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Know The Prospect : Josh Hart

Can the four-year guard have success after Villanova?

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Georgetown Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Stat check: How many headlines used some variation of “Hart” in a pun about Josh Hart’s competitiveness? Someone get back to me on that. Nevertheless, Josh Hart is undeniably a max-effort player on the court. How far can that effort propel a player in the NBA? How far did it take Hart in the college game? Did his ferocity and motor mask his flaws, or did it enhance his skills?

Josh Hart played all four college seasons at Villanova University, winning a National Championship in his junior year, while reaching the Sweet Sixteen in his freshman and sophomore years. Hart weighs in at 209 lbs. and was measured at 6’5” in shoes at this year’s NBA draft combine.

Hart’s draft projections have bounced around a little bit, as seen below. Hart is currently projected to be a mid-second round pick.

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Josh Hart’s strengths are rock solid. He was a high-motor defender for coach Jay Wright since the moment he stepped on the floor as a freshman. One of his lesser-heralded skills is his outstanding rebounding. Hart doesn’t just rebound well for a guard, he tracks the ball and fights on the block just as hard as any big, and it enabled him to bring in six and a half rebounds per game this season (as well as a ridiculous 6.8 in his junior year).

Coach Jay Wright is comfortable with liberal defensive switching that often lands Hart on a bigger post player, perhaps because Hart rarely concedes any advantages and fights hard in the post and on the boards. The rebounding numbers become more impressive when you look at the underwhelming vertical leap measurements that Hart posted at the combine (27.5” standing vertical / 35.5” max vertical). If you’ve watched Hart during his tenure at Villanova though, you’re already aware that he is pretty moderate athletically. Hart’s speed and agility are more average (relative to pro prospects) in contrast to his sub-par leaping ability. Even with these “limitations”, Hart was able to capture Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors by virtue of his unrelenting effort on that side of the ball.

Hart utilizes several tactics that highlight his attention to detail and really help make him a fundamental defensive pillar. Specifically, I enjoy watching Hart close out to shooters on the perimeter, and this area of his game is very reminiscent of current Knick (for now) Justin Holiday, who I would legally adopt as my son if I could (and you can read about my thoughts on Holiday’s defense here).

Hart will often stay down on pump fakes and withhold his contest of the shot until the shooter rises, but is he as good defending off-ball as he is on-ball? While Hart is a great overall defender, his “d’oh” moments happened off-the-ball and in help defense.

Despite what triumphs high-effort can bring you on the defensive end, the offensive end is a different story. Hart led the Big East in scoring with 18.7 points per game last season, which makes my next prediction that much more radical. I think Hart will struggle mightily to score the ball at the NBA level.

To start, Jay Wright never uses Hart to bring the ball up the floor, even in press-break situations. In his underclassman years, Hart would zone-break defenses in the half court by flashing to the foul line, but the last couple of seasons, Hart mainly stays on the wing and handles the ball in a limited capacity, partly because he’s not great at it.

Perhaps stemming from his lack of comfort, Hart has also shown a penchant for prematurely picking up his dribble, especially when defenses show hard on a screen.

When Hart gains a step on his defender or feels a defender on his hip, he’s very adept at taking straight lines to the basket, like here.

The problem, however, is that Hart really lacks creativity around the rim. Hart will usually take it to the hoop strong, but the result is almost always a shoulder-down, straight layup. Hart rarely uses his left, never uses a floater, and doesn’t possess enough hang time to be shifty in his upper body once in the air.

Hart has developed habits in his game from which he seldom strays, and when I say he develops habits, I’m not kidding. The frequency with which I saw Hart drive to his left, stop on a dime, and turn back over his left shoulder was unbelievable. By the 10th or 11th time I just put the red Bob Knight sweater on and hurled chairs around in disbelief.

A jarring statistic for an 18 point-per-game scorer, only 4.4% of Hart’s points came from isolation scoring. More problematic, Hart turned the ball over 18% of the time in isolation situations, per Current Knicks shooting guard Courtney Lee gets 17% of his points from isolation and turns the ball over only 4.4% of the time in those situations, and backup shooting guard Justin Holiday accrues 16% of his points in isolation, turning the ball over 10% of the time in those situations.

It’s no secret that being on a great team helps Hart, and Villanova was a great team. The aforementioned Big East Defensive Player of the Year award given to Hart was actually shared with two other players, the first time the award was split between three players in Big East history. One of the other recipients was Mikal Bridges, also a Villanova Wildcat.

Hart’s NBA career is largely dependent on his jump shot, perhaps more than any other prospect. Fans and scouts have noted a hitch in Hart’s shot, and earlier in his college career, criticized what was perceived as labored mechanics. Hart absolutely deserves credit for shooting 40.4% from behind-the-arc (on a career-high 5.1 attempts per game).

The added distance of the NBA three-point line will require more precision from Hart’s mechanics.

My biggest resistance to Hart is not that he’s a bad player, but more, that he may not be the player his accolades suggest. I want every potential NBA-er to succeed (on some soccer mom, co-exist bumper sticker on the mini-van type-shit), but even really, really good basketball players can fail to make it in the NBA. The last man on every NBA roster is still “the best player I’ve ever seen” to a ton of people from their hometown, local gyms, etc.

Hart’s defensive awards suggest he is an elite defender, but can he guard elite offense? Would Hart still thrive without exceptional defensive help around him outside of Villanova’s system? Does Hart have the speed, quickness, and athleticism to hang with Bradley Beal and C.J. McCollum?

Scoring over 18 per game, can Hart come into the NBA and give a team similar numbers? I give a firm “no” on this one, but certainly with the shooting year that Hart had in his senior season, there’s hope that he could be a legitimate 3-and-D guy. Hart’s predictability and lack of isolation scoring foreshadow serious limitations for his future offense.

For a Knicks team that came up empty in their desperate need for nightly effort, Hart would represent the changing of tides. Hart plays hard for every second of the defensive possession, rebounds every shot like it’s the final minute, and even sets screens with purpose.

Hart is properly ranked in this draft. Projecting him any later would be disrespectful to what he accomplished at Villanova. Projecting him any earlier would suggest a higher ceiling, which I just don’t see. By the time pick #44 comes around to the Knicks, all types of players could drop and shuffle around, and the choice for New York will probably be more difficult than we can predict; about as difficult as determining what kind of NBA player Hart will pan out to be.