"Alive. It's Alive! IT'S ALIVE!"
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein
In the classic movie "Young Frankenstein," Dr. Frankenstein famously reanimates the remains of a very large -- some might say, giant -- man. So large, in fact, that if basketball were a sport at the time, the man raised from the dead would have made an outstanding big man in the middle.
Similarly, goes the unlikely tale of Josh Harrellson.
While Harrellson wasn't "dead," he was left for dead, or more eloquently stated; persona non grata, by many Kentucky basketball fans when discussing the possibility of life without (Enes) Kanter. The conversations around the Bluegrass among Big Blue backers, when discussing the season's prospects without Kanter manning the middle, went something like this, "Well, (John) Calipari will have to push the ball, gang rebound, and play Terrence Jones down low, rather than let him roam the perimeter (where he likes to play). Without Kanter in the middle, life will be tough, but they should still win 24, 25 games. Shouldn't they?"
And then came the infamous Harrellson tweet. Unhappy with a lack of praise from Calipari after a 26 rebound performance in the Blue/White game in late October, Harrellson tweeted, "Just amazing to me I can't get a 'good job' or 'way to go,'" from Calipari.
The response from Cal was swift and without mercy -- Cal banned Harrellson from tweeting, and ordered 6:00 am workouts for the "loose-lipped" big man. Harrellson, instead of moping and complaining (and even transferring or quitting; something he said crossed his mind), opted to re-dedicate himself to basketball. He took Cal's punishment, and made himself better because of it.
After UK's win over Penn on Monday night, a game in which Harrellson posted his fourth double-double in the last nine games, Calipari had this to say when asked about the surprising progress of his big man:
" ... he's changed habits. He's conditioning 40 minutes before practice. He goes out and does full-body conditioning. Goes in the locker room, lays around for about 15 minutes, tries to get his mind back, and then he goes out and practices for two hours. And, that's what's changed him, nothing else. His habits have changed and he's building his own self-esteem because he's performing in games. You can do whatever you want in practice, you walk in that game and you can't demonstrate performance, you're not going to build self-esteem and confidence."
The transformation from slow-footed, unreliable, inconstistent big man, to rebounding, shot blocking, double-digit scoring machine, has been stark and unrelenting -- Through the first five games of the year, Harrellson made 9-16 shots (56.3%), averaged 3.8 points per game, 8.4 rebounds per game (3.6 offensive), and 1.4 blocks, in an average of 23.6 minutes of play.
In the last six games, Harrellson has become the beast in the paint UK was so sorely lacking -- In that time, Harrellson has made 27-40 shots (67.5%), averaged 10.8 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game (4.3 offensive), and 2.3 blocks, in an average of 28.5 minutes per game. Harrellson's new-found confidence has resulted in him doubling his shots per game (from 3.2 shots to 6.7 shots per game), and his loss of dead-weight (around 20 pounds) has resulted in him fouling less often, and being fouled more -- Through the first seven games, Harrellson averaged 3.0 fouls per game, the last seven games has seen him commit only 1.3 fouls per game. Through the first eight games of the year, Harrellson took exactly ZERO free throws, in the last six games he has taken 11 (and made 10).
Harrellson's rank among the big men in the SEC is eye-popping, especially considering where it is he came from -- No. 1 in overall rebounding with 9.3 per game; No. 1 in offensive rebounding with 3.8 per game; No. 3 in defensive rebounding, grabbing 5.5 per game; and No. 2 in field goal percentage at 65.0%.
The newly minted SEC Player of the Week has transformed not only himself, but more importantly, the Kanter-less 'Cats from a top 20-type of team, into a team balanced enough to contend for that which all UK fans, coaches, and players pine for: A fourteenth Final Four.
Making Harrellson's transmutation all the more impressive is that Kentucky has yet to run a single offensive play for the big fella. Harrellson is getting "his" by simply displaying effort, being fundamentally sound, and learning the art of the dunk (via his weight loss). Kentucky opponents are learning they shouldn't double-team Terrence Jones, because Harrellson will be there to make the easy basket; Kentucky opponents are learning they shouldn't recklessly converge on the penetrator, because Harrellson will be there as a reliable relief valve; Kentucky opponents are learning they shouldn't take that defensive rebound for granted, because Harrellson will be there, snagging the wayward shot and knocking down yet another second chance point.
And all because of a little more effort, a little more dedication, a little more confidence, and a much more svelte body.
Not only has Harrellson altered the future expectations of his team, but he has also given himself the opportunity to play basketball after he leaves Kentucky. A laughable thought prior to Harrellson's changing of habits.
But of course, UK fans are rightfully more concerned with the precious present. And the precious present is looking mighty tasty now that the 'Cats have a man in the middle capable of not only rebounding, but scoring the ball, blocking shots, and being the beastly presence in the paint this team so desperately needed. Now alive is not only Calipari's monstrous creation, but also ... Now alive is hope, hope among Kentucky fans for a serious run, not only in the SEC, but the NCAA Tournament. Alive is now the famously outrageous expectations Kentucky fans hold tightly in their hearts, waiting, anxiously, for those hopes to come to fruition.
Once again, the season is alive. Alive with excitement about what might be.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!