Lindsey Harding sat in a VIP courtside seat Thursday night, long before the fans arrived, and watched Sixers rookie Zhaire Smith shoot three-pointer after three-pointer. Almost all of them splashed. Harding didn’t care.
She leaned to her left, where Raptors scout Kevin Gamble sat, and, without taking her eyes off Smith, said:
“Look. He tilts his head to the side a little bit. Gets it out of the way when he shoots.”
It was an almost imperceptible imperfection, but, for an expert like Harding, it stuck out like a sore thumb.
That’s the sort of expertise that, over the weekend, made Harding the seventh female assistant coach the NBA has seen. The Sixers promoted her from pro scout to player development coach on Monday. She is the first female coach in franchise history.
The Sixers hired her to scout last summer, but something like this was inevitable. This is just the next step on what the team is sure will be in a fast, fruitful climb.
“After we interviewed her this summer, everyone I spoke to about her said how driven she was and that her knowledge of the game was impeccable,” said Sixers general manager Elton Brand. He expects Harding to head her own team sooner than later: “Whether that’s the NBA, or a collegiate program — I don’t think she’ll be at the player-development level for very long.”
Harding joins Becky Hammon, who became the first full-time female NBA assistant in 2014, with the Spurs, and is now Gregg Popovich’s top assistant. Women’s legend Nancy Lieberman also has spent time on an NBA bench, with the Kings. Kristi Toliver coaches for the Wizards, Jenny Boucek for the Kings, Natalie Nakase for the Clippers, and Karen Stack Umlauf for the Bulls.
Harding was an assistant coach in the 2015 summer league for the Raptors, the summer that Hammon was the Spurs summer league head coach.
“I wanted to know what the differences would be. There were really no other women around,” Harding said.
“It was an amazing experience.”
She expects the same with the Sixers.
“This is the right opportunity and organization for the next step in my overall growth,” Harding said in a text message Tuesday morning as she made her way back from the women’s Final Four.
If it sounds like Harding chose the Sixers as much as she chose them, you’re right. She’s a hot commodity.
Brand was vice president of basketball operations when Harding became available last summer, after her year in the NBA’s Basketball Operations Associate Program. That initiative gives participants a taste of NBA jobs, from the league office through officiating. A half-dozen teams courted Harding, but, she said, the Sixers offered her what she really wanted: choices. After all, she’s just 34.
“I wanted to get my foot in the door,” said Harding said last month. She craved a taste of everything: “On-court coaching opportunities. Other front-office opportunities. Other scouting opportunities.”
No other team offered the entire buffet.
“The feeling here, the vibe, the support, growth -- the belief in me,” Harding said. “Knowing that I know the game.”
She certainly knows the game.
Harding was the No. 1 overall pick out of Duke in the 2007 WNBA draft. She played nine seasons in the WNBA, and she played for seven European teams as well. She spent this season scouting potential trade targets such as Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Boban Marjanovic.
But this season was more about self-discovery.
Harding discovered that “she likes to be on the court, working with the players,” said Brand, who was also a No. 1 pick in a draft out of Duke. “She’s such a special talent. You feel like she’ll excel in your organization wherever you put her. It’s about what she wants to do, and where she wanted to grow.”