LeBron James walks out of a side door onto the main floor at the Lakers practice facility and instantly draws a crowd. Eyes, phones, and cameras follow his every step as he heads to the podium. It’s James’s first media day in Los Angeles, but it might as well be a coronation.
Minutes later, Josh Hart emerges from the same door as casually as he would step out of his front door every morning. Quickly, he realizes he has nowhere to go. So he waits and looks on as the madness unfolds. Later, when LeBron stands in front of a white backdrop flanked by teammates Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma, Hart looks on with his arms crossed and a slight smile. He’ll have to wait his turn.
“I’m like in a gray area,” Hart tells me after a Lakers practice in late September. Asked where he sees himself fitting into the retooled Lakers lineup, the second-year shooting guard shrugs. “I have no idea. You have the young core, and then you have the best player on the planet, and then you have the vets, so I’m just floating around. It’s challenging, but it is what it is.”
Hart made an impact for the Lakers as a rookie last season. Though his raw numbers were muted and his opportunities were limited, he played in 63 games, started 23 games, and shot 40 percent from 3—hardly what you’d expect from the no. 30 overall pick. But all the talk about the team’s promising future often overlooks the 23-year-old. He wasn’t a top-two pick like Ingram or Ball. He doesn’t have his own reality TV show. Neymar isn’t wearing his jersey.
Hart isn’t complaining. But he notices. “A lot of times, when I’m on Instagram or on Twitter, you see ‘Ball Is Life’; or ESPN, they’ll post something, and it’ll be LeBron and then the young core,” he says. “I’m just like, ‘Oh, OK.’”
But the Lakers coaches are well aware of what Hart can do. They notice when he’s in the right place on the fast break. They notice when he sees an opening and fearlessly attacks the rim, or when he grabs a rebound over a bigger player. Hart may not have a lot of flash, but Lakers coaches believe he can have a major role on a team that needs its young core to contribute if it wants to have any shot at the playoffs. Hart may not be a fan favorite, but he could be a player LeBron trusts to bury a 3 in crunch time.
“Lonzo and Kuz, they get a lot of attention because they do some highlight stuff which generates a lot of attention,” Lakers assistant coach Jesse Mermuys says. “But from an NBA coaching standpoint, the stuff that Josh does is just as important, if not more important to a winning environment. Every team needs a guy like him.”
It’s early in the first quarter of the Lakers’ preseason game against the Nuggets at Staples Center, and Hart’s left arm is locked between Nikola Jokic’s right arm and torso. The Serbian big man has five inches and more than 30 pounds on Hart. On paper, this mismatch should end in easy points for the road team. But Hart frees his arm and stands his ground as Jokic tries to back him closer to the rim. Rajon Rondo comes to help, but Hart doesn’t want it. Monte Morris, whom Rondo just left, ends up scoring off a Jokic pass.
“I was wrasslin’ with that monster down there,” Hart said. “[The help] came, and I was like, ‘Don’t do that. Let me wrassle with him a little bit.’ If he gets me low, then I’ll call the double, but nah, when I am down there I want to play straight up, tell the guards—cover yours and I’ll get this.”
The Lakers haven’t exactly hidden their plan to push the pace on offense and switch constantly on defense this season. That means Kyle Kuzma at center is a real thing, and that Hart may sometimes play the 4 and defend bigger players. Against the Kings, Hart matched up on the 6-foot-10 Harry Giles and bothered him twice. David West could relate: “This little mofo stood me up in the post twice,” West wrote on Twitter about his own experience against Hart, who is a decade and a half younger than the now-retired vet. “Hips were tripping that night. Time to hang it up bruh I said to myself in the game.”
The Lakers’ games this preseason have been both novelties and experiments. While packed crowds in San Diego and at the Staples Center gawk at LeBron and Co. in their new yellow-gold uniform, head coach Luke Walton has used the games to tinker with lineups and play calls. Against the Nuggets, Walton used Hart as if he were Amar’e Stoudemire:
Pick-and-roll with Josh Hart as the roll man?!— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) October 3, 2018
I’m here for all the weirdness. pic.twitter.com/eq4CUImniu
“Y’all see me on my big man? Y’all see me? I’m a roller now,” Hart said after the game. “Give me another year or two, and I’ll bulk up like ’Bron and them and I’ll be down there wrasslin’ with the monsters.”
It’s a task Hart prepared for this summer. In addition to skill work to make himself more of a versatile offensive threat, Hart says he focused on getting stronger and more fit. He went back to Villanova, where he won a championship in 2016, and trained with Wildcats strength and conditioning coach John Shackleton. Inside Villanova’s Davis Center, they focused on tempo, mobility, and explosiveness. They also prioritized nutrition. At Villanova, the staff would put out quinoa for players to eat, but Hart would never touch it. When Hart was in town this summer, he stopped at a farm-to-table spot and sent Shackleton a photo with an accompanying text message: “Look at my quinoa bowl.”
