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ESSAY: The Harry Giles III Experience is as much about hope as it is about success

The Nets made the signing of Harry Giles III official Wednesday. It is an unlikely comeback but one that will fascinate fans and pundits alike.

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2023 Drew League Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images

How many players appeared in at least one game for the 2020-21 Brooklyn Nets? Yes, those Nets. No, really, guess. Got your answer?

It’s probably too low. The answer is 27. 27! More than double the number of players allowed to even suit up for one contest.

2021 was the era of not only the (first) James Harden trade, but the era of — deep breath — Rodions Kurucs, Tyler Cook, Noah Vonleh, Andre Roberson, Johnsons Tyler and Alize. And more, of course. Who played the fewest games as a Net that season, though? Iman Shumpert, playing in likely the final two games of his NBA career, in February of 2021.

Shumpert, then 30 years old, was clearly on his way out the NBA’s door by this point, but having played for the Nets on a separate contract the prior season, thanks to Wilson Chandler’s PED suspension — is this all sounding familiar? — Brooklyn brought him in again, seeing if they could shrug their shoulders, make him into a perimeter defender who was boys with the superstars.

On February 6 of 2021, Tom Dowd, the Nets internal beat writer, published this article on Shumpert’s signing in Brooklyn. It is 1,013 words long, and features some high praise from Joe Harris, calling Shumpert “an excellent perimeter defender with great hands, and anybody like that, you can plug them in in any sort of situation and they’re going to bring you positives.”

It also features a couple hundred words from Shumpert on his journey back to an NBA roster, mostly spent in high-school gyms, where he calls it “the most blue-collar thing that I have done in a long time...”

Shumpert sat for three weeks after Dowd’s article was published, then played 11 minutes in the black-and-white. NBA on ESPN tweeted a video of his first (and only) bucket:

Ah. To relive a moment in time. As Tony Soprano once said, “‘Remember when?’ is the lowest form of conversation.”

Fast way forward to September 6, 2023 and the Brooklyn Nets have signed Harry Giles to his second, third or fourth chance. From our aggregate reporting, that day:

The deal is officially a standard but non-guaranteed deal. The non-guaranteed nature of the deal will permit the Nets to cut him if things don’t work out or figure out a way to sign him if they do. He and two other big man signings of Trendon Watford and Darius Bazley appear to have identical deals.

If Shumpert’s two-game Nets career is a snapshot of a past era, Giles already captures this one. Giles, of three non-guaranteed bigs — Trendon Watford or Darius Bazley being the others — are entered in a game of NBA Survivor. It is a nod to Sean Marks’ roots in Brooklyn. You know, the Yogi Ferrell-Quincy Acy-K.J. McDaniels roots which also brought forth Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie.

It is possible-to-likely that Giles never appears in a game for the Brooklyn Nets, having last played in the NBA for the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2020-21 NBA season. Yep, that one we mentioned up above. Get it now? It is also possible that Giles suits up for the Long Island Nets only, a potential beneficiary of...

A new provision on two-way contracts in the new CBA will informally be dubbed the “Harry Giles III rule,” which will allow NBA players who sit out an entire season not to have that year count toward the three-year maximum service for two-way eligibility.

In the previous CBA, a player with less than four years of service was eligible to be signed on a two-way contract. Initially, those same parameters were set to go unchanged in the new CBA. {Haynes}

An above-average outcome would be, in three years, Nets fans mentioning Harry Giles along the likes of, say, Jorge Gutiérrez. To expect anything more than that may be unfair, but I’d understand the impulse.

Giles, now 25, was the No. 1 high-school prospect in the country when the Nets moved to Brooklyn a decade ago. Just a 6’10” teenager with the lankiest of limbs, possessing feathery touch out to the mid-range, real ball-handling skills, shocking passing ability, all while devouring opponents at the rim, you didn’t have to squint to see Kevin Garnett. Judge for yourself...

If anybody has lived more basketball lives than even a Brooklyn Nets fan over the last decade, it’s Giles. Since 2013, he...

  • led his North Carolina high school to a state championship, alongside Theo Pinson, as a freshman, then tore his left ACL, MCL, and meniscus the following summer.
  • rebounded as a junior to retain his No. 1 prospect status while securing a commitment to Duke University, then transferring to the legendary Oak Hill Academy for his senior season, only to tear his right ACL in the team’s first scrimmage.
  • was named to preseason watch lists for the most prestigious awards in NCAA basketball prior to his freshman year at Duke, only to play 11 minutes a game while falling down draft boards thanks to injury concerns.
  • was picked 20th overall by the Sacramento Kings in the 2017 NBA draft (two ahead of Jarrett Allen.)

