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Harry Giles could do big things for Kings next season

After sitting out last season, former Duke player is healthy and ready to make his mark

SACRAMENTO, California — Technically, it was an NBA summer league opener for the Sacramento Kings on Monday night. But for Kings redshirt rookie big man Harry Giles, it was actually a rebirth.

Giles played in his first game since March 19, 2017, when he went scoreless in nine minutes in Duke’s season-ending NCAA tournament loss to South Carolina. The last time he played when healthy is a tougher question to answer. As Giles ran onto the Golden 1 Center floor, he could not help but feel victorious before the Kings went on to victory.

“Man, it almost made me cry. But you can’t,” Giles said. “The ovation from the fans was everything I dreamed of for my NBA debut. It was an amazing feeling, and I thank God for that. I got some emotional feelings right now.

“ ’Are you working hard?’ ‘Did you play good enough?’ I have to remind myself that it was my first game in over a year, just go out there and have fun. It’s always hard to, although it’s easy to say that.”

It has been far from easy, mentally and physically, for Giles to get healthy enough to play in a summer league game.

Giles watched the 2017 NBA draft from his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The former Duke center heard the words, “With the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select Markelle Fultz.” While it was no disrespect to Fultz, the news crushed Giles.

“It hurt because one thing I always had on my list: the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Giles said. “Ever since I was young, I worked for that. No. 1 player, and you start talking about it and it kind of being a reality. That’s one of the things that kind of boosted me to keep working, be the No. 1 pick.

“It was like a disappointing hurt in a way, but also helpless. One of those things where the situation just didn’t go your way. You got hurt again, and it wasn’t like I failed. That’s what made it hurt so bad, because it wasn’t like I failed. It wasn’t like I lost. But I knew why I didn’t play good. I didn’t play good because I wasn’t healthy and I knew my body wasn’t right. So it was like, ‘Man, now my body’s doing this again.’ Now my body’s restricting me from doing this.”

It wasn’t long ago that the Kings big man was the king of the prep basketball world.

Giles was ranked the No. 1 prep player in a talented Class of 2016 over Fultz, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and Phoenix Suns forward Josh Jackson. NBA star Chris Paul was one of his mentors. Giles planned to announce his college choice on ESPN’s SportsCenter and could not go anywhere without being recognized. He said the fan and media attention made him feel “like a rock star,” and there were online video mixtapes made in his honor showcasing his versatile game.

“I was on top,” Giles said. “I was the player. Man, I’m ready to go before I got hurt the first time before my senior season. I’m ready to get it my last year. You got a little ego there. You’re feeling yourself, not really in a cocky way but in a confident way. You built yourself up the way you want it to be.”

But all the Giles adulation came crashing down when he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in the first two minutes of his first game at prep school power Oak Hill Academy (Virginia) in 2015. He had previously torn the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his other knee while playing for USA Basketball in the 2013 FIBA Americas U16 Championship after his freshman year in high school.

Giles sitting out his senior year kept him out of contention for major awards. Gone was playing in the prestigious McDonald’s All-American, Jordan Classic and Hoop Summit all-star games. In a story about the McDonald’s All-American Game, USA Today wrote that Giles “would have been the headliner of this group” if he was healthy.

Giles can only wonder what hardware may have been in his possession if he were able to play his senior year.

“I already didn’t play in the McDonald’s game,” Giles said. “I didn’t do the Hoop Summit. I didn’t do Jordan. I didn’t do this. I didn’t do that. Yeah, I missed out on a lot. I didn’t do senior-year stuff. I didn’t do it. All the major moments, I didn’t do. I missed out on a lot of moments. I missed out on a lot of major moments in my career, man.

“Growing up, the wall moments. I don’t have a lot of wall moments. I got a lot of great moments, but you go in my room … the wall moments? A lot of the pictures, the journey, you were here or there? I don’t have those. I’m trying to get that back.”

Duke announced that Giles would likely miss up to six weeks after a third knee surgery on Oct. 3, 2016. He made his college debut on Dec. 19, 2016, going scoreless in four minutes against mid-major Tennessee State. Giles’ season high was 12 points against Boston College on Jan. 7, 2017, and only twice did he reach double digits in scoring. Giles averaged 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds in 11.5 minutes per game in 26 contests as a freshman.

It was obvious that Giles had not recovered from his knee injury. And it was demoralizing to go from superstar to struggling.

“It’s tough, I can honestly say,” Giles said. “It’s one of the worst things ever. It goes back to ego. It goes back to you start losing a little bit of confidence in yourself. When you lose a little bit of confidence in yourself, it kind of gets you a little depressed. It’s like, ‘Man, I used to feel so confident about myself.‘ I could do this and do that. And now sometimes, it’s like, ‘Man, I can’t even go do this. I don’t feel confident enough to go hoop now.’

