He’s gone from a player that then coach Billy Gillispie tried to humiliate by making him sit in a bathroom stall during halftime of UK’s loss at Vanderbilt two years ago and a player that coach John Calipari admitted he paid almost no attention to last year to a vital cog on this Kentucky team.
Harrellson not only has started every game, but he ranks among the rebounding leaders in the Southeastern Conference at 8.8 rebounds per game. He’s shooting 59 percent from the field because he seldom strays away from the goal to shoot and he’s even blocked 43 shots.
Not bad for a player that averaged four minutes per game last year and scored all of 28 points in the 22 games he did play. This year he’s averaging 6.6 points per game.
“I think he does a terrific job for them. He understands his role and comes out every game and does that. He knows who he is. As a coach, that is one of most challenging things you face because most young players think they are more than they are,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. “With them having other terrific scorers, he knows his niche. He brings them a physical presence because he has a big, strong body and he really impacts the game for them in his own way.”
Still, when he comes to midcourt Tuesday night as UK’s only senior for the always emotional Senior Day ceremony before the Wildcats play Vanderbilt, it will be a remarkable turnaround for a player that even got into Calipari’s doghouse before this season started with a Twitter message that resulted in the coach making him do extra running before practice — and giving up his Twitter account.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect from Josh when I first got here to be honest,” Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight said. “I didn’t know if he was going to play a lot or not. I didn’t really watch him last year and I didn’t really know what Josh was all about. Then I got here and saw Josh was a hard worker and Coach got it out of him. He has improved tremendously. He is a totally different player now.”
That’s partially because of the extra running his tweet after the preseason Blue-White Game got him and made him lose weight to get in better physical shape.
Calipari says being in better shape has helped Harrellson improve, but that his passing also has improved.
“Demonstrated performance also builds self-confidence and it has done that for Josh. He has shown he can play,” Calipari said.
He had his dream game in the win at Louisville when he had 23 points and 14 rebounds, both career highs, on national TV. He also had 16 points, six rebounds and two steals against Tennessee.
That’s dramatically better performance than what freshman Terrence Jones said he envisioned when he watched Harrellson “goofing off” in preseason practice and thinking to himself that UK would be in real trouble if Enes Kanter was deemed ineligible by the NCAA as he eventually was.
“I think I have come a long way. If I had not tweeted that stuff, I would probably be the same guy now just joking around and trying to be funny and keeping my teammates relaxed like Terrence originally thought I was,” Harrellson said. “Since then I have been more serious in practice and don’t joke around. I just wait until we are off the court. On the court, it is all business. As soon as we step off I can joke around or whatever, but on the court it is all about business now.”
While he had games that sometimes frustrated Calipari, he credits Kanter for pushing him in practice even though he couldn’t play and also forcing him to get better. “He pushed me to be better, and I needed that,” Harrellson said.
He also never let success go to his head, something that might have been easy to do once he got his time in the limelight.
“I am definitely not getting big-headed. Me? Of all people? I am not letting some success change me,” he said. “I came from out of nowhere. I didn’t get recruited out of high school, went to junior college one year and started getting noticed. I came to Kentucky and didn’t play much my first year, didn’t play none last year and then got to play again. I can’t let nothing keep me from being humble. That is how I have always been and how my parents raised me that way. I am always going to be humble for as long as I live.”
He didn’t even mind the higher expectations Calipari suddenly had for him — partially out of necessity when Kanter was ruled ineligible and partially because he started out playing well.
“I think coach Cal expects it every game now because I have shown him I can do it on a consistent basis. I really think he expects me to come out and perform well every game. I don’t mind that because I don’t want him to take it easy on me,” Harrellson said.
“It doesn’t add pressure. It adds another reason to go do it. Coach is expecting it, so why not go do it the way he wants?”