Harry Giles is in the air, all seven feet and three inches of wingspan completely uncoiled.
To go back just moments before, Giles steps up and receives the pass from Bogdan Bogdanovic. Bogdanovic then darts down the far sideline, around a screen and toward the basket as Giles throws a slightly overthrown bounce pass back to him. Bogdanovic reaches and recovers the ball before swinging it back to Giles, slashing to the rim. In one motion, Giles catches the pass at his waist and leaps over Brooklyn Nets forward Ed Davis.
Here he is, about to catch a body. But his right-handed dunk catches the back of the rim instead and fruitlessly bounces back to his teammate Marvin Bagley III.
“Giles tried to go on every highlight reel in America,” remarked Sacramento Kings play-by-play man Grant Napear.
Bagley gives it right back to Giles, now open in the place he landed. Back to the basket, Giles pivots around his right foot, turns toward the baseline and, with his left, steps to the other side of the basket before guiding in a reverse layup with his right hand.
When Giles’ athleticism wasn’t enough, his skill saved him. This is Giles’ basketball life in a nutshell.
Giles’ story is well chronicled: At one point considered the most exciting high schooler in the country and a bonafide top pick, Giles underwent three knee operations in four years, slipped to the end of the first round in 2017 and sat out what would have been his rookie season as he continued to rehab.
This season, with the knee issues mostly behind him, Giles has flashed enough potential that the Kings regard him as a building block. At 20 years old, the hardest part may already be over. Just like a missed dunk, there’s no time to look back at what could have been.
Giles is ready for what’s next.
Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Giles was in eighth grade when Keith Gatlin first saw him on a basketball court. “He was, honestly, a man among boys.”
Gatlin was the high school varsity basketball coach at Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point, North Carolina — a town about 90 miles Northeast of Charlotte.
“He was so big with his hands where he could grab the ball like a grapefruit and move it around and shoot it with one hand,” Gatlin told The Step Back in a phone interview. “But he had really good touch … I think his skillset set him apart more so than his athleticism.”
After leading Wesleyan to a state championship as a freshman, Giles was widely considered the top-ranked recruit in his class. However while playing for Team USA Basketball’s U16 team in Uruguay, Giles suffered a devastating injury; at 15 years old, he tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee. After surgery, he was sidelined for his entire sophomore year.
As a junior, he came back and reclaimed his spot as the top player in the country. Theo Pinson, currently playing for the Brooklyn Nets on a two-way contract, played with Giles in high school and saw the work Giles put into his recovery.
“What he has is rare,” Pinson told The Step Back in March. “I remember his first time playing back, it’s like he didn’t miss a beat. He was cooking. Getting to the cup, he had his handle right, he was playing really well. I knew he was special then.”
To build on another strong season, Giles decided to transfer to Oak Hill Academy, a hoops powerhouse in Virginia, for his senior year. However, during his first scrimmage, Giles tore the ACL in his right knee. It forced him to miss the entire season. He never played a game for Oak Hill.
Still, Giles’ potential was so mouthwatering that colleges didn’t back off. After high school, Giles went off to Duke. His Blue Devils career was brief and disappointing. He averaged less than four points and four rebounds in 11 minutes per game as a freshman before declaring for the draft.
“I never put any stock into how he played in college because he was not healthy,” Gatlin said. “Knowing Harry, you could tell that that was a shell of himself.”
On draft night, Giles fell to Sacramento at No. 20. The Kings were rebuilding, and so they were able to be patient with him. The team decided early on that Giles would sit out the entire season to focus instead on solidifying his body.
With guidance from the Kings, Giles worked with the team training staff staff on a daily basis and made visits to Peak Performance Project (“P3”) in Santa Barbara and met with Fusionetics founder Dr. Michael Clark in Dallas. Clark put Giles through several physical assessments, with a special focus on range of motion and symmetry of strength between the right and left leg — something that can be especially thrown off after ACL tears.