“Josh is so difficult to officiate because he is so physical, too physical.”
Eric Singletary wasn’t sure how he should take the referee’s comments during one of Hart’s high school games. On one hand, Hart’s passion was the reason he had wanted to coach him in the first place. On the other, he needed his best player to stay on the floor.
Tight whistles were Hart’s worst enemy when he played under Singletary at Sidwell Friends School, the private Quaker high school in Washington, D.C., that Hart transferred to before his sophomore year. Once, Hart fouled out before the end of the third quarter. “We kept it close, but we needed Josh,” Singletary says by phone. “He was hot, we had to calm him down.”
Singletary sees a more refined version of Hart from afar now, but there are still hints of that fire. “Like him getting ejected from the summer league title game,” he says. Hart argued with refs over a call in the fourth quarter of the championship game in Las Vegas and was ejected. The Lakers, who won last year’s Vegas title, lost to the Trail Blazers by 18. “You can’t take out all the passion out of a player like that,” Singletary says.
Overall, summer league was a showcase for Hart. He asked Walton to let him play in summer league this offseason and made good use of the opportunity: He won league MVP, with averages of 22.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. On the day the honor was announced, one of his newest teammates gave him props:
When LeBron announced he was signing with the Lakers 16 days prior, Hart’s first reaction was excitement. It only lasted about 10 minutes, or about as long as it took for it to be reported that the Lakers were also re-signing last year’s starting shooting guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “It was a lot of mystery,” Hart said. “I was just trying to figure out where I fit and where the dominoes would fall.” As plugged in as he is to social media, Hart couldn’t avoid the Kawhi Leonard rumors. And if Kawhi was coming, that meant Hart might be leaving as part of the trade. “In the back of my mind, I was always preparing myself for that because you never know,” he says. “Even now.”
About 45 minutes after the buzzer sounds on the Lakers’ preseason win over the Kings, Hart puts on cologne and a Kirk Gibson Dodgers jersey at his locker stall. He’s ready to walk out, but when he turns around, he sees a small crowd of cameras and reporters waiting for him. “Oh, we doing this?” He assumed no one wanted to talk to him.
Hart puts down his recovery shake and his Louis Vuitton bag and looks up, revealing a cut on his neck that looks like a red, more abstract version of the Chargers’ bolt logo. Hart got it while driving to the rim for a tough layup. “War wound” is how James describes it as he leaves the locker room.
A few questions into the interview at Hart’s locker, a reporter asks about Brandon Ingram. “’Bron was really complimentary of B.I.’s game—”
“Oh, for real?” Hart interrupts. He’s unable to contain the smile. “That’s nice of him.”
Hart isn’t as popular as some of his younger teammates. When I went to the team shop and asked whether they had replicas of Hart’s jersey for sale, the attendant initially responded, “John who?” He eventually realized I was talking about Hart, but the jersey wasn’t there yet. (LeBron’s, Lonzo’s, and Ingram’s are.) But while Hart may not be the most well-known Lakers player, he may be the most open and transparent player on the team.
Hart wants you to understand him through social media. He recognizes that if you watch him for only 48 minutes on the court, he can come off as “a very serious guy.” But online, he’s an open book. He posts about his gaming habits frequently. He crowdsources Fortnite streams and has no issue responding to those who don’t like it:
He recently shared a video of a broken PlayStation controller he had launched at a wall. “Someone threw a Hail Mary in Madden and I lost,” he says.
Hart also lets his 425,000 Instagram followers know when he’s watching reruns of his favorite show, The Office. And when he references the show, he finds himself looking through the comments for fans who can relate.
Hart is even a frequent user of LinkedIn. His page is extremely detailed and lists his basketball accomplishments at Villanova—all 13 of them. I requested to connect with him, and the response came within days. (He confirmed.) Hart’s social media isn’t just a veneer or a handler responding in his voice; it’s really him. “Fans get to see a different side of you,” he says. “And you’re able to interact with them.”
Maybe Hart is so generous with fans because it was the fans who once saved his career. Hart struggled with Sidwell’s academic rigor in his first year there, and the school asked him to leave because of his poor grades. Singletary wanted Hart to get another shot, so he made the case for the school board to retain Hart. Singletary says the student body also started and signed a petition. It worked. Hart stayed, graduated, and then graduated from Villanova. Singletary, who had NBA aspirations himself after playing at Rice in the ’90s, says he sees a lot of himself in Hart. “He basically remixed my situation and took it further,” Singletary says. “That’s why it was easy to fight for him.”
Hart fought back after his initial year at Sidwell, and it was what led him to Villanova, and eventually the NBA. In many ways, he’s still fighting on the court and off of it as he tries to break into the Lakers’ starting lineup. On a roster full of marquee personalities, Hart’s game will speak for itself.
“He does the stuff you need at the end of the game,” Mermuys says, “and when teams kind of downsize, and it gets into a slower slugfest, guys like Josh Hart—you want them on the court.”