Clippers Final Roster Spot Still for the Taking After Preseason Opener

L.A. Clippers

Getty The Clippers huddle up before their preseason opener.

There were plenty of positives gleaned from the L.A. Clippers preseason opener in Los Angeles on Monday, a 103-102 win over the Denver Nuggets during which rookie forward Brandon Boston showed he can score at the next level, guard Terance Mann seemed comfortable in a more prominent leadership role, and newly acquired point guard Eric Bledsoe flashed plenty of burst as a paint-busting playmaker.

But if head coach Tyronn Lue was hoping to learn more about who will eventually occupy the team’s 15th and final roster spot — a decision that needs to be made before the start of the regular season and is still expected to go to a big man even after some positive Serge Ibaka news — Lue may have to chalk up this first showcase to a wash.

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The two main contenders, 23-year-olders Harry Giles and Isaiah Hartenstein, each played well in limited minutes against Denver and, perhaps just as crucially, neither exhibited any glaring deficiencies that might give the other the guy an edge.

Not only that, undrafted rookie power forward Moses Wright, often mentioned as a potential third candidate for the job, had an eye-opening performance and made it clear he would not go gently into the G League night.

Both Hartenstein and Giles Impressed

Hartenstein, who in his third NBA campaign last season was Nikola Jokic’s backup in Denver before a March trade to Cleveland, was given the first chance to display his wares. The 7-footer entered the game with 5:10 remaining in the first and immediately showed off his passing prowess on a give-and-go layup to Mann. (Mann had to do some whirling and twirling at the rim to finish the play, but Hartenstein was awarded the assist nonetheless.) Hartenstein ultimately finished the game with six points and three dimes, including a picture-perfect backdoor assist to Luke Kennard midway through the third.

With Lue putting an emphasis on running more of the Clippers’ offense through big men this season, Hartenstein’s passing ability, which has been lauded throughout training camp, is certainly a feather in his cap. Nuggets head coach, Mike Malone, who coached Hartenstein last year, said after the game that he is “a lot more skilled” than people think.

But Giles is an above-average passer, too, so it’s not as if Hartenstein is the runaway winner in that category, though Giles registered just one assist on Monday.

Where Giles really made his mark against Denver was on the boards. The 6-foot-10 Giles, once the nation’s top recruit out of high school who is now entering his fifth NBA season, gathered 12 rebounds in only 16 minutes, and his three offensive rebounds were just one less than Hartenstein’s overall total for the game. Scoring eight points on 3-for-7 from the field, Giles didn’t shoot as efficiently as Hartenstein (3-for-5), but the Duke product did sink both his foul shot attempts, while Hartenstein missed both of his.

“That’s my whole thing — rebounding and defense,” Giles said afterward. “I think that is what’s going to separate me. I know the scoring will come.”

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Further limiting the takeaways from Monday’s contest, at least in terms of evaluating Giles and Hartenstein, was the absence of Jokic, who the Nugget’s opted to rest. (The Clippers rested Paul George, Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris.) Lue has made it clear that defense will play a significant role in his final roster decision, so he said that not having the NBA’s reigning MVP on the floor made it difficult to “judge those two guys defensively.” The Los Angeles Times’s Andrew Greif noted that “Hartenstein was the most vocal Clipper on the floor defensively at times, even directing Mann where to stand at one point.”

It’s worth noting, given the Clippers’ affinity for spreading the floor, that neither Hartenstein nor Giles attempted a 3-pointer in the game. All things being equal, effectiveness from behind the arc could be a significant difference-maker in Lue’s final decision.

Moses Wright Makes His Case

The most electrifying moment of the night came at the end of the third quarter when Wright, last season’s ACC Player of the Year at Georgia Tech, posterized the Nuggets’ 7-foot-3 Bol Bol on a driving spin move that resulted in a ferocious two-handed dunk.

For Wright, a late-bloomer who didn’t reach his current height of 6-foot-9 until recently and played only one year of varsity ball in high school, the spin and dunk was the high point of an impressive first night and gave Clippers fans a prime example of his athleticism and ever-rising ceiling. Wright finished with eight points on 4-for-6 shooting, two rebounds (both offensive) and one block. He missed two free throws down the stretch that would’ve sealed the win, but that didn’t stop Lue from singing Wright’s praises after the game and discussing what he brings to the floor.

“With Moses, I just think his athletic ability, his ability to make shots, his ability to block shots at the rim [and] he’s able to finish around the basket,” Lue said. “He really gave us a huge momentum boost when he came in the game. I saw Bol Bol block his shot the first time, after that he attacked with some authority on the finish to the rim. He did a great job as well.”

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While it’s unlikely Wright will leapfrog Hartenstein and Giles for the final roster spot (the Clippers need a third center behind Ivica Zubac and Ibaka) another solid performance could certainly add some pressure to the frontrunners and might even have the Clippers rethinking their decision to give third-year forward Amir Coffey the last two-way spot. Coffey shot poorly against Denver, going 2-for-8 from the field and 0-for-4 from three in a game-high 31 minutes of action.

The Clippers host their second preseason game Wednesday night against Sacramento, where Giles spent his first three years in the league.

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