On the afternoon after making his NBA debut, Harry Giles is in line at a trendy Sacramento dessert shop called CREAM. The concept here is that ice cream alone isn't sweet enough, and that it's better served sandwiched between pastries such as cookies, donuts or waffles. Giles posterizes the bland snickerdoodle cookie and churro ice cream concoction I order with his choice: a waffle sandwich with strawberry ice cream dipped in fruity pebbles.
He grabs a bottled drink from the fridge and then folds himself into a far-too-small barstool next to the store's owner, Zayn Silmi. A few months back, Silmi—who runs a Sacramento lifestyle blog and is friends with several Kings players—offered to name a sandwich item after Giles. Since then, Giles has been munching through the menu, trying to find the combination capable of carrying his name. A few minutes pass before Silmi gets up to investigate why Giles' order has not yet arrived.
Silmi comes back not only with news, but with a metaphor fitting for Giles' basketball career. His order had been delayed because Giles' waffle had broken in the griddle not once, not twice…but three times.
Harry Giles was the 20th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, but this will be his rookie campaign with the Kings because he is just now healthy from the lingering effects of three knee injuries he suffered in high school and college. Most teams draft players with a vision of who they will become. The hope with Giles is that he'll be the player he once was—the one who was the clear No. 1 prospect in a class that included Jayson Tatum, Markelle Fultz and Josh Jackson. For his part, Giles is content just to be on the court. His last full season was his junior year of high school, and he's sick of being on the sidelines.
"Harry has seen the highest of the high," says Kenneth Bates, who trained Giles in high school. "Everyone has told him he's the best player in the world. He's also felt the lowest of the low. He's heard people tell him his career is done and he'll never be himself again. He experienced all that by 20. He's always had the talent, and now he's got the maturity, too. What he's going to do next will amaze you."
At CREAM, Giles realizes the waffles aren't going to work and decides to make do with birthday cake cookies instead. He flashes his signature bright smile for Silmi's Instagram, then swivels off the stool and continues eating on the way out of the shop. Outside in his Porsche, he confesses that this isn't the sandwich he's been searching for. It's good, but he is after something more. As in his quest to return to the basketball court, he won't quit until he finds himself.
Harry Giles is shooting hoops in the courtyard of his California home. He lives in a ranch-style house in a gated suburb and has plenty of space in the driveway for a hoop, but he prefers the privacy of playing back by his pool—even if that means his sliding glass doors take regular beatings from bouncing basketballs. He swishes a few short jumpers then pauses to point to a tattoo he got at the beginning of the year. It's a lion's head and a cursive Bible verse, 1 Peter 2:15-16: "For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God's slaves." It's on his right shin—just beneath the scar from his second knee surgery.
Giles' first knee injury happened in the summer before his sophomore year. As a freshman, he'd paired with Theo Pinson at Wesleyan Christian Academy in North Carolina to produce a state championship. He'd also started receiving interest from powerhouse programs like Duke. At the time, Jeff Capel III was the Blue Devils' top recruiter. As a young man, Capel had watched his father, Jeff Capel Jr., recruit high schoolers to the colleges where he coached. One of the younger Capel's favorite memories was hearing his dad gush about a player he'd seen at Mauldin High School in South Carolina. "I just saw the future of basketball," Capel Jr. told his son, "and his name is Kevin Garnett."
On the car ride home from seeing Giles play for the first time, Capel III called his father. "I just saw the future of basketball," he said, "and his name is Harry Giles." Then he called Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and told him it was time to start recruiting. A few months later into his freshman year, Giles visited campus for a game against Miami and came home with a scholarship offer.
"There are a few players I never saw live in high school," says Capel, who is now the head coach at Pitt. "I never recruited LeBron James or Kevin Durant. But without question, the best high school player I've ever seen in person was Harry Giles."
In June 2013, while playing for USA Basketball's U16 team in Uruguay, Giles planted on a fast break, got pushed by an Argentinian opponent and felt the dreaded pop. He had torn his left ACL, MCL and meniscus. He was feeling sorry for himself when he returned home to North Carolina, but a few days later, he received word that a friend of his, Celeste Burgess, had died in a car accident in Alabama. The emotional pain compounded his physical pain, but the news also put what he was experiencing into perspective.
"What I was going through was bad," Giles says now, "but it wasn't the worst thing in the world. She was a basketball player too, and I knew I had to come back and play for her."
He didn't play at all his sophomore year in high school. Instead, he spent his mornings waking up at 5 a.m. and working in the pool with his trainer, Kenneth Bates. He spent his afternoons rebuilding the strength in his lower body and doing hot yoga with his high school coach, Keith Gatlin. By his junior year, he was back on the court with a brace. And that summer, the brace went off, and so did Giles. A power forward with a preternatural knack for rebounding, a point guard's ability to pass and a remarkable explosiveness, Giles skyrocketed back up to No. 1 in the recruiting rankings.
For his senior season, he transferred to a powerhouse prep school, Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. Before the first game of the year, he got some troubling news in a text message: Kedrick Flomo, a friend from home who was playing guard at Murray State, had been rushed into emergency heart surgery that afternoon. In the locker room before the game, Giles connected with Flomo on FaceTime and told him to stay strong.
Then, two minutes into the game, it happened again: Plant, push, pop. Friends and family tried to tell Giles it might not be that bad, but he knew he had torn his ACL—only this time, it was his right knee. He knew some of what would come next—surgery and rehab—but he didn't anticipate how his reputation would change. He would no longer be the star prospect who suffered an unpredictable injury. Instead, he'd be labeled the injury-prone prospect who may never reach his potential.
