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The mutually beneficial mentorship of Montrezl Harrell and Devontae Cacok

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Lakers fans may be ready to forget this season, but Devontae Cacok will always remember the chance he got to learn from Montrezl Harrell.

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Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Way back in April, as Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope talked to the media on Zoom about the state of the team and when their injured stars might be back during a road practice in a swampy high school gym in Tampa Bay, Florida, two-way player Devontae Cacok could be seen where he’s existed for nearly the entirety of his Lakers tenure: In the background, going about his business behind a teammate the world was paying more attention to.

For Cacok, this is nothing new. The relatively anonymous, undersized and undrafted sophomore center may have won an NBA championship during his first year with the Lakers, but he’s hardly been anywhere near the focus of the team or its fans as the organization competes for titles.

But something about this moment was different, because it wasn’t just Cacok in the background, working alone on his game in solitude, or getting up extra shots with an assistant there to rebound for him as he tries to improve. Instead, in the middle of a shortened and expedited NBA season that left the Lakers so exhausted and beat up that they could barely stand by the end, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell was playing full-speed 1-on-1 against Cacok, giving the second-year big man an up-close-and-personal look at the undersized center Cacok has been trying to pattern his game after since his four years in college at UNC Wilmington.

Now, at just 27, Harrell is hardly old. But still, an established veteran stopping in the middle of the season, after a full practice, to play 1-on-1 against a young player who was inspired to success by watching them in the NBA isn’t exactly par for the course, especially in a season that prioritized rest above everything else. But whether the seemingly tireless Trezz just wanted to put some extra work in, was trying to mentor Cacok, or a bit of both, we’ll never know for sure. One thing we do know, however, is that Harrell did make an effort to help Cacok this year, because that’s what his own veteran mentors taught him to do.

“He kind of plays that same position I do. We’re kind of utilized at the undersized 4 and 5 position,” Harrell said. “Just being able to be around him and actually work and battle against him every day, it was great.

“I had great veterans in guys like Trevor Ariza, who was probably one of the best vets that I ever had in this game so far, him and Lou Will(iams),” Harrell continued. “Just being around those guys taught me how to be a pro, and for him to feel that way about me, (I know) that I did the right things that my vets taught me.”

Harrell and Cacok’s relationship actually began before the former joined the Lakers, during Cacok’s rookie season. And while they had some mutual basketball acquaintances in common, it was actually a chance encounter at a Los Angeles area Apple Store — and the insistence of Cacok’s mom — that started a conversation between the two.

It’s funny to picture now, two NBA players in a high-end tech chain, shooting the breeze about what it takes to make it in the league, all as overworked Genius Bar employees wonder why a giant in full Clippers sweats in Harrell — Cacok insisted with a laugh that Trezz wasn’t wearing any of the more audacious pre and postgame outfits he’s known for — is passing wisdom on how to become an undersized basketball Energizer Bunny to a bashful-but-gigantic 23-year-old, likely wearing the team-issued Lakers sweats he’s almost always rocking. Given the two teams’ pseudo rivalry at the time, it must have looked like a platonic version of basketball’s Romeo and Juliet, the equivalent of one of the league’s Montagues meeting with a Capulet to covertly offer tips on finishing over taller rim protectors, all while Cacok embarrassedly tried to end the conversation as his mother, Rose, insisted Harrell keep talking.

“She really started the conversation. He was more so like ‘why are you doing this mom? We’re kinda close to the same age,’” Harrell said, smiling at the memory. “But the conversation was great, man.”

The two obviously hit it off, and when Harrell joined the Lakers the very next summer, Cacok didn’t need his mom’s help to start picking his teammate’s brain again.

“It was a surreal moment for me, being able to go from being compared to him in college, our games resembled each other, we’re undersized but we’re going to play hard and all that stuff, and he kind of just took me under his wing. Just gave me his knowledge as well,” Cacok said. “He’s definitely given me a lot of his game and a lot of his knowledge as far as how he plays his game.

“He’s definitely helped me out, and I appreciate him for doing that with me.”

For Harrell, it was just an opportunity to pay forward what his own veteran mentors did for him.

“When you come in this league, you experience different types of relationships. Some guys haze, some guys make you get bags and all that, but I went to Houston, that was a little bit older team and guys later on in their years, guys like Trevor Ariza, James Harden, Michael Beasley was on that team, Jason Terry,” Harrell said. “To be around a group of guys like that and actually learn from them was actually great, and like I said, I’m blessed to be able to have that and pass it down to the guys that I’m around who are younger than me.”

So while this season may feel like a waste for nearly everyone on the outside, for a player on the fringes like Cacok, it was still an invaluable chance to develop and try to establish his place in the professional basketball world. And for as much as Cacok clearly valued the opportunity to learn from a player whose game he admired from afar, Harrell got just as much from the chance to pass his wisdom down, whether it was during a random conversation in an Apple Store, or during an otherwise forgotten practice in an ultimately lost season.

“It’s a tremendous relationship, man. He’s a great guy,” Harrell said. “I’m actually glad to be able to have a person like that under my wing and be able to have him call me a vet.”

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.