“I didn’t feel confident enough that I could go kill now, so you don’t even have confidence. Sometimes you get out from rehab and you’re like, ‘Man, I have done this.’ And for me, I have done it more than one time. You know what I’m saying? So it was tough for me because I had done it before and you kind of get worn out from it.”

In hindsight, Giles said, he should not have played at Duke as a freshman, adding that his draft stock was probably affected by his struggles.

“I wasn’t really ready,” Giles said. “I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. I think I was more anxious, young, kind of just wanted to go out there and play, knowing that I came back fast from my first injury, but the level of competition I played against was a little bit different, along with the speed of the game. I think the strength and the speed was harder to come back from.”

Despite the freshman struggles, Giles put his name in the 2017 NBA draft in “another tough decision.” He said it was better for him to concentrate on his game and body as a professional rather than going to school.

“I just felt like for me going forward with the injuries I had, it was what I needed to do,” Giles said. “I felt like the NBA was better because it was more time [in the gym and rehabbing]. I wouldn’t have to be in class all day. … Having to work out, going to rehab between classes and stuff like that, that took a toll on me. I’d just be dead tired in college.”

After struggling at Duke, Giles did not fight the Kings’ decision to redshirt him for a year.

Giles was invited to be in the green room with the top 20 prospects at the 2017 NBA draft in Brooklyn, New York. He turned it down and opted to watch the draft in his hometown with friends and family. He was nervous about cameras focusing on him on live television if he slipped in the draft. Kings general manager Vlade Divac and then-assistant general manager Scott Perry selected Giles with the 20th overall pick. The 20th pick in the draft also chose to wear No. 20 for the Kings.

The young and rebuilding Kings had patience in mind when they drafted Giles. Perry certainly was familiar with how great Giles was before he got injured during his senior year in high school and believed Giles could be a steal if healthy. The Kings ended up having Giles miss not only summer league a year ago but also the entire 2017-18 season to strengthen his body.

After struggling at Duke, Giles did not fight the Kings’ decision to redshirt him for a year.

“I didn’t fight them because it took me back to the decision I made: Should I play at Duke? No, I shouldn’t have played because I wasn’t ready,” Giles said. “So should I play now? Another speed, another strength level. Everybody’s good now. So it’s like, ‘OK, you can play. You can get better. But if you sit out this year, how much better would you be? How much more of the game would you be seeing?’

“Guys getting stronger, getting faster, practicing against them, doing everything but playing and actually getting to see it with your eyes, study it. This is a whole other level. I could do it all day long. It was like, ‘OK, I’m going to sit out this time.’ ”

Giles traveled with the Kings and sat on the bench in suits during the games. Kings veterans Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, George Hill and Garrett Temple stayed in his ear to keep his spirits up. The good thing about being with a developing team is there are more opportunities to practice and scrimmage.

And while the Kings were quiet about it, there were whispers at midseason that Giles was dominating some practices.

“I’ll pass one day. I’ll score one day. Might play defense one day. Then one day, I just started getting it together,” Giles said. “I think we had a practice at Cleveland and I just dominated practice one day in my head. It was there and somewhere else, I just felt like I had two great practices and played well. Ever since then, that confidence just kept going.”

Giles said Tatum is a close friend who checked on him to make sure he was recovering well mentally and physically. Recently, Giles, Tatum, heralded Kings draft pick Marvin Bagley III and Kings guard Frank Mason attended the Drew League pro-am in Los Angeles. Bagley, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, played in the prestigious league last summer.

The Drew League public address announcer offered a shout-out to former Duke stars Tatum and Bagley. Giles, however, was not mentioned by the announcer or recognized by Drew fans. With Giles about to get back on the court, it was a reminder of what he had been through.

“They were like, ‘What’s up, Marv? What’s up, Jayson?’ ” Giles said. “And they don’t know who I am? I’m like, ‘Ooh.’ It don’t bother me. But Marvin Bagley was like, ‘You don’t know who this is right here? You don’t know who he is?’ But it’s just funny to me how it changes quick, and that was only two years ago. So in high school, I’d walk around, everybody knows who you are. And now, they don’t even see you no more. And some people might know you, they are just not talking to you because you are not popping.”

Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein said in a recent interview that Giles would win the 2019 NBA Rookie of the Year award. Cauley-Stein said Giles’ focus and hard work have been the key to his return.

“He sat out a couple years while you see all your peers having fun,” Cauley-Stein said. “And you got to sit on the sidelines and watch them have fun? You have to be all about the team and all about yourself at the same time. … He was able to do our stuff and then his own stuff on the side.

“Watching him do it, you could tell that he is hungry to be one of the best players in this league. It motivated me.”

Giles had numerous family members on hand to see him make his professional debut on Monday night against the Los Angeles Lakers. It was not just a summer league game for him. It was a milestone and step in the right direction.

Giles finished with 13 points, including one 3-pointer, and three rebounds in 25 minutes. Most important, he felt healthy afterward.

“I feel amazing, and that’s the blessing about it,” Giles said.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.