We are not even halfway to the present, and for most people, this is where his story ends. Hell, his Wikipedia page practically does; his High School Career section is longer than every section that follows combined. There is no mention of why the Sacramento Kings announced in the fall of 2017 that Giles would make his NBA debut in January of 2018, only to then announce that he actually wouldn’t play at all that season. Just that it happened. (It was a longer-than-expected knee rehab.)

So what has Harry Giles III been doing that has led him into the arms of, for now, these Brooklyn Nets? What have the last six years, his entire professional basketball career, been like for him? You know, without all the attention. For one, they’ve turned him into a simultaneously old and young 25-year-old. Or maybe an ageless one.

In an interview with Sacramento’s Fox40 News, recorded the day of his July 11th Las Vegas workout that seems to have impressed his current employer, Giles said this: “It’s tough that injuries is the only thing that’s changed my career, that’s holding me back, that’s got people questioning me. It’s tough, especially at 25.”

Yet, if you ask Giles what the difference is now, why he’s ready to make a comeback after two whole seasons off from the NBA, he’ll tell you, “I’m confident in myself, I feel good, I’ve put the work in. I’m 25, I know how to take care of my body — I’m smarter, I’m wiser, I’ve learned from my mistakes in the past.”

These statements are not contradictory. Reviewing an NBA career that seems to most like a thing of the past, only acknowledged through the lens of what it could have been, is a brutal exercise. Then again, as Giles repeats in the interview with Sean Cunningham, he is still just, well, 25. He only has 142 NBA games under his belt, and promises that he “has a lot left.”

That, of course, doesn’t change the fact that he’s seen things, been through things: “Life hit me this last year, I’ve seen people go through different things, I’ve been through different things. And you realize basketball is the smaller part of it. I’ve seen people lose their life…and I still got the chance to go out there and play again, to do what I love.”

So, does basketball still mean something to Giles? Or is this all gravy? Well, on the day in July, he got to showcase his talents to the NBA once again, to officially embark on his comeback journey, he said, “[My emotions] are all over the place just because I got another opportunity, and I’m excited to play again. I’m nervous as ever; I’ve been nervous for a while knowing I got this, and when I woke up this morning, the butterflies jumped on me.”

Harry Giles has cleared the first hurdle. While we celebrate alongside him and root for what would be an incredible success story, only he can tell us what each step of the journey means to him. I hope he sticks around long enough to find out.

For the Brooklyn Nets, a return to digging in the crates means a return to stories like that of Harry Giles. For each party, a wild, rollercoaster decade in the rearview mirror has led them to a very logical union, no matter how brief it hopefully isn’t.

This is no diss to Iman Shumpert, welcomed to a super-contender in the 2021 Nets with an article (that seems like it’ll be 600 words less than this one.) Shumpert’s “blue collar experience” ended with a brief stay in Brooklyn, not a bad spot for the championship-winner to hang with superstar buddies and advance his various (successful!) podcasting, fashion, and Dancing With the Stars endeavors. Sounds awesome. Shumpert, who has also recovered from an ACL tear, and who has admitted his passions have extended far beyond hoops, sounds awesome.

Nor is this meant to prop up Harry Giles as evidence of some hardship-as-character principle. Giles, more so than Shumpert, has only an outside chance to sneak onto the big-league roster and an even smaller one to crack the rotation. It’s not evidence of a successful franchise pivot either. His presence does not guarantee a more functional organization than the one that signed Shumpert back in 2021, the one that was a shoe size and a hamstring away from having to give out 27, count ‘em, championship rings. (You see the arc of the story now?)

What Giles and players like Watford/Bazley/Dennis Smith Jr./Lonnie Walker IV mean in the larger scheme of the NBA is always going to be subjective. Rooting for these Nets is a more personal fan experience than rooting for the Death Star of 2021, even if the tantalizing potential of a championship has, for now, vanished. Giles’ arrival in Brooklyn is hardly celebrated. Nor are those of Bazley and Watford.

He laid out his goal in that July interview: “If I gotta go two-way… that’s just what I gotta do. Two-ways get converted all the time.” It’s both ambitious and modest.

Yet these guys occupying the fringes of the NBA are likable. Extremely so. They are, not unlike the Brooklyn Nets’ current self-image, the underdogs. Natural fan favorites. The injuries and setbacks Giles has faced make him especially fascinating. That said, the unlikely success of any non-guaranteed Net wouldn’t just be heart-warming, it would be a highlight of the season for the most devoted of Nets fans! The fans that grow attached to these new characters, the fans that root desperately and often alone, for them to maybe make the roster. The fans who get excited, even tune in for their garbage-time minutes, perhaps culminating in glee for eventual, hard-earned, 11-minutes-per-game. The mind can only wander from there.

Remember Alize Johnson’s 20-20 game? Remember Sean Kilpatrick dropping 38 in a win? The play of the year featuring Mike James? I think you do.

As Harry Giles might tell you, the experience is what you make of it.