It could have been as simple as a facial expression. It might have been verbalized. It is hard to say, considering the stress of the moment, and also how many times it happened last season, whether at Indiana March 2 with the game tied at 63 and just a few seconds remaining Ron Harper Jr. explicitly told his coach, Steve Pikiell, to “give me the ball” in the final timeout huddle. Harper had long since become a vocal leader in timeouts, and so he could have said it, but it also might simply have been an understanding, the default, the glaringly obvious thing to do.
“You have a kid playing in front of 18,000 at Indiana, every seat is full, on the biggest stages, any game we needed to go the NCAA Tournament,” Pikiell said. “And you’re in those huddles, and you just know what it is: ‘Give me the ball.'”
This is the legend of Ron Harper Jr. In his four years at Rutgers, Harper – the son of a former five-time NBA champion – morphed from a little-regarded three-star prospect into a Big Ten star and late-game killer, all while elevating a moribund program to its first NCAA Tournaments in nearly four decades. When the Toronto Raptors gave him with a two-way deal after Harper went undrafted, they landed one of the more interesting collegiate development success stories of the past four seasons, not to mention a potentially very interesting NBA piece.
It is hard to overstate just how traditionally nonexistent Rutgers men’s basketball was before Harper Jr. arrived. Pikiell’s third year was Harper’s freshman season. Pikiell took a minor risk on Harper, who didn’t have many high-major offers, which is the sort of thing you have to do at a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 38 years. It became readily apparent right away that Harper had been a late-developing steal, and it was Harper’s class (with Myles Johnson and Montez Mathis) that elevated Rutgers from 130th in the KenPom.com adjusted efficiency rankings in 2017-18 to 78th the following season and then 28th the year after that. Rutgers would have easily broken its tournament drought in 2020 had the event not been canceled, but the Scarlet Knights bounced back the following season (and won a game in the tournament) anyway.
“I remember when he came here, everyone in the metropolitan New York area said he couldn’t play at this level,” Pikiell said. “As he got better, our program got better. He came to a school that was not sexy at all. He made it sexy. ”
Harper sealed his icon status in Piscataway not just by building the program or returning for his true senior season, but in leading Rutgers – sometimes singlehandedly – back from its disastrous start to the 2021-22 campaign. Pikiell’s team lost to DePaul, Lafayette (rank: 323rd) and UMass in nine days in November, the kind of stretch that can end your hopes of a tournament bid early. But on Dec. 9, at home against Purdue, Harper made one of the shots of the season, a half-court heave to upset the loaded No. 1 Boilermakers.
That shot, like other buzzer-beaters Harper hit down the stretch of the season, garnered most of the attention, and understandably so. But Harper was unguardable in the entire second half. He made every prior big shot to keep his team in that game in the first place. This would become a theme of the year. Harper’s game developed to the point that he can now score effectively at all three levels, and opposing defenses reliably struggled with his matchup, particularly when Harper got his moves and counters going late. Playing a guard against him would get you buried deep behind his, ahem, width in the post; matching up with a big man would get you dragged uncomfortably away from the rim. Harper shot 40 percent from 3, and took 44 percent of his field goals from behind the arc. He didn’t overdo it with the midrange stuff either, attempting just 22.7 percent of his field goals as two-point jump shots, per Hoop-Math.com.
Alongside the development of his skill package, Harper offers unique physicality. He stands just under 6-foot-6 in shoes, which is not traditionally ideal, but his strength and sheer density means he doesn’t get moved on the low block, and he often switched between guards on the perimeter and the Big Ten’s endless supply of traditional centers. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He gives off a bit of the PJ Tucker / Grant Williams vibes; you could see him as a player who makes up for his lack of height with strength and perimeter versatility, and he can handle the ball and play a bit of guard better than either of the aforementioned. And there is much physical potential yet to unlock – which is also a part of the risk of the pick. Harper arrived at the combine with 14.5 percent body fat. He has always carried a bit of timber. Can Harper he refine his body, and get his feet fast enough, to make all of his strengths work together at the NBA level?
Harper has a long history of steady development, from his four years in high school to the four years that made him a cult hero in college. “His best basketball is very much ahead of him,” Pikiell said. “Somebody’s going to take him, and in a few years you’re going to say: ‘Wow – what a great pick.'”
(Photo: Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)