Jimmy Carter is an award-winning reporter covering Arkansas football and basketball for WholeHogSports.com. He was born in Texas and grew up in Tulsa. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
Analysis: What to expect from transfer Jalen Harris
New Mexico's Jalen Harris (5) moves the ball past Boise State's Paris Austin (30) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Boise, Idaho, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. New Mexico won 81-70. (AP Photo/Otto Kissinger).
FAYETTEVILLE — Jalen Harris’ favorite basketball player is John Wall, for obvious reasons.
They both played point guard at the same North Carolina high school, Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh. Harris played his AAU ball for Team Wall, funded by the former Kentucky All-American and current Washington Wizard NBA All-Star.
And while Harris, a New Mexico transfer who committed to Arkansas on Friday, isn’t in Wall’s stratosphere as a player, the Razorback coaching staff is hopeful he will fill an important role as a speedy, playmaking point guard in the future.
He was a lightly recruited prospect out of high school and is coming off a modest freshman year at New Mexico, a solid Mountain West program. His AAU highlight reels are flashy and impressive:
But the bravado he displayed in summer ball was at odds with and somewhat muted by the stodgy, deliberate style the Lobos played under former coach Craig Neal, who was fired in late March. Harris wanted a fresh start.
Arkansas was wiling to give it to him. He flashed his point-guard skills, athleticism and potential in his one year at New Mexico and the Razorbacks are betting he will blossom in an up-tempo, free-flowing system. It was a primary selling point Mike Anderson and his staff used to secure a commitment from the 6-foot-2, 160-pounder.
Harris’ averages in his lone season in Albuquerque won’t wow anyone, to be sure: 4.5 points per game, 2.3 assists, 1.8 rebounds, 1.3 turnovers and 0.8 steals in 20.6 minutes per game. He started 18 games and shot 43.9 percent from the floor, 25.9 percent from 3-point range and 74.5 percent from the line.
There’s the chance he’ll be that kind of player at Arkansas, too, of course. Perhaps he is destined to be a rotation player, a contributor but not necessarily a difference-maker. That wouldn’t be the worst thing ever. There is value in that, after all.
But the skills he possesses and his physical gifts suggest he has a good deal of room for growth, a ceiling belied by the bottom line from his year in the Rio Grande. Freshman production isn’t always indicative of potential. Surrounding circumstances play a factor.
Harris was a role player for New Mexico, sharing point guard duties in a mid-tempo system on a team with a pair of preseason first-team Mountain West selections, including preseason player of the year Elijah Brown, the Lobos’ shooting guard. Harris picked his spots, only taking 3.5 shots a game and mostly deferring to experience, not uncommon for a freshman. He had a string of good performances in late December and January after earning a starting role, but waned as the season wore on and he seemingly hit the proverbial freshman wall.
But in Harris’ (and many freshmen’s) case, game tape can outweigh the raw numbers. In other words, potential can outweigh production. The film from his freshman year shows why Anderson and his staff deemed him worthy of a scholarship.
This isn’t Seth Curry transferring to Duke. Harris isn’t a perfect prospect and has definite flaws he must work to improve upon to succeed in the SEC, but he has tools that, if properly honed, could make him a valuable piece of the roster in the future.
For starters, he is athletic. At 6-2, impressive hops allow him to dunk with ease in the open court. His quickness is a real asset and he looked to push the pace when possible last year, even in a New Mexico system that got out in transition nearly 7 times a game less than Arkansas did, per Synergy Sports' tracking data. He was an average finisher on the break, but an exceptional passer, playing in the open court with his head always up, ready to fire an on-point outlet pass over the top of the defense, slip a no-look dish for an easy deuce or hit a spot-up shooter before the defense is set. Those skills should translate very well to Fayetteville, where he will be given more opportunity to run.
Harris’ best skill may be his handle. His AAU highlight tapes are an And-1 caliber treat. But what generates hype on the summer-ball scene doesn’t always fly in Division I basketball, so Harris’ fancy dribbling was dialed down once he hit college. No more Shammgods. The crazy combo moves mostly vanished.
But he was still shifty with the ball at New Mexico, able to handle it on a string and pull off high-degree-of-difficulty moves in tight spaces. The ballhandling and his quick first step allowed him to get where he wanted to go on the court.
He leans on quick crossovers and a sharp in-and-out dribble to break down defenders but will mix in hesitations, change-of-pace moves, spins and behind-the-back wraps to create separation — basically whatever the situation calls for. He averaged 1.033 points per possession on a limited number of isolations, per Synergy, placing him in the 84th percentile of ballhandlers nationally last year.
When he gets past defenders, he proved he can score in a variety of ways when he actually looks to. How his mindset does or doesn’t change with age and in a new system will be interesting to observe.
His perimeter shot was a weakness (more on that in a bit), but he was efficient from closer, hitting 50 percent of his jumpers inside the arc, including a sizzling 57.1 percent on jumpers 17 feet and in. His ability to pull up and elevate from 15 feet for a smooth shot was impressive, a nice tool for a point guard to have to keep the defense guessing.
