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Team USA recognizes Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell as gold standard in NBA

 Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell (5) celebrates after a score at Staples Center.
Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell (5) celebrates after a score at Staples Center.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

When USA Basketball announced last week 44 finalists in consideration for the 12-man team to the 2020 Olympics, they included many of the usual suspects.

There were most valuable players such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, and perennial All-Stars such as Russell Westbrook and Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard. Nine won gold medals with the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics, including Clippers forward Paul George.

Also on the list was a 6-foot-8 center who only four seasons ago averaged 3.6 points in fewer than 10 minutes per game.

For Montrezl Harrell, his inclusion reflected the work that has taken him from the end of Houston’s rotation to the start of any conversation about the NBA’s best reserves. In his third season with the Clippers, the 26-year-old is averaging a career-high 18.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.

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“It’s a huge honor to be looked at as one of the, I would say, premier, elite guys,” Harrell said. “To be able to go and have the chance to just be able to honor your country and play in those games is a special honor.

“I do a lot of work behind closed doors. All throughout the summer I never really take a break off, it’s just about getting better and building my game in general. It just goes to show that hard work does pay off.”

If James, Curry and Leonard were a foregone conclusion to make USA Basketball’s first cut, Harrell was not.

Anthony Davis made the second of two free-throw attempts to clinch a 157-155 victory for Team LeBron in the NBA All-Star game Sunday. Kawhi Leonard was MVP.

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In 2017, he was part of the summer trade that landed him, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams in Los Angeles and sent Chris Paul to Houston. Beverley, a defensive pest, and Williams, an unflappable scorer, were known quantities, but Harrell was coming off two seasons in which he averaged 6.9 points and 2.9 rebounds in fewer than 15 minutes per game.

Clippers coaches weren’t entirely sure whether Harrell would even make the regular-season roster entering his first training camp, coach Doc Rivers has said, but he impressed with his energy and offensive potential, although raw, in Houston. Harrell made 66% of his two-point shots with the Rockets.

“He’s always been talented,” said Williams, who also plays with Harrell during a summer pro-am league in Atlanta and knows his game better than any Clipper. “Now he’s just getting an opportunity to show it on a big stage. I’m happy for him to be one of the finalists. That’s something that as a basketball player you should be proud to represent your county and be on an Olympic team, have an opportunity to compete for a gold medal so to be in that elite group of guys, I think that’s an amazing accomplishment for Trez.”

Harrell’s breakout came last season when he averaged 16.6 points and 6.5 rebounds, both sizable career highs, while playing all 82 regular-season games. His pairing with Williams created one of the league’s most efficient pick-and-roll combinations and fueled its highest-scoring bench. Williams was selected the sixth man of the year a record-tying third time, but Harrell finished third in voting.

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He remains a difficult cover rolling to the basket and one of the Clippers’ most reliable options because of it. Harrell’s 164 possessions as a pick-and-roll roller rank seventh-most in the NBA this season. No one in the top 12 exceeds the 1.28 points per possession he has produced from them, according to Synergy Sports.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard were all wearing the same uniform, Frank Vogel coaching on the sidelines and thought of what might have been.

Yet, as he eyed unrestricted free agency in 2020, Harrell worked last summer to polish his offensive repertoire. He has a green light to dribble up-court in transition and create on the fly.

After using isolations on 3.1% of his possessions last season, for a total of 37 times, Harrell has isolated against his defender on 86 possessions this season — 9.2% of all his possessions, according to Synergy. The Clippers have scored nearly 1.1 points when he has done so, ranking him in the 86th percentile of all players.

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“I don’t know if anything’s been surprising, I think we believed in him,” Rivers said. “He’s worked at it. I think his low-post game has been the best improvement.”

In the Clippers’ final game before the All-Star break, Thursday against Boston, Harrell became the first player in franchise history to record at least 24 points, 13 rebounds and three assists off the bench, and the first player across the league to do it since Hassan Whiteside in 2016.

Harrell said he appreciated USA Basketball’s recognition but didn’t commit to taking part in its pre-Olympics training camp in July.

“I’m just focused on our season right now,” he said. “We’re right in that point where we’re about to have All-Star break and after that it gets down to the real nitty-gritty part of the grind to close out the season heading into the playoffs.

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“It’s definitely too far out to say right now. It’s a long time before the season ends, don’t know what could really happen on the closing end of the season so I’ve just got to play it out.”


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