The footage is grainy, a decade old and doesn’t even capture the right sport. Yet anyone who has watched a Clippers game in the last three years will find the YouTube clip instantly recognizable.
It is Sept. 11, 2009, and a teenaged Montrezl Harrell, already well over 6 feet tall, stands near a goal line on a North Carolina football field, surrounded by three defenders from rival Tarboro High School. He jumps for a long pass thrown to a height only the tall sophomore receiver from North Edgecomb High can reach, secures the football and maneuvers past two defenders into the end zone.
In the 10 years since that touchdown, as he’s earned recognition as one of the NBA’s top reserves, the fame, wallet and muscles of the Clippers forward have grown. When Keith Parisher, a North Edgecomb coach since the mid-1980s who coached Harrell, his father and two brothers, watches Clippers games from his Tarboro, N.C., home, he is continually amazed at how far Harrell has come since starring at the rural high school an hour east of Raleigh.
He’s also tickled to continually see that the jump-ball play that caused opponents in North Carolina’s smallest high school classification so much trouble is still working against some of the best athletes in the world.
“We had a bunch of games where I pretty much just told my quarterback, ‘Just give him a chance and throw it where he can get it and nobody else can,’” Parisher said. “He had some great catches just going up over the top of people that were just smaller than he was.”
The 6-foot-8 Harrell stands to earn a lucrative contract next summer largely on the back of his pick-and-roll play, which has allowed him to average 18.1 points per game, third-most among all NBA reserves. His ability to outrun defenders in transition and catch jump-ball passes, turning them into points, has become no less of a signature move.
“He does something unorthodox,” said Lou Williams, the fellow high-scoring reserve whose passes most often connect with Harrell. “He’s the first ‘big’ to get back so a lot of times he has a smaller guy on him. It’s a no-brainer.”
It’s not so for everyone, not at first. Such passes are risky. It’s why Harrell sometimes takes hesitant new teammates aside and asks for trust.
“Like I tell these guys,” Harrell said. “They don’t have anything to really worry about.”
When Maurice Harkless, who joined the Clippers in July, sees Harrell ahead of or even with a defender in the open court, his instinct is now to throw the ball ahead and trust the hands that once cradled a game-winning Hail Mary pass at North Edgecomb — a play that remains vivid for Parisher. Second-year Clippers guard Jerome Robinson grew more comfortable once he understood few can leap off the court as quickly as Harrell.
“Trez don’t like for the guards to have turnovers so he’ll jump and go get everything,” guard Patrick Beverley said. “You’ve got to love a big man like that.”
Harrell traces his confidence to his background in football, a game “that has been in my blood for a while.” At North Edgecomb, where Harrell also played defensive end, punted and regularly faced Todd Gurley, the future Rams running back who played for rival Tarboro, his height and dependable hands became safety valves for quarterbacks reading a blitz.
“We catch them sleeping a couple times and I run right by them,” Harrell said. “It’s a big play up the middle.”
Harrell played until his senior year, when he transferred to Virginia’s Hargrave Military Academy to focus on playing basketball against better competition. It led to a scholarship to Louisville, an NCAA championship and becoming the 32nd overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft. But football’s pull remained. According to Robinson, Harrell has told teammates “he could play on Sundays.” Harrell believes he could have given then-Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino “a couple games” if he’d inquired.
“It wouldn’t have been something I would have turned down,” Harrell said. “I still have those days where sometimes I miss it.”
Leak-outs are now part of a broader offensive arsenal that have put Harrell in line to earn a lucrative contract next summer in a free-agent class that is considered short on stars. Though used often to finish fast breaks, Harrell is now encouraged to begin them with his dribble. And as defenses have focused on cutting off his path to the basket in pick-and-roll plays, he’s improved at catching a pass while rolling to the hoop and, in one motion, whipping the ball to open shooters around the perimeter.
Accounting for Harrell in the half-court offense has become more difficult. Not that slowing him in transition has gotten any easier.
During an October game against Phoenix, Williams threw a pass from the free-throw line that landed nearly 75 feet away in the hands of Harrell, who’d outleaped three Suns defenders to bring down the ball.
“His hang time is amazing,” said Parisher, who would know best.
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Update: Guard Rodney McGruder, who has missed seven consecutive games for the Clippers (19-7) because of an injured hamstring, has been listed as probable to play against the Timberwolves (10-14), who have lost six consecutive games. Guard Derrick Walton Jr. also will play after leaving Wednesday’s victory against Toronto with a hamstring injury. Forward JaMychal Green (bruised tailbone) is questionable. Landry Shamet (ankle) and Beverley (concussion) will not play.