarkable how much energy Montrezl Harrell brings to every Rockets game considering how much he expends before tip-off.
Houston’s sophomore big man spends extra hours nearly every day trying to better his game, launching shots so he can become a consistent threat from outside, working on his footwork so he can seamlessly move between the “dunking zone” on the baseline and the corner three, and banging down low so he can become a more effective defensive rebounder.
Though Harrell is relentless on the practice court when no one is watching, both MVP candidate James Harden and coach Mike D’Antoni cite the energy Harrell brings during games as his best attribute.
“He’s more of an energy guy,” D’Antoni explained Sunday when describing how he decided when to employ Harrell in the starting lineup in the absence of Clint Capela. And when asked what Harrell brought in the 10 starts he made before Capela’s return Tuesday, Harden echoed his coach, “He brings energy.”
“It’s always special to start, especially coming in as a young guy on a high-powered team,” Harrell told The Crossover on Sunday. “But it’s just about taking advantage of your opportunity. My rookie year I was up and down, I didn’t let it bother me.”
Harrell’s emergence as a key role player coincided with a hot streak for the surprising Rockets. Houston went 11–4 with Harrell playing at least 20 minutes in every game during the stretch. The 15-game stint included a nine-game win streak that helped start whispers about the Rockets being conference finals material in the top-heavy West.
Capela’s injury first looked like it could doom the Rockets, who let Dwight Howard walk in a dramatic re-shuffling of their frontcourt. But Harrell immediately made himself a factor on offense by running the floor hard on every possession and finishing strong in the paint, becoming the platonic ideal of the D’Antoni center.
“His ability to be able to catch and finish is the biggest thing,” D’Antoni said. “Then you’ve got James Harden who can really throw that pass. We’ve got shooters space who can give him space. It’s always a combination of the team, but it’s also his individual attributes and his will to play hard.”
In Houston, the veterans have done their part to help. The 34-year-old Nene has embraced Harrell, setting an example in the weight room and staying positive off the court. (Harrell described Nene as one of the happiest guys you’ll ever meet.) Nene has also given Harrell scouting reports on which centers like to do what, using the knowledge he’s accrued over 15 years in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Harden said it was the job of the team to make sure everyone’s confidence was at a high level, and he’s seen that improve with Harrell from his rookie year.
“Confidence is one of the biggest things in this league,” Harden said. “If you don’t have confidence, especially as a young guy, you don’t have a chance. He has that confidence. He’s just going out there and playing and great things are happening for him.”
Despite his offensive success, Harrell certainly has some work to do on the defensive end. Houston’s defensive rebounding percentage is nearly six points lower with Harrell on the court, and its defensive rating is three points worse. But Harrell’s efficiency on the offensive end, particularly as a pick-and-roll finisher, means he’s still largely a net positive. (The Rockets’ offensive rating is 8.1 points better when Harrell is playing,)
Harrell’s role seems simple—set picks for Harden and the other guards, finish in the lane when defenses try to stick with Houston’s shooters—but he’s excelling so well at what he’s asked to do, he has a higher real plus-minus than forwards such as Kenneth Faried, Zach Randolph and Julius Randle.
“Coach D’Antoni puts us in great situations,” Harrell said of how he works within the offense. “With James running the point guard, it takes a lot of pressure off us. We get open spots because of all the attention on him. We’re also playing at a high clip, not a lot of teams are able to run up and down consistently for 48 minutes.”
With Capela returning from a fractured left fibula, the problem for Houston now becomes balancing playing time between its three centers. Nene has also provided the team good minutes, particularly against bulkier big men. Harrell vowed not to become complacent once Capela returned, and noted that his job was still to improve every day.
What would that improvement look like? Harrell says he’s already comfortable shooting corner threes if called upon, but he wants to become a valued shooter from above the break as well, saying it would help the team “tremendously” if they could play five three-point threats at once. Harrell has attempted only three three-point field goals in his entire career, so moving his game to the outside would be quite a sea change.
“I’ve been waiting for this situation for a long time, I’ve been waiting to hear my name called,” Harrell said of his recent success. “There is no time for any off nights. Clint’s going to lift up this team, but his return doesn’t mean I did my job.”
There’s no doubting that the determined Harrell will continue to bring it even if his role shrinks with Capela’s return. And with all that energy just waiting to be unleashed, D’Antoni would likely be well-served not to let that role shrink too much.