The Houston Rockets knew Isaiah Hartenstein’s value. They also knew he didn’t fit within their radical small-ball style.
It was from that perspective that Hartenstein’s agents approached then-Rockets general manager Daryl Morey last year and asked him to consider his future. When the Rockets waived him in June, it was an amicable split that was initiated out of Hartenstein’s best interests. Before the season was suspended due to COVID-19, Hartenstein hadn’t played since early February.
“With the Rockets, every time they gave me an opportunity I performed,” said Hartenstein, now comfortably in Denver. “But it was just, I guess, a weird situation.”
Teams were interested in adding him before the “Bubble,” league sources said. Hartenstein wasn’t eligible.
But when free agency came around, the Nuggets were among many suitors. Portland, Cleveland, New Orleans and Washington were all interested in acquiring the mobile 22-year-old 7-footer, according to league sources. He’d shown flashes but hadn’t had a sustained opportunity.
When free-agent center Mason Plumlee left for Detroit, the Nuggets had an opening. They’d been scouting Hartenstein for years internationally, where he’d played in Germany and Lithuania as a teenager, and were impressed with his mobility and toughness.
But the Nuggets had another call to make. During the 2017-18 G League season, Hartenstein had played with Monte Morris on the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets’ developmental squad. Throughout the season, the duo had developed strong chemistry in the two-man game. When the Nuggets asked the Nuggets’ point guard his opinion of Hartenstein, Denver’s “pied-piper,” as he’s become known, raved about him. Hartenstein had called Morris, too, and asked about a potential fit.
“There were just a lot of faces where I could ask them any question,” Hartenstein said, noting he’d also crossed paths with PJ Dozier in the G League. “I just felt like it was already a family atmosphere.”
When they pitched him, they sold Hartenstein on a system that had found roles for previously undervalued players like Morris and Dozier. Nuggets president Tim Connelly convinced Hartenstein that he’d have a role, but more than that, he’d be able to grow. They agreed on a two-year deal with a player option two days after the start of free agency.
“They really wanted me to come here,” Hartenstein said.
It didn’t take long for him to ingratiate himself to his new home. Ahead of the Nuggets’ Christmas Day game against the Clippers, Hartenstein wore a custom shirt from the Denver-based organization “Be a Good Person,” and, in conjunction with “Snooze an AM eatery,” helped raise funds for “No Kid Hungry.” The limited edition shirts are available for sale, with a portion helping to provide meals to children across the country.
On the court, the early returns are just as positive. Hartenstein’s already proven he’s a roving, physical big man with boundless energy. He’s made an early fan of Nuggets coach Michael Malone simply by playing hard amid Denver’s slow start.
Culturally, Hartenstein has fit in seamlessly.
“From top to bottom, they treat everyone great,” Hartenstein said. “It’s not just like they treat their superstars good or certain people. Top to bottom, they want everyone to get better. In general, as a culture, even the players just want the best for each other.”
And that was the last part of Denver’s pitch. No other organization could offer the opportunity to learn alongside All-Star Nikola Jokic.
“To me, he’s the best center in the NBA hands down,” Hartenstein said. “The way he sees the game, the way he plays, it’s hard to mimic that. I think at the end of the day, it was a big thing for me coming here was to learn from him.”
Hartenstein said Jokic is an open book. If Hartenstein has questions about schemes or coverages, he knows he has resources available to him.
“Whenever he sees something, he tells me about it,” he said.
But what Malone and others have noticed about Hartenstein is that communication doesn’t flow in a one-way direction. He said veterans in Houston encouraged him to ask questions if he wasn’t sure of something. The 22-year-old isn’t bashful, and Malone loves his talk.
“To act like I have the same knowledge of a person like Paul Millsap, who’s been playing in the league for 15 years, would be delusional,” Hartenstein said. “I don’t think a lot of people (ask questions), but to me, if I don’t know something, I’m not going to act like I do.”
According to Malone, Hartenstein knows his role and knows who he is as a basketball player. It’s a refreshing attitude for a young player — lean into what makes you valuable instead of harboring delusions of the player you’re not. In Denver, Hartenstein has an organization that believes in him and a front office that actively pursued him.
“I don’t think I’m even close to my potential,” he said. “I’m happy that Denver believes in me.”
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