The biggest takeaway for the Portland Trail Blazers from NBA Preseason 2020 comes at an unexpected position. Despite acquiring Enes Kanter in a high-profile move during the offseason, the Blazers might find that Harry Giles III makes sense as the first center off the bench when the regular season begins.
Following Portland’s first two preseason games, Giles averaged 18.5 points, 13.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks. He combined flashy plays with stellar passing and boundless energy. Again, it’s just two preseason games (against the Kings, too), but what Giles showed in those two games was enough to get people excited.
The preseason may just be the preseason, but it has done us a great service in giving us an idea of how Giles fits in with Portland. It has also brought up one important question: Should Giles be the first big off the bench? Let’s dive into it.
Offensively, there was a lot to like about what Giles did. He was Portland’s leading scorer in those first two preseason games and did so on 58% shooting.
Let’s start with this one, because it’s a fun play followed by a celebration. Jabari Parker has never been known as a defensive stopper, but Giles beats him with smarts and athleticism. He gives Anfernee Simons just a quick look, indicating a dribble handoff is coming. Instead, he goes downhill and attacks the rim for a ferocious slam. It’s highly encouraging to see Giles look comfortable handling the ball in these situations.
Here is a great example of Giles recognizing where he needs to be off the ball in order to best help Rodney Hood. Once Hood goes baseline, Giles immediately relocates in order to a) give Hood more space to operate and b) put himself in a position to receive a pass if Hood needs to. Hood does the latter and Giles power dribbles in for an easy layup. It’s a great relocation by Giles that sets up an easy score.
This is the last scoring clip for Giles in this piece, and it’s arguably the most important. Giles does a lot of movement — on-ball screens and dribble handoffs for the win — and it gives him an easy jumpshot at the elbow (an area where he made 45% of his shots from last season). His form looks smooth and it goes in cleanly.
Giles’ shot on the elbow will be important for a couple reasons. First, it will force defenders to come out on him and open up passing lanes that he can exploit (more on that in a bit). Second, it will be another sign that his shot could expand to outside the arc. Given his solid free throw percentage (77.6%) and midrange shooting numbers (47.4% on shots from 15 to 19 feet), there’s a good chance his three-point game can be developed, and I’d love to see him attempt at least one or two a game.
All of these scoring things are great, but the one thing that has always made Giles unique compared to other big men is his ability to move the ball. Giles only had four assists over those two games, but he still put on a marvelous passing display against his former team. He found cutters and threaded pinpoint passes to them whenever possible.
This play is a great example of just that. Giles is stymied on his drive by Richaun Holmes and puts his back to the basket. CJ Elleby sees the opening and cuts from the wing. Giles delivers a perfect pass to the cutting rookie and the result is an easy two points. It helped that Tyrese Haliburton got caught on Giles slightly as Elleby rounded the corner, but nevertheless, the pass was exactly where it needed to be.
I love this play for three reasons. First and foremost, Lamar Hurd does some great investigative journalism by asking Brooke Olzendam the hard questions about Jusuf Nurkic’s hair color choices. Second, Giles initiates the fastbreak by sneaking his hands ever so slightly into the passing lane. And third, he looks competent running the fastbreak, delivering a solid pass to Derrick Jones Jr. in the process.
The Blazers haven’t really had a big in recent memory that can run the fastbreak. The closest thing Portland has had is Mason Plumlee, and even then I didn’t find it a particularly enjoyable experience when he did so. But having Giles with the second unit capably bringing the ball up the floor would be a huge help. With Anfernee Simons as the lone backup point guard on this team, the more playmaking off the bench the better.
One final note regarding passing: Pairing Giles with Jones Jr. or even Nassir Little, would be very smart for Portland. Both of those players love cutting along the baseline and rising up for easy buckets. Giles is an adept player at the elbow and is consistent enough from there as a shooter that you have to respect him. Keep the lane clear and I bet Giles will find Jones Jr. for more than a few lobs this year.
The biggest worry about Giles was his defense, and truthfully his high stock numbers (steals + blocks) don’t do a ton to assuage those worries. Sure, his numbers were really good there for the most part, but there are still enough things he does wrong to make you a little skeptical about how effective he’ll be right now.
The most notable issue is the fouling. It was a concern when he played in Sacramento and so far it looks like it will remain a concern. He had three fouls in the first preseason game and five in the second.
Holmes goes right at Giles on this play, and it works perfectly. Giles isn’t strong enough to prevent Holmes from bullying his way to the hoop and his only option is to foul, which is not an ideal situation for the young big.
This foul is interesting to me, because I’m trying to figure out if it was even necessary. On one hand you could argue that it was a good foul that prevented an easy fastbreak layup. On the other hand, you could argue that Giles needs to utilize that speed better and contest Glenn Robinson straight up as best he can. I think the latter is something that Giles should be capable of, even if he doesn’t do it here.
This problem was prevalent with Giles beforehand. Danny Marang and Greg Wissinger talked about it on the Blazer’s Edge podcast, with Wissinger noting that Giles would often either foul or just let his guy go by to avoid the foul. Giles is young and there’s nothing that young big men love to do more than foul, but hopefully that’ll improve as the year progresses.
Enes Kanter came in as the most likely candidate to back up Nurkic, and Zach Collins also has a case once he comes back from injury. Granted it’s only been two preseason games, but it’s a fair question whether or not Giles has already done enough to warrant the majority of those minutes.
I would argue that Giles has earned the backup five spot behind Nurkic. Before he even got there, we knew he was more versatile than Kanter and more available than Collins. Excluding Collins from the equation for now, Giles provides more versatility on offense and is arguably more effective on defense despite the fouling problem. Kanter has notably been one of the worst defenders in the league ever since he joined the association, and while Giles isn’t perfect, he at least provides more athleticism on that end and has a higher ceiling.
When it comes to Collins, it’s a slightly harder question to answer. Collins generally has been a better defender and theoretically spaces the floor more with his three-point shooting, but he doesn’t provide the passing and athleticism that Giles does. Could the two coexist as the 4 and 5 together on the floor for an occasional jumbo bench unit? That might be the answer when Collins returns.
However you want to chop it up, Giles has already endeared himself to Blazers fans. Few players played as hard as Giles when on the floor and absolutely no one had a better shimmy after a big play. We’ll have to wait for the regular season to see how this plays out, but Giles is making a great case at the moment.