He was an impressive finisher when he penetrated all the way to the basket, too, especially given his size and lack of strength. He shot 55 percent around the rim in the halfcourt, a better mark than Jaylen Barford and Dusty Hannahs, albeit against weaker competition. His go-to move when he gets into the paint is a hanging scoop shot, but he can hit runners and floaters, too. He didn’t show the ability to finish with his left hand as a freshman, which led to a number of lefty drives blocked at the rim early in the year, but he began to counter with a nifty reverse layup he was able to convert at a solid clip.
If Harris’ handle is his best asset, his vision and passing acumen is a close second. The real appeal of his game lies in combining his scoring potential with his ability to create looks for his teammates, talents Arkansas guards have rarely possessed in tandem at a high level in recent years. In that sense, taking a player with Harris’ skill set was a no-brainer. It isn’t a stretch at all to assert that he has better vision than any of the returning players on the roster.
He assisted on 20.4 percent of New Mexico’s possessions when he was on the court, a better rate than any Arkansas guard (Daryl Macon’s 16.4 assist rate was closest). His vision was apparent and he can play with flair, including this especially spicy behind-the-back assist he whipped in traffic after splitting two defenders on a pick-and-roll against Nevada in late January (apologies for the shoddy video quality):
His command of the pick-and-roll game was impressive for a freshman. He can split ball screens with big-league moves, turn the corner by beating a hedging big or deny the screen and race to the rim the opposite direction depending on how the defense reacts.
Once he’s in the lane, he is a willing passer when he draws help, able to read the defense and dish to bigs for point-blank looks or identify open shooters if weakside wing defenders stunt down to bump roll men. He also showed the ability to patiently dictate the defense to create passing angles, slowing and surveying the scene while drawing opponents to set up drop-offs to bigs and cutters.
He wasn’t perfect, to be sure. His 22.9 turnover rate is proof of that. He forced his share of high-risk, high-reward passes into traffic. That will happen to ambitious distributors, especially ones adjusting on the fly to a new level of competition. He had plenty of sloppy, careless miscues, too, mistakes that also aren’t uncommon for a freshman tasked with being a primary ballhandler. But his 1.8 assist-turnover ratio was solid for a freshman and as good as any of Arkansas’ older, more-experienced guards.
Harris will need to diligently attack his transfer year to improve in 2 main areas: shooting and strength.
The biggest question mark about Harris’ offensive game is his outside shot. He made exactly half his shots inside the arc, but didn’t take many 3-pointers (27) and shot just 25.9 percent from deep. That will have to improve for his playmaking to be fully weaponized, otherwise defenses can simply sag off and play the drive when he has the ball or sink down and help off him, essentially ceding an open 3, when he’s off the ball. Either scenario inhibits his impact and New Mexico opponents started doing both by the end of the year, which served to cramp spacing and make life a little tougher on his teammates.
But he isn’t a lost cause. He does have a repeatable shot with fairly solid mechanics and generally good balance, but he brings the ball down to his waist on the gather every time, an action that slows his release. This may have been a big part of why he almost never made a contested catch-and-shoot 3.
Making his release more compact might improve his shooting, considering he had a 57.7 effective percentage on open catch-and-shoot jumpers. His good mid-range game and the 74.5 percent he shot at the line suggest he has potential as a shooter, especially as he grows stronger. Coming up short was as much a factor in his misses from 3 as anything else, an issue that could be greatly helped by a year in the weight room.
Adding strength and gaining weight during his year off is a must. He arrived at New Mexico weighing around 155 pounds and has to continue getting stronger if he wants to excel in a more physical SEC. His quickness will be somewhat negated if he isn’t strong enough to effectively play through contact.
Improving his body will pay dividends on the defensive end, too. Harris didn’t lack for effort on that end of the court. He competed, but the results weren’t always there. Added bulk would help him fight over screens better and wall off penetration more successfully. He will have to work on sitting down in a stance and sliding on a more consistent basis. He was a little jumpy at times at New Mexico.
How he adjusts to a new system on that end of the court will be very interesting to watch. Per Synergy, Arkansas pressed 437 times this season in what was a light year pressure-wise for the program. New Mexico, on the other hand, pressed just 81 times.
In the halfcourt, New Mexico often either dropped its big on ball screens or had the big soft hedge at the level of the screen. Arkansas typically defends much more aggressively, meaning Harris will have to adapt to playing a new way.
The good news is he has plenty of time to get stronger, improve his weaknesses and grow comfortable in the new system.
Harris will sit out the 2017-18 season, per transfer rules, but will have 3 years of eligibility remaining. He will become eligible as the much-hyped 2018 recruiting class arrives on campus.
That class, comprised entirely of Arkansas Hawks players to this point, features a highly touted, all-around stud forward (Reggie Perry), a bouncy big (Ethan Henderson), a dead-eye shooter (Isaiah Joe) and a defensive-minded combo guard (Desi Sills). There isn’t a pure point guard in the group.
Justice Hill fits that description. The Hawks’ lead guard and a Razorback commit in the class of 2019, Hill has considered reclassifying and graduating early in order to arrive on campus at the same time as his AAU teammates. That may wind up being the route he and his family choose, but Harris’ presence could give Hill the luxury of redshirting if he did decide to reclassify, like guard Hamidou Diallo did at Kentucky this year.
However it works out, there is reason for optimism about Arkansas’ point guard situation moving forward. A Harris-Hill combination isn’t John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, but the Hogs are hoping the latest addition of a speedy point guard with a tight handle and good vision will help fill an important need down the road.
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