Houston Rockets superstar James Harden had to stare down a familiar face against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
Harden, an NBA Most Valuable Player and former Sun Devil, works out in Tempe during the offseason. ASU associate head coach Rashon Burno said he is a phenomenal mentor to college players.
Two years ago, Harden worked out in Tempe and gave some advice regarding hand placement on defense to an incoming freshman, Luguentz "Lu" Dort, that led to future headaches.
"It is cool to see (Dort) basically take those lessons and utilize them against James on the biggest stage," Daniel Marshall, ASU’s sports performance coach, said. "You can see him trying to keep his hands back, not reaching in, being strategic with his closeouts.”
It took Dort time to learn exactly how to use that advice, as according to Marshall, “Lu couldn't figure out James at all,” during pickup games that summer.
“Every time, Lu used to stick out his hand and get close to an offensive player," Marshall said. "Every time he would do that, James would go into a shot and get a foul."
Dort figured out how to implement that advice and made a large impact in games for the Thunder in the postseason.
His adjustments made Harden’s life difficult in round one. Harden shot 31.5% from the floor and 26.3% from three when guarded by Dort during the series, according to NBA statistics.
But before Dort made his mark in the postseason, he spent one year at ASU before declaring for the NBA Draft. After going unselected, the Thunder signed him to a two-way contract, meaning he’d split time in the NBA and the developmental G League.
"He never second-guessed his decision," Burno said. "He never got down on himself. He knew he had to work and prove some people wrong. That was his mentality. That's how he was when he got him."
As the season went along, Dort proved to be valuable for the Thunder, who was struggling to find a starting wing. Dort earned a spot in the lineup as a defensive staple by the end of the season, and Oklahoma City rewarded him with a four-year contract.
When the playoffs rolled around, Dort was set to take on the task of guarding the league’s top scorer, someone he knew a thing about defending: Harden.
Dort was putting a noticeable effort in keeping his hands out and back while staying in front of Harden with his sturdy 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame.
“His physicality is unreal,” Burno said. “The ability to take bumps and push offs and still have good footwork to contest shots was impressive.”
Around the country, Dort’s defensive performance in the playoffs as the “James Harden stopper” took many by surprise. But at ASU, some felt it was only a matter of time before the rookie had his moment.
"At that point, to me, he put in the work and had earned it," Marshall said. "He gambled on himself and won."
In the summer of 2018, recently graduated ASU guard Kodi Justice saw this first hand — taking the court in pick-up games against Dort and Harden.
Dort picked up his defensive assignment full court from the start. Afterward, Justice went up to ASU assistant athletic director Doug Tammaro, telling him “this guy is going to be special.”
“(Dort) has a (Russell) Westbrook mentality, a mindset where he doesn't care what's in front of him, he’s going head first,” Justice said. “He had the most energy, he never gets tired. Somebody with a motor like that is going to figure it out.”
He later found himself on the Pac-12 All-Defensive team as a freshman for the 2018-19 season and eventually in the NBA record books. In Game 7 of the series against Houston, Dort, who was struggling to score throughout the series, became the youngest player to score 30 points in a Game 7.
“I was just in awe of the kid,” Burno said. “For a kid like that to have that performance on that stage, it was pretty remarkable. Just to know what he's been through and the type of works he's put in, I was really happy for him.”
Justice said Dort "looked like he belonged. As a rookie, you want to go out there and show that you belong, and he did that."
After Dort's defensive showing against Harden during the series, it was Harden who got the last laugh, blocking Dort’s game-winning shot in the final seconds to end the Thunder's season.
But, Dort’s plan worked. Marshall said his intentions at ASU were simple: One year in college, then on to the NBA.
His route to playoff prominence was unconventional. After going undrafted and starting his career in the G League, Dort became a starter on a playoff team, nearly leading the Thunder to a Game 7 victory.
"Now he has to start over," Burno said. "He's still an undrafted rookie going into a second year. Take that same mindset, get better and have a plan."