Isaiah Hartenstein was a teenager when his father instituted the no-shoot rule.
A forward at Oregon who later played and coached in his native Germany, Flo Hartenstein would forbid his son to shoot for an entire quarter. Even if Isaiah Hartenstein, who was well on his way to reaching his current 7-foot frame, was underneath the basket, he needed to get another teammate involved with a pass.
“I hated it,” Hartenstein said.
His father persisted for several seasons, until his son was 17.
“I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Hartenstein said. “I was like, why am I not allowed to score?
“But, looking at it now, it’s just having now the feel of passing. … I love to pass.”
The experience is paying dividends. Hartenstein’s skillful passing, displayed during a preseason when he additionally surprised Clippers coach Tyronn Lue with his ability to defend at the rim without putting himself in foul trouble, helped the 23-year-old win the competition for the Clippers’ backup center role Saturday. Hartenstein, like Harry Giles, had entered training camp on a nonguaranteed contract to vie for the 15th and final roster spot.
Giles, a former top recruit whose career has been waylaid by injuries, displayed flashes of his athleticism and is “definitely an NBA player,” in Lue’s estimation. Hartenstein best fit the Clippers’ needs while they await Serge Ibaka’s return from a back injury.
“He did a good job, he played well, kind of came in and fit in right away with his passing and being able to get guys shots and backdoor cuts for layups and things like that,” Lue said of Hartenstein.
On Friday, Ibaka participated in his first five-on-five play since undergoing season-ending back surgery in June, Lue said.
“It was good to see, having a Serge sighting,” Lue said. “And he said he didn’t feel any pain, felt pretty good.”
Hartenstein, a second-round pick of Houston in 2017 before stops in Denver and Cleveland, learned defensive schemes quickly and swatted shots at the rim, but it was his passing that turned heads as early as September, long before he averaged 3.5 assists in 13.3 minutes during four preseason games.
The first reports came in the weeks before training camp, from the informal pickup games hosted at the team’s practice facility.
“[Paul George] called raving about his passing and then Luke Kennard called talking about how he can pass,” Lue said. Their reviews were confirmed after player development coach Dahntay Jones and head video coordinator Daniel Fitzpatrick sent clips of Hartenstein’s play.
Lue then called Hartenstein, who shared that he’d honed his passing not only from his father’s influence but advice gleaned from Denver’s Nikola Jokic, the best passing big man in the NBA and its reigning most valuable player, whom Hartenstein had backed up for 30 games last season before being traded to Cleveland.
“I think before, you would look at, a lot, the offensive player,” Hartenstein said. “But Jokic told me a lot more just to look where the defense is looking. I think that’s how some of the backdoor passes, it looks like the dude is not open, but like I’m really looking at the defense, and if he’s not looking at me, there’s no chance of him even getting the ball, because you can’t see the ball coming. So I think just stuff like that helped me a lot.”
Hartenstein speaks softly and smiles quickly, and his grin was broad Saturday morning after he was called into a team executive’s office and told he had won the job. It validated his July decision to decline a player option worth $1.8 million to stay in Cleveland this season.
Hartenstein was motivated to find opportunity. He didn’t see many minutes in his future behind a Cleveland frontcourt featuring Jarrett Allen and rookie Evan Mobley, the former USC star. More importantly, he wanted to go to a team where he could play without the worry of “looking over my shoulder,” as he felt in Denver and Houston.
“I think I’m a good center in the NBA,” he said.
Hartenstein’s opportunity with the Clippers is, of course, linked to Ibaka’s health. As the former All-Star works into game shape, Hartenstein said he feels empowered to play confidently.
“You want guys to be able to play free, it’s hard to play on eggshells,” Lue said. “Unfortunately in my career, I’ve had a couple stints where I had to play like that as well and that’s not easy to do because you’re not being yourself.
“With our players, it’s OK to make mistakes, but the biggest thing is if you’re playing the right way, if you’re playing hard and competing, we’re not worried about the turnovers or missed shots. We don’t want careless turnovers, but if you’re trying to make the right play for your teammate and it doesn’t go right, you ain’t gotta look over your shoulder and wonder if you’re coming out.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.