It was before the season started, perhaps October, Jay Wright estimates, when Josh Hart and his coach were talking about Hart’s game and his development entering his senior year on the Main Line.
The comment was just one made in passing. Hart told Wright he just needed to focus on being a 3-and-D player.
“He got heated,” Hart recalled, laughing.
“I just knew that was something that somebody else told him and I knew it was something that limited him in terms of just saying all you can do is shoot threes and play defense,” Wright said.
The lesson from Wright to Hart, as Hart tells it: “Don’t ever put a label on yourself. Don’t ever undermine what else you can do.”
Approximately three months later, Hart’s label is much more than just a guy that shoots three’s and plays D. He’s the frontrunner for the National Player of the Year award, whether you prefer the Naismith or the Wooden Award. No Villanova player has won either. He's averaging 20.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game while shooting 56 percent from the floor.
He’s the best player on the nation’s best team, which is, of course, coming off a national championship victory in April.
Credit where credit is due: Hart would probably be nowhere near the top of the Wooden Award contenders if not for the players around him. Both he and Wright acknowledge that. These awards and their winners typically feature players from some of the nation’s best teams. When Phil Booth returns, Villanova will have arguably the best seven-man rotation in the country. Hart makes players around him better and vice versa.
What cemented Hart’s name atop the lists was his performance in Villanova’s come-from-behind win over then-No. 23 Notre Dame earlier in the month. His final stat line in his 37 minutes read: 37 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two steals in a 74-66 win. The 37 points came on 14 shots from the floor and were padded by a perfect 14-for-14 from the free throw line.
Per ESPN Stats, Hart became the first player to score at least 35 points and grab at least 10 rebounds while shooting greater than 70 percent from the floor against a ranked team since Antawn Jamison did so for North Carolina in 1998.
What did Jamison do in 1998? Won both the Wooden and Naismith Awards.
In Villanova’s next game, against crosstown rival Temple, Hart missed his first five shots but later scored 22 points in a nine-minute stretch to blow the game open.
Wright says was Hart just taking what the opposing defenses gave him in both of those performances. Validation to that comes in his shooting percentages. He isn’t taking bad shots. After missing his first five against Temple, Hart made 10 of 14.
In the three games leading up to the Notre Dame game, Wright said Hart, on tape, should’ve had three triple-doubles. So Notre Dame elected to play him one-on-one and Hart took what they gave him.
“I’d really love for it to work out for him, but it’s more important to me that he learns how to play the game the right way, which I think he is, and continues to play that way,” Wright said. “Because I think that’ll be his best chance of being Player of the Year… I also think it’s his best chance of playing at the next level, and it also happens to be the best chance for our team to be the best team.”
The next level is still a question mark for Hart. He’s obviously showing NBA scouts he has what it takes to play at that level. But he’s nowhere near the top of any draft analyst’s draft boards. ESPN’s Chad Ford has Hart ranked 29th on his 2017 big board.
The underdog role has been one Hart is used to since he stepped foot on campus at Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C. Since coming to Villanova, he's waited patiently to be where he is now, both as a leader and player.
“I’m not going to be the most glamorous guy,” Hart said. “If you look at the box scores, you’re not going to be like, ‘Josh Hart, that guy is a player.’ Some games, like Notre Dame, you might. I want to be the guy that scores 15 points but goes and grabs 10 rebounds, goes and gets 5-6 assists, gets some steals, gets some blocks, fill the stat sheet. I don’t value myself on whether I’m making or missing shots. If I do that I’m not doing everything else.
“If you want to value this game on scoring, I’m not going to be the frontrunner. I’m not going to be the first person you think of. If you value this game for what it is, for being a complete basketball player, that’s what I try to be. I might not score 25 points per game, but I’m going to make the winning plays. If that doesn’t put me in certain situations (the NBA draft), it is what it is.”
It’s the winning plays Hart’s making that have Villanova back atop the college basketball world at 12-0. The Wildcats have won 18 in a row dating back to last season. That number will likely hit 19 Wednesday when they open their Big East slate with DePaul before their biggest test to date: a road game at No. 9 Creighton.
Last year in Omaha, Hart went for 25 on 10 of 14 shooting vs. Creighton. Just two of those baskets came from beyond the arc.
And he wanted to just be a 3-and-D guy?