What is Josh Harrellson, other than a player the Knicks weren’t counting on?

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Josh Harrellson. (www.ukathletics.com)
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The New York Knicks, like most N.B.A. teams, still don't know exactly what the various parts of their roster are going to add up to. That's thanks to an N.B.A. lockout, followed by a condensed, 16-day preseason that consisted just two games before the regular season begins on Dec. 25.

The fan base doesn't quite know, beyond a vague feeling that after a ten-year period of irrelevance, the Knicks are about to start mattering again. That magical 19,763 number of fans—representing a Madison Square Garden sellout—packed the arena for Wednesday night's 88-82 preseason victory over the New Jersey Nets. Shiny new Stoudemire 1 and Anthony 7 jerseys brushed against faded Ewing 33s and Starks 3s. There were very few from the era in between.

The only person I saw wearing number 55, the jersey number of unheralded second-round pick Josh Harrellson, was the hulking, awkward rookie himself. But a pair of strong preseason performances by Harrellson, who was supposed to struggle even to make the team, may have answered some questions about who's going to be able to provide the Knicks' fearsome front line of Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony with some rest in this 66-game season.

Harrellson's 24 minutes in Wednesday night's 88-82 victory over the Nets at Madison Square Garden earned plaudits from both the fans and Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who announced afterward that Harrellson will be a part of his regular-season rotation.

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It is easy to see how Harrellson earned loud cheers whenever he so much as touched the ball. He is listed at 6'10", but is closer to 6'8", and plays at 275 pounds that isn't predominantly muscle. He doesn't run down the court so much as meander: When the other team begins a fast break, it feels like Harrellson might never get to the other end.

What Harrellson does possess, in lieu of quickness or a smoothness to his movements, is a pair of skills that will serve the Knicks well, and could keep him in the N.B.A. for a long time. One is his surprising effectiveness at rebounding the basketball. Despite giving away both some height and much agility to other interior players, Harrellson pulled down 10 rebounds Wednesday night, three offensive, continuing to excel at a skill he honed at the University of Kentucky, where he barely played at first and only started his senior year when a highly touted freshman (Enes Kanter) was ruled ineligible.

The other skill, and one even the Knicks didn't count on when they drafted him this summer, is an uncanny ability to shoot three-pointers. Really, it is worth watching a Knicks game just to see Harrellson, a man with seemingly no business out on the perimeter, launch a beautiful rainbow from beyond the arc. He made 2 of 6 on Wednesday, and 3 of 8 in the Knicks' two preseason games. Players that size (and more accurately, that shape) aren't usually deep-shooting threats. He's legitimate, even if watching him take those shots is like watching a dog playing the piano.

“I think he can really play,” D'Antoni said of Harrellson at a press conference following the game, with the “no, seriously” implicit in his tone. “He is strong. He is dirt-strong. He's got a little bit of pop to his game, I didn't know that. He surprised you about how he got off his feet on some rebounds. And once he gets his hand on it they're not taking it away from him. He can shoot all the way up to the three. So there's a lot of good things. A lot of good things."

Harrellson himself was more matter-of-fact on the topic of his shooting prowess.

“That's just something I've always had, is a knack for shooting,” Harrellson said as he stood in front of his locker following the game, surrounded by reporters who clearly didn't expect to be talking to him.

“That's something that can really help spread the floor for Tyson and Amar'e, they can't sag off me and double them,” he said.

As for why he didn't exhibit this skill at Kentucky—he took a total of 10 three-pointers in his senior season, only slightly more attempts in 38 games than he took in New York's two preseason contests—Harrellson said it simply hadn't been necessary.

“Playing at Kentucky, we had the best of the best every year,” Harrellson said. “But if they leave me open this year, coach gives me the green light to shoot, so I'm going to keep on doing it.”

To be sure, the Knicks have other front-court players who can rebound and play some defense, such as Renaldo Balkman and Jared Jeffries. And even as Harrellson warmed up for Wednesday night's game, the Knicks officially added Steve Novak, a 6'10" forward who can shoot the three as well as nearly anyone in the league.

But neither Balkman nor Jeffries provide much offense, and Novak simply can't defend or rebound. So that combination should mean playing time for Harrellson.

As one group of reporters walked away from Harrellson's locker, another reached him and duly asked exactly how he'd become such a proficient three-point shooter. Harrellson sighed, and patiently began to explain to another surprised observer that he is, appearances be damned, a valuable and versatile basketball player after all.