DURHAM, N.C. — The final piece to Duke’s national championship-caliber puzzle is ready. And he’ll be put into place perhaps as early as Monday night, when the Blue Devils play Tennessee State.
Harry Giles, the top-ranked recruit in the 2016 class, is expected to make his much-anticipated collegiate debut this week as Duke closes out its nonconference slate before Christmas; the fourth-ranked Blue Devils (10-1) begin Atlantic Coast Conference play on Dec. 31.
Giles has shown glimpses of his athleticism and talent — you could make a highlight reel based on his pregame warmup dunks alone — as he’s worked his way back from arthroscopic surgery on Oct. 3.
The procedure, which came after two major knee surgeries — one in the summer of 2013 and the other November 2015 — makes the 6-10, 240-pound power forward’s return even more intriguing. He knows what is said about big men who are injury prone; he knows that he could be labeled risky by NBA standards. He knows what’s at stake during what will likely be his only college season.
“Most definitely you hear negative things; it always fills up my tank,” Giles told USA TODAY Sports before the October surgery. “Negativity makes you angry. You’ve got to be passionate and angry. You put those two together, it’s hard to be stopped. I’m just ready to go out there and prove it, and just show them I’m here.”
The Duke coaching staff has been very cautious about bringing Giles back at the right time. As associate head coach Jeff Capel put it, “The most important thing obviously is him and his future.” And, by the way, his future includes the NBA — which means his college basketball present can easily take a backseat to his health.
And it has.
September’s procedure serves as proof of that. According to the school and coaching staff, it was meant to clean out loose cartilage and scar tissue from the 2013 surgery on his left knee, to ensure he would return to compete at his highest level not because a new injury required a new surgery.
That 2013 surgery — a much bigger deal — came after a torn left ACL, MCL and meniscus while playing in Uruguay for USA Basketball.
“I was going up to pass the ball — it was intentional, actually, because Argentina was a dirty team, and they were kind of known for that in the tournament,” Giles said. “A good team, too, but they had a couple dirty players on the team. It was a dirty play, and I got hit in the wrong way.”
Back then, Giles didn’t know exactly how it felt to tear his ACL. He knew he was in pain, and his knee didn’t feel right. But he didn’t get the diagnosis until he returned home and had an MRI done.
The news crushed him at first; he said he handled the news like any 15-year-old kid would. But a text message he received a couple of days later would the basketball injury into perspective — and redefine “crushed.”
Giles was visiting his mother at work when his phone started lighting up with text messages. Friends were telling him his friend, Celeste Burgess, had been in a bad car accident in southeast Alabama. Follow-up texts confirmed that she had died. Giles couldn’t believe it; “Man, shut up,” was all he could muster as a response. And then he sat in silence, willing the words to be wrong.
She was younger than Giles but she also had been everywhere he was, playing basketball or simply bugging him. A little sister, just not by blood. And now she was gone, at age 14.
“It hurt; it really hurt,” Giles said. “We grew up playing together, since we were 3 or 4. From the Y to the rec center, and all that. She played with the boys forever.”
Her star had shone as bright as, if not brighter than, Giles’ did in Winston-Salem. During Celeste’s freshman year, she averaged 15 points and six rebounds. She’d shot up to 6 feet tall by then, too, and college coaches were intrigued — much like they were with Giles, who was already turning into a can’t-miss prospect himself.
But now there was just one of them. One to carry on the legacy of the other.
“When I first came back from my injury, early on I was still thinking about myself,” Giles said. “I was still down. But talking to people it was like, ‘You get the chance to play again, and she doesn’t.’ Really, that was it right there. I get to play again. I told myself I was going to honor her.”
He did, when he finally returned to the hardwood after missing his entire sophomore season. Giles wore a warmup jersey with a No. 1 and her name on it. He played hard, for her.
Giles avoided the injury bug that year, his junior year, at Wesleyan Christian, and averaged a double-double to help his team to a 30-5 record. He followed that with a stellar summer on the AAU circuit and saw his name climb atop all the major recruiting rankings. He transferred to Oak Hill Academy for his senior season.
“Life is a roller coaster,” Giles said. “You have your ups, and your downs. I had my downs, and I had my up moment in the summertime after my junior year. It was something I worked for. Back when I was hurt, people said, ‘You work hard, and your time’s going to come. You’ve just got to stay down and grind, and when it’s time to shine, it’s going to happen.’ It really didn’t make that much sense to me until I got older, and I really saw it happen.”
And then the rollercoaster crashed. During the fourth or fifth play of Oak Hill’s season-opener, Giles planted his foot and attempted to bump his opponent so he could get back to the middle of the paint to dunk — “a move I always do,” he said — but got hit by a few other players in the process.
Though at first he tried to go back into the game, he quickly thought better of it. It turned out to be a partial ACL tear in his right knee. His senior season was over before it even began.
“Even now it’s been hard to just put a seal on it,” Giles said. “You say, ‘I’m going to put that in the past.’ But when I think about it now, it still hurts. This will always hurt.”
Oak Hill ended up winning a national championship. Giles ended up enrolling in online classes and doing the entirety of his rehabilitation work at Duke — where he committed the same week he suffered the season-ending injury.
Since last winter, there have been questions about Giles’ progress and health, his timeline and others’ sky-high expectations. Now that the moment of truth has arrived, so will answers both for fans and NBA front office personnel.
“One of the biggest obstacles of overcoming injuries especially an injury like he has is the mental aspect of it,” Capel said. “For him it’s been twice. Hopefully one of the things that helps him, and I think it will, is the fact that he overcame the first one which was far worse than the second injury. In the first one, he tore everything. He was able to not only come back but come back stronger and better and to not only get back to being the best player in the class but to leave no doubt about that when he was healthy.
“I know he heard the doubts then. He heard them. He and I talked about that and he heard the things that people were saying and it was frustrating for him because he knew he wasn’t himself (when he first came back from the first knee injury). He knew he wasn’t that. He used it as motivation.”
Giles agrees and also hopes that his prior successful return bodes well for this one — though the stakes are certainly higher now. He joins an ultra-talented freshman class that’s part of an ultra-talented Duke team that has its eyes set on a national championship.
He could be just what the Blue Devils need to get there.