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Montrezl Harrell transitions into a leader at Louisville

Oct 31, 2013, 4:00 PM EST

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It’s been a whirlwind year-and-a-half for Louisville sophomore Montrezl Harrell, and Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino has noticed plenty of changes in his 6-foot-8 forward since he stepped on Louisville’s campus last year.

“He wouldn’t talk last year,” Pitino joked to NBC Sports. “You thought he was just a shy kid from rural North Carolina, and now we can’t get him to shut up.”

Hailing from the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina — with a population of just over 13,000 — Harrell has quickly made a name for himself in the college basketball world after his breakout performance during Louisville’s championship run. He followed that up with a strong showing at the FIBA U-19 World Championships in Prague this summer with USA Basketball.

But up until this season, Montrezl (pronounced mon-TREZ, the “L” is silent) did most his talking through the powerful way he played the game of basketball.

At 6-foot-8, 235 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Harrell’s raw power was often on display in the form of thundering dunks and his play above the rim. Harrell once had 18 dunks in one 51-point high school game and also broke a backboard during practice his senior year of high school, but throughout many of those efforts he remained quiet. That didn’t change through much of last season, as he became one of the Cardinals key players off the bench.

“Montrezl is an easy transition (for us this season) because his personality has changed. He was a shy, introverted person and he’s taken on much more of a leadership role,” Pitino said. “He’s a kid from a rural part of North Carolina, he grew up in a very small town. So now he comes into a city and he has a great ending to his season and I think he’s taken it upon himself to show more leadership.”

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s American Athletic Conference Preview)

Montrezl is now more of a vocal leader as a sophomore, and will earn much more playing time this season after averaging 5.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 16 minutes as a freshman. But the transition from quiet country boy to NCAA Champion and potential NBA lottery pick took quite a few steps.

Harrell was originally committed to Virginia Tech and signed a letter of intent in the fall of 2011 when Seth Greenberg was coaching the Hokies. After Greenberg was replaced by former assistant James Johnson, Harrell wanted a fresh start and the Hokies allowed him out of his Letter of Intent in May of 2012.

Spending the year at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia, Harrell was a consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school, but fell more in the 70-90 range as many recruiting analysts didn’t expect him to be a major initial contributor.

But with a lack of big men available in the spring before the 2012-13 season, Harrell picked up scholarship offers from Alabama, Cincinnati, Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina before deciding on Louisville. Harrell’s relationship with Louisville assistant coach Kevin Keatts, the former head coach at Hargrave that placed Montrezl at the school without ever coaching him there, paid off for the Cardinals.

“We were lucky because Coach Keatts placed him at Hargrave, so we were lucky there,” Pitino said of Harrell’s recruitment. “But he was very shy; he was painfully shy. But he grew out of that in a hurry.”

Growing comfortable at Louisville became easier for Harrell when basketball became apart of the equation. Although quiet in the past, Montrezl always had a tremendous motor on the court and he quickly identified with how hard his teammates worked and focused on getting better.

“It was just the kind of team that they had,” Harrell said of his decision to attend Louisville. “I look around at these guys and they all really want to work and really get better. So looking at that and looking at myself and how I’m willing to do whatever role that Coach can think of, that’s kind of the overall feel for things. The way that Coach has a passion for the game, that’s something that really helped me out as a player.”

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

As the 2012-13 season progressed, Pitino noticed Harrell’s rapid improvement. By the end of the season, Harrell had a 20-point, seven-rebound performance in the Big East Tournament Championship win over Syracuse and also got minutes off the bench throughout the NCAA Tournament including a key role in wins over Colorado State and in the Final Four over Wichita State.

This season, Harrell has more expectations placed on him thanks to his postseason run and his efforts with USA Basketball this summer.

“He just grew with each week — he just kept getting better and better,” Pitino said. “And now he’s added the mid-range game, the jump shot to his game. He was very mechanical when he first came to us and he was basically a runner and a dunker. And now he’s added very good footwork to his game, he added a 16-foot jump shot to his game. He’s physically mature. He’s just added a lot to his game and gotten better week-after-week.”

The play at the end of last season got people’s attention, but Harrell’s play this summer during the U-19 World Championships in Prague has college basketball buzzing. On a loaded USA Basketball squad, Harrell started every game and averaged 10.6 points and 3.7 rebounds on 57 percent shooting to help lead the squad to the Gold Medal.

NBA people are also beginning to take notice as some have tabbed Montrezl as a potential lottery pick. Still, Harrell is only focused on the task of repeating as National Champions and this season he’ll play a much bigger role for the Cardinals in that quest for another title.

When NBA decision makers eventually go over Harrell’s pros and cons, his game may still be developing, but they’ll be able to check “winner” under the positives column.

“I’m just looking to work hard and maintain my intensity and take it to another level,” Harrell said. “Just trying to get better in every aspect of the game and just trying to do little things to make my game that much better and help my team win.”