By Tom Ballato
When Josh Harrellson transferred to Kentucky, he was ready to play on one of college basketball’s biggest stages, but it didn’t go exactly how he had planned.
His sophomore year (first year at Kentucky), he appeared in 34 games and averaged 3.6 points per game in just under 10 minutes a game. At the conclusion of the basketball season, Kentucky decided to go in a different direction with their coaching staff and hired John Calipari.
Harrellson’s junior year, Calipari brought in a highly touted recruiting class that featured John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton. The team went to the Elite Eight that year and finished with an overall record of 35-3. Harrellson appeared in 22 games, averaging 1.3 points per game in 4 minutes per contest. Although his playing time was limited, Harrellson learned and developed. “Everyday I am playing against and guarding Demarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and Patrick Patterson. I was going against the best players in the nation every single day. You play against people that are better than you to make yourself better. That is what happened to me.”
Following the conclusion of that year Cousins, Patterson, Orton, and Wall all left for the NBA, but Kentucky brought in another great recruiting class. This class featured center Enes Kanter who was physically ready for the next level, but his college career ended before it even started when he was ruled ineligible. Harrellson benefited the most from the NCAA’s ruling.
He was a key contributor for Kentucky his senior year. He started all 38 games he appeared in and he put up averages of 7.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game in 28.5 minutes. His ability to rebound and provide energy for the team was invaluable. Kentucky was seeded #4 in the NCAA Tournament that year, beat #1 Ohio State in their region, and made a run to the Final Four. When asked about the Final Four run, Harrellson stated, “The run was amazing. Everyone started playing great basketball at the right time. We were playing great team basketball and great individual basketball. Everyone just clicked and going into the tournament everyone counted us out early. It was a great team accomplishment.”
Harrellson’s career at Kentucky came to a close following that NCAA Tournament run. He described his time at Kentucky by saying, “It was amazing, but it was also a rollercoaster. My first year was a rollercoaster, some games I would play a lot and the next game I wouldn’t play at all. It definitely was a mind game. Then my second year, I played behind DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, and Patrick Patterson, so I didn’t have much to complain about not playing. My senior year, Enes Kanter being ruled ineligible opened up the gateway I needed to make myself known and put myself out there.”
The New Orleans Pelicans selected Harrellson in the 2nd round with the 45th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, but was traded to the New York Knicks for cash considerations. Going through the draft process scouts were able to see all the things Harrellson could do that weren’t displayed at Kentucky, like spreading the floor, shooting from the outside, picking and popping, and defense and rebounding. He was an interesting prospect due to the fact that his talents were hidden during his first two years at Kentucky.
On draft night, Harrellson spoke about his experience by saying, “My agent told me you had a lot of great workouts. You’ll be a late 1st rounder/early second rounder and I had little draft party at my home in St. Charles, Missouri. I was with family, friends, and people I had played basketball with and to see my name go across that screen surrounded by all those people was an amazing feeling.”
Josh joined the Knicks and became a fan favorite for doing all the “little things” on the court. He played alongside Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. His fondest moment as a Knick, he said, “Just getting to start the third game in my career. New York is a big stage and getting to play for a historic franchise. Getting to start my third game gave me the satisfaction from all the hard work I did to get to the big stage and start a game.” Harrellson played in 37 games and appeared in 4 playoff games for the Knicks. He averaged 4.4 points per game and shot almost 34% from behind the arch, something he didn’t feature at Kentucky. The Knicks traded Harrellson to the Houston Rockets who went on to waive him at the end of the season.
Harrellson signed with the Miami Heat in 2012 right before the start of the NBA season. He appeared in just 6 games in multiple stints with the team. He played parts of the 2012-2013 season in Puerto Rico and China. Harrellson signed a 1 year deal with the Detroit Pistons in 2013. Appearing in 32 games, he averaged 2.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game in a reserve role. When Josh spoke about his time in the NBA after New York, he said, “Both were great organizations. Maybe going to Miami wasn’t a smart choice. My second year in the league with the same team that won a championship the year before. I wasn’t really expecting to play when they brought the same team back. Going to the Pistons was good. I finally started playing midway through the season and then I ended up hurting my back, it put me out eight months. I wish I never got hurt and things might have been different in my career, but everything is set in motion for a reason.”
“Playing three years in the league is tremendous.” -Josh Harrellson
After his three years in the NBA, Harrellson headed overseas. He returned to play in China and Puerto Rico. In 2015, Josh was signed by the Washington Wizards for training camp and played well during the preseason, but his comeback attempt fell short when he was waived. He signed to play in Latvia and finished the year there.
In 2016, Harrellson signed to play in Japan with Oskaka Evessa in the Japanese B.League. He has remained in Japan and seems to have found a home. He played with the Hitachi Sun Rockers in 2017, another club in the Japanese B.League before re-signing with Oskaka Evessa. This past season, he led the league in rebounds with an average of 12.3 per game. When asked what he enjoys most about playing in Japan, Harrellson expressed, “On my team, I’m like Lebron James. People wear my shirt, people wear my jersey, people cheer my name, so its nice to think the superstar platform they have in America, I have that in Japan. It is nice to be wanted and welcomed.”
Harrellson still wears number 55, the number he wore in the NBA. He plays with emotion and toughness and does it all on the court. Japan has given him the platform to display his full game.
This summer Harrellson was set to play in The Basketball Tournament with the Kentucky alumni team, but due to contractually reasons did not play. He has since agreed to return to Japan, a place that Harrellson knows well, for the 2019-2020 season.