In late July, a couple of months after finishing his third NBA season, 7-foot center Isaiah Hartenstein faced a not too uncommon conundrum: Should he exercise his player option with the Cleveland Cavaliers and thereby guarantee himself $1.8 million for the 2021-22 season, or decline the option and take his chances on the open market.
The Cavs had acquired Hartenstein from Denver for JaVale McGee at last season’s trade deadline, and though Hartenstein played well in his 16 games as a Cavalier—8.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 blocks in 17.9 minutes—the 23-year-old understood that he was not exactly a top-priority big man for Cleveland heading into the new season. The Cavs were in negotiations with Jarret Allen on a new, long-term contract (Allen eventually signed for 5-years, $100 million) and the team was widely expected to select USC center Evan Mobley with the third pick in the upcoming draft (which they did).
In search of a bigger role, Hartenstein declined his option on July 23 and ultimately landed in L.A. on a training camp deal with the Clippers. The choice was not without risk, however. Hartenstein would be competing for L.A.’s final roster spot against the talented but injury-prone Harry Giles, once the nation’s top high school recruit. It was a winner-take-all scenario that put both big men in the position of having to win a spot or else contemplate alternatives. For Hartenstein, one of those alternatives was perhaps returning to play in Europe, where he and his family had lived since Isaiah was 10, or elsewhere overseas.
But Isaiah isn’t going anywhere. On Saturday, the Clippers announced that Hartenstein had indeed won the competition over Giles, who was waived the same day.
Even as the 15th man, Hartenstein is primed to see a fair amount of regular-season action as the backup to Clippers centers Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka. Ibaka is still recovering from June back surgery and will certainly miss the beginning of the season, while Zubac, though also young and talented, lacks some of the skills that Hartenstein brings to the table.
Passing Played a Big Role
Turns out Hartenstein had entered training camp already with a leg up on Giles. During informal pickup games a few weeks before camp, Hartenstein, who Houston selected in the second round of the 2017 draft, had so impressed Paul George and Luke Kennard with his passing that they each felt compelled to call head coach Ty Lue to heap praise.
“PG called raving about his passing and then Luke Kennard called talking about how he can pass,” revealed Ty Lue on Saturday. Lue has stated that this season he would like to run more of the offense through big men on the perimeter, something that requires solid decision-making and the ability to find the open man. Hartenstein told Lue that, in addition to learning from his father, a former European player, he had honed his passing game while in Denver as the understudy, for 30 games, to MVP center Nikola Jokic, widely considered the best passing big man in the league.
One lesson, in particular, stuck out to Hartenstein. “I think before, you would look at, a lot, the offensive player,” Hartenstein said, per The L.A. Times. “But Jokic told me a lot more just to look where the defense is looking. I think that’s how some of the backdoor passes—it looks like the dude is not open, but like I’m really looking at the defense, and if he’s not looking at me, there’s no chance of him even getting the ball, because you can’t see the ball coming. So I think just stuff like that helped me a lot.”
Poetically, the Clippers faced the Nuggets in their preseason opener, and though Denver opted to sit Jokic, his fingerprints on Hartenstein’s game were readily apparent. In the first quarter, Hartenstein found Terance Mann on a give-and-go layup, and then, in the third, he gifted Kennard an easy bucket on a pinpoint backdoor dime. After the game, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone praised Hartenstein and said that he is “a lot more skilled” than people think.
Hartenstein would continue to show that skill in the following three preseason contests, finishing the four-game stint averaging 3.5 assists in just 13.3 minutes. But Giles—an above-average passer himself—was no slouch in the preseason either, and on Saturday Lue admitted that the decision was far from easy. Per ClipperNation, Lue said:
Harry did a lot of great things and, you know, he’s definitely an NBA player, I mean, we know that for sure. And we thought Isaiah did a good job as well, you know, so it was a tough decision. Hate to see Harry go because he did some great things for us, like I said, and he’s more advanced than some of our young guys, but it just, it’s tough when you got to come down to the situation when you got to make cuts and, you know, like I said, he’s an NBA player for sure.
But happy for Isaiah as well. He did a good job, he played well, kind of came in and fit in right away with his passing and being able to get guys shots and backdoor cuts for layups and things like that, so they both played well, it was a tough decision.
Hartenstein Loves the Freedom That Ty Lue Provides
If Hartenstein finds success with the Clippers this season, some credit will certainly be due to the coaching style of Lue. Hartenstein didn’t just leave Cleveland because of the depth chart—he was also looking for a home where he would be free to do his thing without constantly worrying about making mistakes. It’s a circumstance he believes he’s found with the Clippers.
“I came out here for a little bit before I made my decision and it was great,” Hartenstein said Saturday. “The organization, top to bottom, the way they played, T-Lue just letting the guys play free. I think that was one of the biggest things for me, was just finding someone that also lets me play my game. I think with Denver and the Rockets I was really looking over my shoulder every game, and it’s hard to play like that, and so now being in a situation where I can just play my game and do whatever the team needs to win.”
As a role player for seven teams over 11 NBA seasons, Lue knows where Hartenstein is coming from.
“You want guys to be able to play free [but] it’s hard to play on eggshells,” said Lue, who, in the NBA’s latest GM survey, was voted the second-best coach at managing and motivating his players and assistant coaches. (Lue tied for second with Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra, all of whom have won rings.) “Unfortunately in my career, I’ve had a couple stints where I had to play like that as well, and that’s not easy to do because you’re not being yourself.
“With our players, it’s OK to make mistakes,” Lue explained. “But the biggest thing is, if you’re playing the right way, if you’re playing hard and competing, we’re not worried about the turnovers or missed shots. We don’t want careless turnovers, but if you’re trying to make the right play for your teammate and it doesn’t go right, you ain’t gotta look over your shoulder and wonder if you’re coming out.”
Of course, Hartenstein may have a little more pressure on him when Ibaka finally returns, but until then he intends to stake a claim for minutes even after all the Clippers’ big men are back.
“I’ve always been confident in my abilities,” Hartenstein said. “I think I’m a good center in the NBA, and that was one reason why I didn’t want to stay in Cleveland even though they treated me really well out there. I just wanted to be in a situation where I could play and really have a chance to prove myself.”
The Clippers open their season on October 21 in a nationally televised game against the Golden State Warriors.