It was just like old times. Josh Hart entered the Davis Center at Villanova and prepared to join some of the Wildcats for an offseason workout.
But the four years on the Main Line that saw him win a national championship, consensus All-America honors and the 2017 Big East player of the year award are gone. Instead of being an active Wildcat, he now is an NBA player, having come off a rookie year with the Los Angeles Lakers that saw him improve steadily as the season went on.
“It’s just weird because the last four years, I’ve been a part of this,” he said last week. “Now I’m more of the old head. I’m not an outsider because I’ve been here, I’ve played here and I know all the guys. But I’m kind of gone and removed from everything. So it’s a little different.”
The difference for Hart was apparent in making the transition to the NBA after being selected in the first round, No. 30 overall, in last June’s NBA draft by the Lakers, who obtained the pick from Utah. He struggled early, averaging 3.2 points in his first 21 games, and was even sent to the G-League for two games.
“I was in this [Villanova] program and it’s a family in every sense of the word,” he said. “In the league, it’s still that way but to a certain extent, and I kind of struggled with that at first. I think that was a big part of those struggles. Then when I kind of just came to terms with things, things started opening up for me.”
After growing frustrated of being unable to take advantage of his opportunities, Hart saw his game turn around after coach Luke Walton gave him his first NBA start, Dec. 14 at Cleveland. He not only scored in double figures for the first time in his career but also put up a double-double – 11 points and 10 rebounds.
“I think that’s where things changed,” he said. “I think Coach started having a little bit more faith in me, started giving me more trust, started giving me some bigger opportunities and I just tried to take advantage of those throughout the season. I think I did a pretty good job of it.”
Hart, who missed 14 games in March with a broken finger, averaged 7.9 points and 4.2 rebounds in 63 games. However, in his 23 starts, he put up 13.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, shooting 49.6 percent from the field and 42.2 percent from three-point range. He posted eight double-doubles and scored 20 or more points in each of his last four games.
“Early on, opportunities were slim, so it was very frustrating and I wasn’t having fun with it,” he said. “I just got back to knowing who I was, the kind of player I am, and it was like being a kid on the playground again, going out there and having fun and just competing.”
On a trip east this month to visit friends and family, Hart often worked out at Villanova and had some opportunities to speak with Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, both of whom find themselves with the same difficult decision as Hart had following the 2016 championship run.
Hart entered the NBA draft process that year and came close to leaving before opting to return, which he said was the best decision he could have made.
“The best thing for me was to come back and polish the things that I needed to work on, get my degree, and then kind of go in [to the NBA] more mentally and physically mature,” he said. “I thought I had an above-average rookie year and I think most of that was attributed to coming back here, maturing, working on my body, working on the skill set that I needed to.”
Hart said he’s not making a recommendation on what DiVincenzo and Spellman should do but just offering some assistance.
“I’ve been through this situation and I know it’s tough, the hardest decision they’re going to make in their lives right now,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Whatever you guys think, it’s cool with me. I have nothing to gain from it. I’m going to try to help you, at least be someone who knows y’all and wants the best for y’all.’”
In the meantime, Hart will continue to follow his alma mater. He was one of several former Wildcats to watch in person in San Antonio when his team defeated Michigan for its second national championship in three years.
Of course, the comparisons started there as to which Villanova team was better – 2016 or 2018. And yes, Hart has a strong opinion on that.
“We’d kick their [butt],” he said. “We’re not the team that’s going to score 90. We could on a given night, but you’re not going to score on us like that. We would have gotten up in them. They wouldn’t be shooting all those threes. We would be more physical. It just wouldn’t go the way they thought it would go.
“I think they’re a little delusional. They’re a little high right now with that championship run. But they would not mess with us.”
Hart knows, however, that he played a major role in the sustained excellence that has been enjoyed by Villanova over the last five years – an 88.7 percent winning rate, two national championships, three Big East tournament titles and four conference regular-season crowns.
“I see them working now,” he said, “and I think that’s the biggest thing. They’re not complacent with how they ended last year and that’s a great thing to see.”