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Montrezl Harrell Is Undersized And He Is So Strong

Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez (AP)

In the Los Angeles Clippers’ wonky lineup, Montrezl Harrell stands no taller than Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris, the sharp-shooting forwards he often shares the floor with. As one of the league’s shortest fives, Harrell has learned to compensate with the subtle and little-known technique of being hilariously strong as shit.

Harrell got a little lucky on this play, but mostly I want to direct your attention to how easily he dislodged a colossus with his hop step:

Matching up against Joel Embiid, Harrell cedes four whole inches of height, but just 10 pounds. A 7-foot-4 wingspan and seemingly infinite store of energy also help offset any on-paper disadvantage. This is the first season he hasn’t started a single game, but it’s also, far and away, his best: Harrell’s vigor off the bench has him averaging 15.7 points and 6.7 boards in just 25 minutes.

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Harrell is a master of second chances. Before it’s even clear that his initial attempt has been stripped or blocked, or simply rattles out, he’s flying back up off the floor to give it another go. When jockeying for position in the post, Harrell relishes contact and makes good use of his relative advantages—his fleeter feet, his lower center of gravity—to win himself nice pockets of space.

Once Harrell earns that space, and often even when he doesn’t, the ball is taking an express path to the hoop. He sits 10th in the league in total dunks, and presents a strong case for Best Dunk Man, Non-Superstar Division. Even when he seems totally doomed in a tangle of opposing defenders—a dust cloud of errant limbs and censored swear words—Harrell will improbably burst through the ruckus for two-handed yams, sending dreads spraying out to the back, legs flying out to the front. (Nene was previously the keeper of Long Hair Strength in the NBA, but that title surely belongs to Harrell now.)

The muscle leaps out at you, but the craft in Harrell’s game reveals itself with time, as there’s more than rote power in his well-timed tap-ins and finishes in traffic. Tuesday night against the Hornets, Harrell had one of his best games of the season, posting an easy 23 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists. He had truly begun to feel himself in the second half when he realized nobody in the Hornets’ thin big man rotation was going to offer much resistance.

Exhibit A of Harrell’s confidence level that night:

And Exhibit B:

Harrell’s one of the best backup bigs in the league, and he has found an ideal niche in perhaps the most entertaining, over-performing assortment of oddball talent there is: The 24-16 Clippers currently sit fourth in the cramped West standings. In a deeply strange center rotation rounded out by a creaky 34-year-old Marcin Gortat and the unstoppable force but low battery life of Boban, Harrell’s strong play was worth well beyond his two-year, $12 million deal. He keeps them in the chase.

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