LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Montrezl Harrell is the same guy, of course. He's the same athletic, 6-8 presence who can go into beast mode when he gets a whiff of a follow-slam or any other dunk to be had.
But he's not the same guy. Billy Donovan said it. Rick Pitino says it. He's not the same guy who averaged 6.4 points and 4.2 rebounds as a freshman for the Cardinals.
Early on during Harrell's stint with the USA Basketball Under-19 team, a couple of guys were late to a meeting and coach Billy Donovan got on them. When the meeting was over, Harrell got the team together and said, "This is not going to happen. Everybody needs to be on time."
"Billy was blown away," Pitino told Terry Meiners on WHAS 840-AM last week. "Not only by his physical improvement but by his mental game. And I've noticed that in our workouts. He's taken on a big leadership role within our basketball team."
Harrell's biggest game with the U-19 Gold Medal squad was his last. He had a team-best 17 points to go with four rebounds and four blocked shots in the gold medal game.
That was impressive. This was just as impressive to Pitino. After the long flight home, he was up in the morning for early weightlifting, and practiced with the team the next afternoon.
It was the same thing he did the day after winning the national championship.
"We won a national championship, but I kind of felt like my work wasn't done," Harrell said. "I need to improve my game and take it to the next level. We accomplished our goal and won a national championship, but it doesn't stop."
Pitino has said that he's going to take a look at Harrell at the five-spot this year, though he hasn't committed to anything, and Stephan Van Treese has been coming on in practice. Regardless, Luke Hancock told the media on Friday, "I could envision five guys on the court, switching everything. Everybody's able to play, able to guard."
Harrell's emerging leadership and work ethic, meanwhile, are helping to set a tone for a squad that returns the bulk of its roster after winning it all.
"His confidence is really coming out," Pitino said. ". . . Nobody works harder than him, so he feels he can take on those leadership roles."
Harrell enters the season with high stakes personally. He's moved into the draft lottery projections of many mock drafts. A good season puts him in position for a seven-digit payday. He knows that. He also knows that the team has a chance to do something special, with the bulk of a championship team returning.
"We pretty much have the whole team coming back, except for two guys," Harrell said. "So everybody knows how it feels to be in that spotlight. So we should be ready to come back in and work and get back to where we was. Nobody should be thinking about partying, thinking about doing this or that. We should be ready to lace up our shoes and get ready to go."