Harry Giles seemed destined for NBA greatness just a few short years ago. He was a highly-ranked high school prospect, but a torn ACL devastated his senior year before he was a one-and-done prospect at Duke. Drafted by the Sacramento Kings in 2017, he’s spent his first three years with the club but will be an unrestricted free agent this summer after the Kings declined his fourth-year option back in October. That declined option was supposed to be the last whimper of Giles’ career in Sacramento, but a combination of injuries, poor play, and trade demands from the other Kings’ big men pushed him back into the rotation in late December. From there, he enjoyed the best stretch of his career before the league was put on hold on March 11.
As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported earlier this week, the league is pushing a 22-team return to play plan, which would include a Kings team that was playing their best basketball before the hiatus. Since Giles took over the starting center position in early February, the Kings had won 10 of 15 to climb into the morass of teams 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Nearly five months after the season was put on hold, it seems the Kings will have their chance to pick up where they left off and make a run to the playoffs. Still, 3.5 games out with what looks like eight to play is a big hill to climb, on top of the fact that they’ll also have to outperform Portland (3.5 games back of Memphis), New Orleans (3.5 back), and San Antonio (4 back) over that same span.
Regardless of the outcome, Giles will walk into free agency this summer, with the Kings only able to pay him up to the $3.98 million they declined to guarantee him in October. Given his injury history, the very tepid free agent market this summer, and the general move away from pure centers in today’s NBA, it’s unclear whether he’ll outstrip that value on his contract next year.
His game is flashy, with an enticing skillset with upside to explore, but also has significant weaknesses that likely preclude him from ever providing starter value on a good team. Despite winning 10 of 15 since the calendar flipped to February and Giles mostly taking over the starting center position, that success was built without him – the team was outscored by more than eight points per 100 possessions with him on the floor over that 15-game stretch, with a +9.68 net rating whenever he sat. The offense actually ticks up slightly when he’s out there, but the defense falls through the floor. It would be irresponsible to draw definitive conclusions from a 15-game sample, but numbers that stark require further investigation.
And, well, the film isn’t great, but it’s not as bad as those numbers would indicate. Giles lacks in a lot of areas defensively – he’s skinny, he’s poor positionally in pick-and-roll, and he routinely puts in lackluster effort on that end of the floor. He does flash the ability to blitz in pick-and-roll, with quick and accurate hands to take the ball away from guards, but in nearly any other scheme, he’s a bit of a traffic cone. If he didn’t have the lengthy injury history, perhaps he would have the athletic burst to make up for his weaknesses, but in the wake of multiple ACL tears in the last several years, he can no longer rely solely on his athletic advantages to defend at an acceptable level.
There’s nothing good about Giles’ defense on this Lou Williams drive. His rotation is late and he does nothing to impede Williams’ progress to the rim. In situations like this, it’s hard to tell whether Giles doesn’t recognize that Williams is going to have an open layup if he doesn’t do something about it, if he doesn’t have the required effort level to rotate and make the play, or if he doesn’t have the strength and toughness to take a hit to the chest and remain vertical so as to not draw a whistle.
He’s not necessarily handsy defensively, but he doesn’t move his well enough laterally to play a half drop and defend in space against top lead guards. He throws his hands up a beat or two early very often, which slows him down and leaves him susceptible to either getting beat or committing the very fouls he’s trying to avoid.
Sometimes, it’s just an effort thing for Giles. In the above clip, he does a good job of cutting off Ja Morant and forcing a pass, but that’s the last contribution Giles makes to the play, despite the shot clock still having half its life remaining. As Josh Jackson drives, Giles makes minimal effort to show any resistance and the result is an easy pass to John Konchar for a layup. These half-effort plays are strewn throughout Kings games – Giles will usually defend well initially and then die as the play continues.
When the Kings have gotten more aggressive defensively, Giles has thrived. He has particularly quick hands defensively when he doesn’t have them above his head in an attempt not to commit a foul. When the Kings let him loose on ball handlers in a blitz, he’s able to wreak havoc:
These are back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter of a close late February game against the Grizzlies. In the first, De’Anthony Melton turns the corner in pick-and-roll, but instead of backing off, Giles leaps out at him, knocking the ball away and creating two points for his team going the other way. In the second, Giles blitzes out on Tyus Jones and forces a travel. These are the plays in which Giles thrives defensively – he uses his length and quick hands to bother the ball handler before he’s able to really get downhill and use his superior quickness to his advantage.
In general, Giles is a negative defensively. He has his moments, but the fundamental things a big man needs to do – protect the rim and rebound – he doesn’t do particularly well. He gets run over by bigger or more physical players, whether in the post or on the glass. His recognition as a weak-side rim protector leaves a lot to be desired. He has more success in a more aggressive pick-and-roll scheme, but a team that wants him to stay back and protect the rim in pick-and-roll is not going to see results.
Offensively, it’s a different story for Giles. He’s already a strong player on that end of the floor and has sizable upside to continue to explore, should a team be interested in stretching his game out to the three-point line. Shooting will help him provide quite a bit of extra value, but any conversation about Giles’ offensive game has to start with his playmaking.
Giles is a really, really good passer. Like, run-the-whole-offense-through-this-guy good. And the Kings know it – on a per-minute basis, only Nikola Jokic got more elbow touches per minute than Giles before the hiatus. It’s easy to see head coach Luke Walton’s triangle roots whenever they run sets through Giles at the elbow:
These are just a few examples of the numerous great reads he makes from the elbow and post on a regular basis. He combines vision and technical passing ability beautifully with frequent bounce passes to cutters for each layups and dunks. This is particularly important for a Kings team that doesn’t have a high-level primary ball handler outside of De’Aaron Fox. Cory Joseph, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Buddy Hield can play that role in spurts, but relying on those guys to create offense with the ball in their hands possession in and possession out isn’t a good idea. Giles gives the Kings another avenue to attack in these lineups.
When the time comes for him to put the ball in the basket, Giles has a smooth jumper out to the elbow and a strong floater in the lane. The touch he shows on mid-range shots gives some hope that he’ll be able to expand that jumper out to the three-point line, which would add a significant spacing element. There are a lot of possessions in which Giles’ inability to space the floor to the three-point line adds more defenders to the paint and takes space away from Fox or Harrison Barnes.
Having Giles space the floor when working off the ball wasn’t a focus for Sacramento this season, but if Giles were to join a team with a more modern outlook on the center position, he may well be in the corner rather than hanging out in the dunker spot.
So where does this leave Giles? Despite starting at the 5 during Sacramento’s final several games before the hiatus, he’s not a starting-quality center on a contender. Perhaps if he can hit 3s at a decent clip, his offensive value would outweigh his defensive weaknesses by enough to make him a starting center, but he’d need to show a significant sample of hitting those shots before defenses would adjust accordingly.
Any team signing him to fill their backup center position better have another plan if he gets hurt given his injury history, which will dampen his market this summer. It’s not as though a team with a high-end center would throw Giles most of their mid-level and consider their center position solved. Rather, a team might view him as a low-cost flyer – a guy they can use if he’s healthy and able to stay on the floor defensively, but not someone on whom they rely to play big minutes, particularly in a playoff setting.