NEW YORK — There are no two ways around the fact that the annual draft discussion is ridden with familiar tropes. From the vernacular to player archetypes to unavoidable NBA comparisons, the established manner of explaining the why behind a prospect tends to center around analogy. It’s the nature of the conversation. It’s not lost on Josh Hart.
The Gauchos Gym is one of New York City’s storied basketball facilities, proudly located in the South Bronx. The Gauchos AAU program lists Chris Mullin, Stephon Marbury and Kemba Walker amongst its many alumni and is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. Hart, the former Villanova standout has been living and training here in the city since his season ended in March. Hearing him talk like an old man in an old-school gym, the metaphor hits you over the head a little bit.
“The NBA now is more about the younger guys who are freak athletes, where you can take a risk,” Hart explains. “It’s about potential.” Despite his serious cachet of college accolades, Hart is not a consensus first-round pick in an upcoming draft where the first 10 players selected very well might be be college freshmen. There’s a scenario where no college seniors are picked in the first round at all. Hart’s entire life is figuratively ahead of him, but he’s borderline geriatric within the broader sphere of the draft.
Hart is not elderly by any measure—he’s 22. Seated in a black leather office chair, he can hardly keep himself from swiveling back and forth. His Jordan XI’s, which were purchased well before the release date, scream NBA prospect, but his battered J. Cole iPhone case screams, well, college. He insists he actually likes practicing in sweatpants (which despite Nike’s tech upgrades, are great as pants, poor for sweat). College was not so long ago. For basketball perspective, he was born in March 1995, four days before Zach LaVine and nine ahead of Jabari Parker. Both already have years of NBA experience under their belt.
Over the last couple months, Hart’s been driving and flying between pro workouts and graduations and more workouts, his longtime girlfriend’s upcoming matriculation from nearby Rutgers next on tap before flying to audition for teams on the West Coast. The core of his pitch is simple: “You don’t have to groom me and see what happens.”
It’s fair to say everyone’s already seen a good chunk of what happens: Hart’s Villanova teams went 129–17 in his four seasons, an astonishing run by any standard. They won four straight Big East regular season titles and the 2015 national title. Hart graduated as the leader of the winningest senior class in the nation. “We actually figured that out last night,” he says, chuckling. “That winningest is actually a real word.”
His list of accomplishments runs further still: Hart was a first-team All-American and won conference player of the year as a senior, won the sixth man award as a sophomore and won conference tourney MVP in each of those seasons. Villanova never lost a game when he scored at least 20 points. He increased his minutes, shot volume and scoring average all four seasons while remaining remarkably consistent everywhere else across the board.
Hart entered the draft a year ago to mixed feedback: he wasn’t athletic enough, didn’t shoot it well enough, lacked an elite skill by the NBA’s uneven standards. He returned to school to prepare a response. “It wasn’t just about getting to the league,” he says. “A lot of people can have their foot in the door and have an opportunity. I want to stay and have a long career. One year early of comfort for my parents [versus] being able to take care of them 10 years down the line, that was a no-brainer.”
Hart’s strong senior season was a small boost to his stock, and he has NBA traits that teams can't ignore. “He’s an ideal 3-and-D player, is somewhat athletic, can defend multiple positions and has this toughness, a chip on his shoulder. He improved his three point shooting and changed his shot,” says one NBA scout. He noted Hart’s strong pro day and better mechanics but questioned how much of a playmaker he could be going forward.
“He’s a safe pick, a high-floor, lower-ceiling type player,” says a different scout, who praised Hart’s work ethic and college background. “His shooting has gotten better but can he be a knockdown NBA three-point shooter? He’s not too dynamic of an offensive player and lacks great ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays.”
It goes to show that evaluating prospects is a fuzzy, relative process that varies from team to team and ultimately falls in the hands of a few decision-makers. Hart will get a chance to play in the league, but a first-round selection means guaranteed money, and stability in knowing a team is truly invested in you. He’s receiving looks in the 20s, but by draft night will have worked out for every team picking between 25 and 36. It’s tough to know. “The cliche of a four-year player is that the ceiling isn’t as high,” he admits. “I think that’s more about how you approach it.”
Over the course of the last two months, he’s harped even further on the finer points—reinventing himself, as he puts it. He’s aiming to increase his positional versatility and add another dimension to his game. “You see Draymond Green, Trevor Ariza, those types of guys playing the four…I think I can translate that, defend those guys in the post and little guys on the perimeter.” He’s adjusted the release on his jump shot, added wrinkles to his ball-handling and woken up at 6 a.m. to lift weights. He’s done his on-court work with well-known trainer Idan Ravin. He harped on his lifting technique and says he feels more familiar with his body. “I scrapped everything I knew my whole life.”
There’s some irony in an All-American shooting guard preparing himself to play power forward, but it’s also a sign of the times. And after Thursday, ceilings and floors will be irrelevant. “You don’t see me in L.A. living the dream life in these crazy facilities. I’m in New York working my butt off. I’m not someone you have to court. I’m a blue collar guy. I do what I need to do,” Hart says. Here’s to old dogs and new tricks.