Battle Over Final Roster Spot Looms as Clippers Camp Nears

Harry Giles and Isaiah Hartenstein

Getty Harry Giles and Isaiah Hartenstein

With less than a month to go before the start of the season, the L.A. Clippers could reasonably consider their offseason a success. They retained all of their coveted free agents (most crucially, Kawhi Leonard), acquired point guard Eric Bledsoe and former lottery-pick Justise Winslow, and signed their three July draftees — all while dumping some financially troublesome contracts and lowering their luxury tax bill.

But heading into training camp, which begins October 28, at least two personnel decisions remain: naming the fifteenth (and final) standard roster spot and signing a two-way player.

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Currently, Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka are the only two centers on the roster — with the latter’s status still uncertain following June back surgery — so, short of an unforeseen lineup-busting trade, it’s anticipated that each of the two remaining spots will go to big men. The Clippers recently signed Harry Giles, Isaiah Hartenstein and Moses Wright to non-guaranteed deals and those three are expected to be the top candidates to stick with the team in one way or another.

Given that Wright, last season’s ACC Player of the Year at Georgia Tech, only began playing competitive ball five or six years ago and went undrafted this summer, it seems logical that the Clippers would slot him in as their second two-way player, alongside guard Jay Scrubb, and hope that his astonishing development continues. That leaves Giles and Hartenstein to battle over the final seat on the bench.

Looking to Find an NBA Home

If grade-school hype was the lone criteria, Giles would be the clear choice. In 2016, despite missing his entire senior year with an ACL tear (already his second such injury) the 6-foot-10 power forward was widely considered the nation’s top high school recruit and headlined an incoming class at Duke that included current NBAers Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson. But following one underwhelming year in Durham (where Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski intentionally kept his star recruit’s load light, knowing he would be a one-and-done) Giles has struggled to find his footing in the NBA.

In two seasons with Sacramento, who drafted him twentieth overall in 2017 and kept him sidelined his rookie season to ensure his knee was fully healed, Giles averaged 7.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 14.3 minutes. Though he showed stretches of excellence with the Kings — particularly as a passer, finisher, and enthusiastic defender — Sacramento’s decision to decline his fourth-year option led to Giles joining the Trail Blazers before last season. (Kings GM Vlade Divac later told reporters that he declined the option as a preemptive motivational ploy when Giles showed up to training camp in 2019 out of shape, Divac wrongly expecting Giles to re-sign regardless.)

In Portland, however, Giles struggled to find minutes behind established veterans Enes Kanter and Jusuf Nurkic. That didn’t change much even after Nurkic broke his arm in January, leading then-head coach Terry Stotts to lean more heavily on a small-ball approach when Kanter was out of the game. Giles’s tenacity may have been a benefit to a Portland team that finished 29th in defensive rating, but he never got much of a chance, averaging a measly 9.2 minutes over 38 games. Within that limited time, Giles posted a respectable 3.5 rebounds and 0.8 assists but otherwise was a ghost on a disappointing Trail Blazers squad.

Hartenstein, meanwhile, enters Clippers training camp following two seasons in Houston and last year split between Denver and Cleveland. Drafted by the Rockets in 2017 in the second round, Hartenstein, who spent his formative years in Germany where he began playing pro ball at 18 and eventually joined legendary Lithuanian club Zalgiris Kaunas, was named G League Finals MVP in 2019 and was signed by the Nuggets in November of 2020 after being waived by Houston that July.

Buried on Denver’s bench behind All-NBA center Nikola Jokic, the 7-foot Hartenstein was traded at last season’s deadline to Cleveland for JaVale McGee and two second-round picks. He played well in 16 games for the Cavs, averaging 8.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 17.9 minutes, and his good numbers combined with stout defense had some expecting Hartenstein to re-sign with the Cavaliers even after he declined his $1.7 million player option in July.

But the 23-year-old (same age as Giles) became expendable when the Cavs, who already have Jarrett Allen and Kevin Love under contract, selected USC center Evan Mobley with the third pick in the draft and then traded for Bulls power forward Lauri Markkanen at the end of August.

The Stakes Are High

It should be a well-contested battle between Giles and Hartenstein for the Clippers’ final spot and each player brings enough cockiness to the floor that it wouldn’t be shocking to see some real fireworks during training camp.

They are both above-average defensively, though employing differing styles. Giles tends to use his athleticism and energetic tenacity to frustrate opponents and is comfortable guarding on the perimeter, but his harassing style can sometimes lead to foul trouble and put him out of position. Hartenstein, by contrast, is not a great athlete but, similar to Zubac, has improved his discipline since entering the league and is not easily moved off the blocks. Hartenstein has also shown to be adequate at defending outside the paint, but, like Giles, is prone to fouls and sometimes gets lost in space. Per 36 minutes, both Giles and Hartenstein have career personal foul averages exceeding six.

Offensively, they are both excellent passers for their size but Giles is the superior ballhandler, able to start the break and better at going one-on-one from outside the paint. Hartenstein is more creative around the rim, with a nice touch that’s conducive to off-balance floaters and baby hooks — skills no doubt honed during his time in Europe — while Giles would prefer to simply go over his defender.

The deciding factor for the Clippers may come down to 3-point aptitude. Neither player is anywhere near Ibaka when it comes to stretching the floor, which the Clippers love to do, but last season in Portland, Giles clearly made a concerted effort to add the long-ball to his repertoire, connecting on 34.8% of 23 total 3-point attempts after taking just eight in his two years with the Kings. Hartenstein, however, is still hesitant to launch and has attempted only 17 3-pointers over his three years, with the high-water mark of six coming last season. (He made two.)

No matter who the Clippers choose, the ramifications will be significant for the losing player. As a fifth-year player, Giles is ineligible to sign a two-way deal (the limit is four years) so he’ll be forced to look elsewhere if he doesn’t win a spot outright. Technically, Hartenstein is still eligible for a two-way role, but it would be highly surprising if he opted to take that route rather than look around for another team or go back to Europe for a more lucrative deal.

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