The fierce heart of Jared Harper

The 175-pound junior point guard has silenced doubters and solidified his legacy on the Plains

Jared Harper has heard it all before.

“You’re too small.”

“You’re too short.”

“You’ll never play in…” fill in the blank.

Yes, the 5-foot-11 Harper has spent his entire basketball life dealing with doubters. But instead of letting them beat him down or hold him back, the diminutive Auburn point guard has used his detractors as motivation to make him what he is today—one of the best basketball players in the SEC.

“That has been the knock on him his whole life, and that’s why he plays with a chip on his shoulder,” said George Washington, Harper’s coach at Pebblebrook (Georgia) High School.

Washington, whose teams a few years back featured Harper in tandem with former Alabama standout and NBA lottery pick Collin Sexton, quickly recalls some of the things the little man with “the heart of a giant” heard as he was coming up.

Harper against Duke | Courtesy Auburn Athletics

People told him he was too little to be a point guard in Class 7A basketball in Georgia, so he went out and dominated that level. They told him he would never be recruited by major colleges, so he earned a scholarship to Auburn. They told him he would never do well at Auburn, so he earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors twice in his first season and was named second team All-SEC by the Associated Press and the SEC coaches after his second. None of this surprised Washington, however.  

“He hears that criticism and rather than get upset about it, he embraces it,” Washington said. “What I have always loved about Jared is that he’s not going to tell you he can do something, he’s going to show you he can do it.”

There is no doubt Harper has been a big part of an Auburn squad that stands 21-7 overall, 10-7 in the SEC and on the brink of its second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament—something that hasn’t happened since Sonny Smith’s Tiger teams went five straight years from 1984-1988.

Auburn is currently tied with South Carolina for fourth in the league standings with its regular-season finale coming up Saturday against Tennessee at home. The Tigers also swept rival Alabama this year, including a 66-60 win in Tuscaloosa on Tuesday night that may have put a pin in Bama’s NCAA Tourney balloon for this season.

Harper came up huge in that victory, scoring 16 points, including two layups within the game’s final 1:10 that sealed it for the Tigers. It was simply what he expected from his experienced point guard, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “Put the ball in his hands, get out of the way and let him go downhill,” Pearl said.

Once again, a tall challenge met head-on by Harper.

“I was definitely going to attack,” Harper said. “I knew coming down the stretch I was going to have to finish. It was on me.”

Courtesy Auburn Athletics

It’s something he’s made a habit of this season, whether it was finishing off a team late as he did Alabama or earlier in the season when he scored 21 of his team’s last 25 (and a career high 31 total) in an overtime win over UAB or early with some of the league’s best 3-point shooting.

Led by Harper and backcourt buddy Bryce Brown, the Tigers have already set a school record for made 3s in a season with 330, breaking the old mark of 324 with seven against Alabama. Brown leads the way with 100-of-250 (40 percent) and Harper is second with 76-of-198 (38.4 percent). After Tuesday night, the two stand second and third in the league respectively in 3-point field goal percentage behind only Arkansas guard Isaiah Joe, who had hit 100-of-236 (42.5 percent).

Harper stands second league wide in assists at 5.8 per game, which trails only Tennessee’s Jordan Bone at 6.1 per game. He also leads the Tigers in minutes played, averaging 33.6 per game.

Maybe Pearl described it best after a 78-75 win at Georgia on February 27, one in which Harper had 22 points and 5 assists while playing 38 minutes. “He willed us to win on both ends of the floors,” Pearl said.

After the 2017-18 season in which he averaged 13.2 points, 5.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game, Harper considered leaving for the NBA. But fortunately for him, Pearl and Tiger fans, he smartly heeded the feedback that said he should stay in school another year.

With the Tigers cracking the 20-win mark for the second straight year, the spotlight has often been on Harper as he has raised his scoring average to 15.2 (eighth best in the league) and shot 81.4 percent from the free-throw line, also eighth best in the league. Those who have watched closely—in particular NBA scouts, he hopes—have also seen him be a more vocal team leader this year and improve as a finisher, especially among the tall trees often standing in the lane between him and the basket.

Photo: Wade Rackley /Auburn Athletics

Washington believes the decision to return for another season has benefitted Harper. He says the player he sees now is stronger physically, a better leader and simply one of the best college point guards in the country.

“I’m happy with whatever decision a kid makes that is a good decision, and he made a good decision for him,” Washington said. “Some people said that sometimes he was not as vocal a leader as he should have been, so this year he has spent a lot of time being a vocal leader. Also, he’s worked on showing the NBA scouts that he can finish over the big guys, and we’ve seen him do that, especially in the Maui Classic where he had several huge dunks over big guys. He has definitely showcased that he can finish in traffic.”

Harper and Brown were voted second team All-SEC in the coaches’ preseason poll. Harper was also named to the Bob Cousy Award preseason watch list and the Lute Olson Award midseason watch list, one of 30 players to be evaluated for the annual award. He has a chance to take home plenty of hardware this offseason, but what he wants most, of course, are SEC Tourney and NCAA Tourney trophies.

Then he should have another chip to brush from his shoulder in the NBA. Washington is convinced that if NBA folks will look hard and concentrate on what they are seeing instead of what they aren’t, Harper will be another of his former players making their mark in “The League.”

“Teams have got to look over how small he is,” Washington said. “I can’t wait to see what team really gives him a chance because he’s going to kick the door in and be a really, really good player for them.” H&A

 

All photos courtesy Auburn Athletics 

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Jimmy Creed

Jimmy Creed

Jimmy Creed is the former award-winning sports editor of The Anniston (Alabama) Star and editor of Saints Digest, the official team publication of the New Orleans Saints. He is a two-time winner of the Alabama Sports Writers Association Herby Kirby Award for the best sports story in the state of Alabama and has received numerous writing awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors, the National Motorsports Press Association. and the Alabama Press Association. He is also the author of NASCAR legend Donnie Allison's biography "Donnie Allison: As I Recall."
Jimmy Creed

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