The next week, he committed to Duke live on ESPN. It was the decision he'd dreamed of making, but it was dulled by the knowledge that he wouldn't play again until he put on that Blue Devils uniform. Out of the spotlight, he noticed how certain people in his circle didn't stick around. Maybe it was because they had been pulling for him to go to a different school, or maybe it was because they didn't think he'd ever be back to the level he once reached. But either way, it left him with a little less trust but a lot more motivation.
"When you ain't playing, everything changes," he says. "A lot of people turn their back on you. Even people who said they believed in you no matter what. But when you're not on the scene, you stop being so cool to be around. Even girls ain't popping on your phone in the same way. That's just the truth. It keeps me humble to this day knowing how quickly that fame can fade."
Again, the perspective from a close friend helped to keep him grounded. "On the day that my career stopped forever, Harry's only paused," Flomo says. "We talked about that a lot. And when I watch him on the court now, I feel like I'm out there. I feel like I'm playing through him."
But Giles didn't play much at Duke. In a preseason practice, while his teammates were playing five-on-five, Giles was working on agility drills on the sideline. He felt a flare-up of pain, and Duke's doctors determined later that day that he'd need an arthroscopic knee surgery to clean up his left knee. After missing the first 11 games, he became a regular in Duke's rotation—but never a dominant force. He averaged just 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds in 11.5 minutes per game.
"I tried to turn on the TV and watch him a few times, but I couldn't" says Gatlin, who's now an assistant at High Point University. "I looked at that player on the screen, and I could tell it wasn't Harry Giles."
Giles has no regrets about committing to Duke, but he says he should have taken a redshirt. Watching himself fall in NBA draft boards without being able to perform like he knew he could was torture.
"I should have sat out that year of Duke," he says. "I wasn't ready to play. I thought I was, but I wasn't. I wasn't rushing, but I was still rushing, you know? I took my time, but I still wasn't ready. ... It's nothing like the way I feel now. Now, I'm more than ready."
Lined up on the shelves of Harry Giles' living room are awards and honors he's received throughout his basketball career. There are some silly ones, like custom peanut butter and jelly jars Smuckers sent him. And there are some serious ones like Duke's Glenn E. "Ted" Mann Award, given annually to a backup who contributes most to team morale. But when he looks up at his collection, he can't help but fill the spaces in his mind with the moments he's missed, like playing in the McDonald's All-American Game or being selected in the NBA draft lottery. So he feels compelled to stack these shelves with heftier hardware.
"Rookie of the Year is my goal," he says. "I'm not going to let it control me, but if I play my game, I believe it'll come on its own."
Now, more than a year after being drafted, he's finally getting the chance. The Kings suggested before they drafted him that Giles sit out a season to work on getting completely clear of his past injuries. When the coaching staff reminded him of that plan, he remembered how rushing at Duke hurt him, and he resolved to be patient this time. He used the year to transition into the lifestyle of a professional player: traveling with the team, learning the playbook and taking his training and rehab more seriously than ever. He was a constant in the cold tub and on the training table, and by midseason, there were whispers that he was dominating team practices.
"I was down for a while because I wasn't playing all the time or wasn't playing as well as I wanted," he says. "But I had to remember what it took to get as good as I was. It didn't happen overnight. It took me so much work—so many drills, so many practices, so many games. Basketball was my life for years and years, and I had expected all that to come back right away. I had to give it time. Now I feel like I'm killin' it again."
While the past few years have been a struggle, Giles knows he has little to complain about—and he reminds himself of that regularly. In his driveway sit three vehicles, one a luxury sports car. He's been dating a woman he's known since high school for the past two years, and his mother lives in his house to help acclimate him to the responsibilities of adulthood.
Still, Giles' fall off the basketball radar rankles him. As we walked out of his house, he told me about attending the Drew League in Los Angeles this summer with Jayson Tatum and Kings rookie Marvin Bagley III. He noticed how the announcer in the gym shouted out Tatum and Bagley as Duke's alumni in the building—but left him out. It was another reminder of the fleeting nature of fame.
"Being famous is weird to start with, and it gets weirder as time goes on," he says. "Look at Kanye [West]. He's just saying crazy shit right now. At a certain point, you can't force it. You have to say to yourself, 'If I gotta do this to stay relevant, I might not want to be relevant anymore.'"
This preseason, Giles appeared as normal as a young, promising player could be. He averaged 13.3 points and 5.7 rebounds in 22.1 minutes per game. Early in the regular season, his numbers haven’t popped (3.7 points, 2.8 rebounds per outing), but he’s getting closer to game speed with each outing. Statistics aside, any time he feels his feet on the court, he knows it's a positive step.
After all he's endured, he knows there are no guarantees, and he plays now with the kind of freedom he hasn't had since he was a freshman in high school. Back then, people didn't know who Harry Giles was, and he showed them. If they've forgotten, he doesn't mind offering a reminder.
In early October, right before the preseason began, Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox found an old Ballislife mixtape of Giles on Twitter and tagged his teammate. Giles watched the entire three-minute video, entitled "16 Y/O Harry Giles is the Best NBA Prospect in High School Basketball," in the driveway of his house with his car idling. And all he can remember thinking afterward was, That motherfucker was good.
As he tells the story, he's climbing back into his car to return me to my hotel. I ask if he ever thinks he'll be the player he could have been if he hadn't hurt his knees. He pauses for a few seconds.
"Man…that's tough," he says. "The shit I was doing back then was wild. I can see why people were gassing me. But I'm stronger now, and I'm smarter now. I sometimes wish I had had more of that back then. I don't think I could have prevented my injuries, but I might have been more aware. I might have been able to change something—anything.
"To be honest, I don't know if I'll ever be that player I was before. I'll be different. But I won't stop working until I'm better than I ever was going to be."