One of our New York Knicks writers, Aidan Kunst, was able to interview NBA prospect, Darius Garland’s high school coach.
Vanderbilt basketball was a mess this year. 9-23 overall, 0-18 in the SEC. The entire coaching staff fired.
This wouldn’t have seemed possible just a year ago. They had five-star recruits Darius Garland and Simi Shittu were leading a rebirth of Commodore basketball. The Commodore’s were expected to be contending for an SEC title. Just two minutes into the fifth game of Vandy’s season, though, that all changed. Garland tore his meniscus, thereby finishing his (and Vanderbilt’s) season.
“I think they’d have won twenty games [at Vandy]. I think they’d have been a top 25 team because [Garland] made everyone around him better,” Hubie Smith, Garland’s high school coach at Brentwood Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, told me.
Garland sat on the sidelines while players like Murray State’s Ja Morant and Duke’s RJ Barrett established themselves as the consensus second and third best players in the 2019 NBA draft class. Barrett is the player everyone wants the Knicks to select with the third pick. I would argue that Garland should be the pick on June 20th.
“He has no weaknesses,” Smith said.
“He can score at any position, he can score out to thirty feet, he has great midrange, he’s great with his right and left, floaters, around the goal, he’s a great passer. He’s a great shooter, he can play at any spot, and do really well.” While that might be a stretch, it’s true that Garland profiles as an electric scorer at the next level.
In five (he played just two minutes in the fifth) games at Vanderbilt, he averaged 16.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.6 assists, on .537/.478/.750 shooting. That 48 percent mark from behind the arc. This is why I think Garland can be the next great scoring guard, and conversely why he will be a great fit alongside potential superstars. Whereas an RJ Barrett has to be the focal point of an offense to be successful.
I asked Coach Smith about that as well. If the Knicks were to sign a guy like, say, Kyrie Irving, would a Garland-Irving pairing work? “[Garland] is best with the ball in his hands. Kyrie is best with the ball in his hands, too, but the thing is, Darius is such a good shooter. When Kyrie kicks it, Darius will make it. So I’m not saying that that is the perfect matchup in the backcourt with Kyrie, but I think he’ll do very well.”
Garland may not have the notoriety of an RJ Barrett, but in today’s NBA, I would rather have someone who can shoot and space the floor at a high-level than an isolation scorer with tunnel vision. Another key separator between the two? The end of games. “[Garland] doesn’t miss free throws at the end of games,” Coach Smith told me. “Ja [Morant] isn’t a great free throw shooter. And RJ [Barrett] is terrible. He’s in the sixties. And Darius is going to end up being around ninety. At the end of the game, that’s very important.”
Garland, while not the passer nor rebounder Barrett is, can shoot the lights out, and has one of the tightest handles of anyone in the class. That ability to be effective at the end of games is critical, and when a team doesn’t have to worry about missed free throws down the stretch, it is a huge benefit.
When I talked to Smith, I really wanted to find out more about Garland’s intangibles; his drive, his will to win, and his character. How would he respond to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden? Smith was confident.
“I think he would respond great. All I can tell you is the bigger and the brighter the lights, the better he played, every year,” Smith said. “His senior year, we went to the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions. I was worried to death about him trying to do too much, pressure being on him, how he would respond going back [to Springfield, Missouri, where Garland’s father played]. And he was by far the best player in that tournament. I had at least two people tell me they voted him for MVP even though we didn’t get to the championship game. The brighter the lights, the better he play. Always has.”
While I’m not disputing Barrett’s ability to excel in high-pressure situations, it was clear that Garland had the same skill, and that he had been doing it since high school. Of course, I also had to ask Smith about my biggest issue with Garland: his defense.
When I raised those concerns, Smith seemed unperturbed. “I actually think he’s a very good defender,” Smith said. “The big thing is, when you get to that level, you’re guarding six-four, six-five players. But he is always one step ahead. He’s ahead of what you’re doing, he anticipates well…So, you know, he’s a terrific defender and he’ll do well wherever they put him.”
Before I ended the interview, I really wanted that story about Garland, the parable that all the great ones have that seems ridiculous on the surface, but illustrates their greatness. Smith did not disappoint. Smith told me about summer practices at Brentwood, when Garland had been playing for weeks straight at various events across the country. He would ask Coach Smith to let him shoot instead of practice because he was so tired, and Smith obliged.
“[Garland]would come in, and it wouldn’t be 15 minutes into practice, and I’d look up and he’d be in the middle of the drill. I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said ‘I couldn’t stand it.’ It would be a four on four drill where he could score, and he would just jump in because he couldn’t stand it. And even though I’d give him permission to sit out practice, he’d jump in, he’d never sit out.”
Garland’s work ethic and drive set him apart in high school, and continue to make him stand out, even amongst players like Barrett, Morant, Jarrett Culver, and Coby White. He’s already a fantastic shooter, a wizard with the ball in his hands, and a basketball genius. Now, he’ll get to work on any perceived weaknesses – and make sure they become strengths.
“That’s probably why we won four state championships with him, because he bought into everything we said, wouldn’t let us lose, worked his rear end off, was our hardest worker every year,” Smith told me. “He’s a gym rat, he loves it, he’s a great teammate, every kid that plays with him loved playing with him.”
In Smith’s mind, and in mine, Darius Garland should be the pick at number three on June 20th.