Giles visited P3 during his draft process and then again during the All-Star break, and worked on strengthening his lower body. By February, the folks at P3 were so impressed with Giles’ recovery that Adam Hewitt, P3’s director of operations, remarked it looked as if Giles never suffered multiple torn ligaments in his knees.
“When we saw him last year we were like ‘Damn, this guy, if we didn’t know he had all these knee injuries, this guy is really built to last,’” Hewitt told The Step Back in a phone interview. “He really looks good.”
Behind the scenes, Giles added 20 pounds of muscle and spent the rest of his work hours watching film and getting accustomed to NBA life. In front of the cameras, Giles spent games sitting on the bench, wearing a blazer.
That changed last October. After a promising performance during summer league, Giles made his NBA debut, playing nine-plus minutes in the Kings’ season-opening game. After that, he spent most of the first month traveling back and forth between Sacramento and the team’s G-League affiliate in Stockton, but at least he was playing.
His first standout performance came on Nov. 12, in a signature win over the San Antonio Spurs. Giles posted 12 points and six rebounds in 15 minutes.
Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
“It feels great just to get a good one under my belt,” Giles said after the game. “I struggled early. You know I had a game yesterday [for G-League affiliate Stockton Kings] went down and learned some things and came back and brought it to the team. I had a great time out there.”
Giles started rolling after the turn of the new year. On Jan. 30, he posted the first 20-point game of his career against the Atlanta Hawks. His emergence coincided with that of rookie Marvin Bagley III. The two rookies mused early in the season about how they envisioned playing together — two highly skilled bigs from Duke, both the third of their name.
“When you’ve got two versatile players it’s hard for it not to work because skill sets combine and that’s what it’s all about,” Giles said in January.
Kings head coach Dave Joerger recently began playing them together more often. Neither big man starts games, but they present a unique challenge to opponents when they check in mid-way through the first quarter. Since Jan. 1, lineups featuring Giles, Bagley and Bogdan Bogdanovic own a 7.3 point-per-100 possession edge over opponents.
“It’s a lot of activity, it’s a lot of athleticism. Guys are both, not only big and play above the rim, but they’re quick. And so it’s a matter of keeping contact on those guys, being able to run with them and slow them down,” said Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle. “It’s a tough job.”
While the duo is typically more athletic than the average backup frontcourt, it isn’t the athleticism that gets Kings players and coaches excited — it’s the skill level. Bagley is showing promising development as an outside shooter and ball handler, and people in the organization will still throw around the words “small forward” when talking about him. Players and coaches rave about Giles’ passing ability.
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently articulated, the Kings like to run horns sets when the two bigs are in the game, with both Giles and Bagley standing at either end of the free throw line. That vantage point allows Bagley to stretch the defense with the threat of his shooting and Giles to see over the enemy and find open cutters.
The plan isn’t to keep bringing them off the bench forever, though. Starting center Willie Cauley-Stein will be a free agent this summer and could sign elsewhere if the Kings feel either Giles or Bagley (or both) are ready to step into the starting unit. While Bagley is far more dynamic as an offensive weapon, Joerger may favor Giles because of his defense. Opponents are shooting just 61.5 percent on shots inside of six feet when Giles is the closest defender, a much better mark than Cauley-Stein’s. His steal and block rates are both strong as well and he looks the part of a disruptive and versatile defender.
There is still one thing holding Giles back, however: a minutes restriction. Giles will rarely eclipse 20 minutes — and will never play more than 22 in a game — and is usually on the bench in crunch time (he has played just three minutes all season in what NBA.com deems as “clutch” situations).
It’s understandable if Sacramento doesn’t want to rush Giles back. After all, the patient approach so far has worked. But they’ll have to kick the tires on his conditioning and take the Giles-Bagley frontcourt for a long fourth-quarter spin at some point.
In light of what Giles has gone through just to get here, this is hardly an obstacle. His best basketball is ahead of him.
“He’s made it,” Pinson smiled. “He made it to where he wanted to be.”