Cooney: NBA noticing that 'Nova's Hart is a winner

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Villanova guard Josh Hart (3) takes a shot past American forward Lonnie Rivera (15) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016, in Villanova, Pa.

VILLANOVA trod into unfamiliar territory on Wednesday after DePaul had ripped off a 14-0 run late in the second half and taken a lead over the nation's No. 1 team. A little bit of loose ballhandling by 'Nova and steady play from the Blue Demons threatened the Wildcats' 18-game winning streak that started in their NCAA Tournament title run.

Coach Jay Wright wouldn't say he steered the game a particular way in those final minutes, instead praising his three seniors and sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson for pulling out the 68-65 win. But make no mistake about it: Either Wright or senior guard Josh Hart put the game, the winning streak and the No. 1 ranking on the shoulders of Hart, who very well could be the favorite right now to win the college player of the year honors.

Hart halted the DePaul late-game run with a free throw. He followed that with a huge defensive rebound in traffic with the game tied with just over three minutes to go, converting that to a basket at the other end. He finished out the game with a dribble-drive and-one and another drive that led to two made free throws. He saved his biggest heroics when he drained a three from the top of the key with 9.5 seconds left for a 66-62 lead.

"That is the kind of performance that NBA teams will look at and love," said a league executive. "He put the No. 1 team in the country on his back in the final three minutes and did everything to get them the win. He can probably make a living in the league.

"A lot of the different aspects of his game need work - shooting, ballhandling - but he just has the intangibles where teams would really like to have him. Sometimes it's more than just shooting and size and speed. Sometimes it's about the character of the person and how they carry themselves on the court. He does that very well."

Hart's hopeful climb into the NBA certainly isn't the way most go into the league these days. He will be 22 before this season ends, which is the same age as 76ers centers Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel and older than Jahlil Okafor. He will finish his four-year career on the Main Line having garnered as many accolades as any Wildcats player, to go along with that 2016 national title.

The next step to his basketball life would seem obvious for some - a long life in the NBA that would earn him millions of dollars. And that might be exactly what happens. But Hart knows the realities of the situation; that he wasn't projected as a first-round pick after last season and for him to climb that draft ladder, playing a fourth year of college basketball was a necessity. Only, his view is so much narrower right now. Yes, he wants to play in the greatest league in the world and he fully knows improvement in many areas of his game is essential. But his is a tunnel-vision world when it comes to basketball now, with all sight lines focused on Villanova.

"I pay attention to what I can control and what's going on on that court and nothing outside of that concerns me," said Hart, who is averaging 20.5 points a game while shooting 55.8 percent from the floor and 40.9 percent from three. "It's about playing for my teammates, playing for my coaches. Those are the guys who are with me through thick and thin. Those are the ones that you cry with, that you bleed with. Nothing else really concerns me. I have to be focused on helping this team.

"I hear that (talk of NBA) and those are things that I can work on in my off time. But that doesn't concern me. When I'm here, I have to be dialed in 100 percent to Villanova basketball. Whatever coach tells me to do, that's what I've got to do, even if it's the exact opposite of what I heard I need to do for the NBA. Right now, I'm not playing in the NBA. I have to be dialed into Villanova and be the best player I can be for this team and that this team can be the best team they can be."

Coming out of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., where he averaged 24.3 points and 13.4 rebounds as a senior, Hart wasn't pegged as someone who would soon make the leap into the NBA. Far from it, actually. But Wright saw everything that he looks for from a recruit in Hart and zeroed in on him immediately.

"What you saw in him when he was young was athleticism, great competitiveness, a great work ethic but not a great skill level," Wright said. "Not a good shooter at all. He had a scorer's mentality, though. We said if we could work on his shooting, because he had good size, and improve his decision-making as a guard, because he played power forward in high school, we thought he could be a pro. But we knew it would take time. You don't do that in one year. We definitely saw pro potential."

In a society that is all about immediacy when it comes to results, Hart exhibited unparalleled patience when he entered his name in the NBA draft following last season, but he did not hire an agent so to keep his college eligibility. He worked out for teams. He listened closely to the feedback; he was considered most likely to be a second-round pick. That didn't sour him or put him in any kind of funk. It just fueled the 6-5 1/2, 215-pounder to improve his game and focus his energy on his team rather than himself. Not an easy task at all.

"He is a very good college basketball player," said another NBA executive. "I think he is an early second-round pick. I think he can be an end-of-the-bench guy in the league to begin with and then you see if he can shoot it well enough in our league."

The intangibles Hart possesses will keep doors open longer for him in the NBA. Whether his skill keeps him there remains to be seen.

"I thought last year the NBA did a great job of evaluating him," Wright said. "When he went through the process, they said that they couldn't guarantee him going in the first round. He might, but probably take him in the second round. I think that's where he was. He said he wanted to come back and get better.

"He's improved his shooting. He's improved his decision-making, he's gotten stronger, his assists are off the charts. He has great leadership and maturity. I think he's a steal for an NBA team because he's got all the intangibles."

Late in that DePaul game, Hart was 0-for-5 from three-point range. But with his team up a point and under 10 seconds remaining, he broke his man down off the dribble and rose from beyond the arc. Everyone in the gym knew he was going to take that shot, and still it couldn't be stopped. Not because Hart is that great of a shooter; he is just that big of a winner.

"That's what winners do," said an NBA scout. "They think of nothing else that has happened before in the game. They just go win it. He's a winner."


cooneyb@phillynews.com

@BobCooney76

Blog: philly.com/Sixersblog

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