This was the sort of thing Harry Giles thought about when he chose to go to Duke – the ACC tournament championship, the jubilation in the locker room, the piece of net wrapped around a souvenir hat, hanging in front of his eye like a happy reminder.
“I'll keep it on my face,” Giles, the Duke freshman forward, said that strand of net, which he cut from one of the baskets at the Barclays Center after the Blue Devils' 75-69 victory against Notre Dame on Saturday night in the ACC tournament championship game.
This part of it, Giles always saw coming: the highlights and the celebration, the steps up the ladder to cut down a piece of history. It was just everything else. It was another knee surgery, and it was the time on the bench and it was the waiting – and what a long wait it's been – to feel a little like himself again.
“The championship is definitely what I expected,” said Giles, once considered the can't-miss, top prospect in his high school class. “Something I kind of dreamed about as I committed and stuff. The journey was something I definitely didn't expect. I'm not even going to lie about that.”
It has been a long, strange freshman season for Giles, who in October underwent his third knee surgery in three years. And yet now, approaching the end of that season, he is finally providing glimpses of the old Harry, the one who during his high school years so often tantalized college coaches and pro scouts.
The first ACC tournament in Brooklyn will be remembered for how Duke conquered it. The Blue Devils became the first team to win four games in four days on their way to the championship. Duke won the tournament for the 14th time under Mike Krzyzewski, who has now won the tournament more often than any coach.
Those were the big stories, the most important ones, from Duke's trip here. Giles' emergence, meanwhile, won't be forgotten, either – at least not by those who have been waiting so long for him to do some of things he did last week at the Barclays Center.
Looking at the box score, it'd be easy to discount. Giles finished with four points and four rebounds in nine minutes against Notre Dame. During a victory in the semifinals on Friday against North Carolina, he scored six points and had seven rebounds and four blocked shots in 15 minutes.
In both games, the numbers only told part of the story. Let his teammates tell the rest.
“He's very close,” Jayson Tatum, the star freshman and Giles' best friend, said in the locker room late Saturday night. “He's just getting more reps and believing in himself. And he's there. He's back. And we believe in him.”
Said Frank Jackson, the Blue Devils' freshman point guard: “For me, I've seen that Harry for a while now. It just – it takes time. He's been through so much with both of his knees and whatnot. So that's the Harry I know. That's the Harry everybody knows in here.”
Tatum and Giles and Jackson, the expectation went, were supposed to come in and have the same sort of success as Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones did at Duke two years ago. Like those three, Tatum, Giles and Jackson were expected to help lead Duke to a national championship.
And now, entering the NCAA tournament, nobody would be surprised if it happened that way. Tatum has been as good as everyone expected, if not better. Jackson has developed a knack for making timely, clutch shots when Duke needs them most.
And, little by little, Giles is becoming himself again. If one of his moments will endure from the past week, it will be his dunk against the Tar Heels during the semifinals. It came off of a lob pass, up high, and Giles finished the play without a hint of the injuries that have so often plagued him.
“That was a flashback of what he used to do all the time,” Tatum said.
And yet for Giles, the journey continues. In a literal sense, it moves on to the NCAA tournament, where his contributions will be important for a Duke team that lacks the depth of some other national title contenders. In a figurative sense, Giles is still working his way back, too, from his knee problems.
Just a week earlier, before the ACC tournament, Giles stood on the free throw line during at loss at UNC while many in the student section serenaded him with a chant of “over … rated.” The chant persisted until UNC coach Roy Williams, who recruited Giles for years, told the students to stop.
Giles heard the words, though, and said they inspired him this week – especially in the semifinals.
“It was something that I remembered,” Giles said, “and I wanted to prove them wrong and show them that, OK, you can call me overrated if you want to, but I'm going to show you what's up.”
During four days at the ACC tournament, Giles showed “what's up,” to use his words, more often than he had for long stretches of the regular season. He still didn't play more than 15 minutes in any game. He still didn't score more than six points in any game.
But if you looked closely, Giles looked something like the player he's constantly compared against: his old self. He acknowledged late Saturday night that he still has “a long ways to go.” Giles continues to chase a version of himself that he believes is out there. That's not his destination, though.
“I'm trying to be better than my old self,” he said. “And I'm getting there. That takes time.”