Photo courtesy: Curtis Martin, Over the Line Sports
Raptors 905: 111 – College Park Skyhawks: 104, Box Score
“This year’s been a tough year for me for sure, especially off the court. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve had to deal with.”
If Tuesday was Raptors two-way guard Ron Harper Jr.’s last home game in a Raptors or Raptors 905 uniform, he ought to be proud. Not just for the output: career highs in points (30), rebounds (10), and assists (11), all coming in a win to keep the 905’s playoff hopes alive, but for the circumstances that were baked into the 22-year-old’s first professional season.
Harper is a New Jersey kid. He was born in Paterson, where his mother coached him as a grade schooler. At 18, he enrolled at Rutgers University in Newark, a 22-minute drive down the Garden State Parkway. After four years as a Scarlet Knight, Harper went undrafted, got picked up by the Raptors, and moved to Canada.
“It was an adjustment period. I miss my family a lot.”
On November 10, Harper put up 23 points and 10 rebounds in the first game of a back-to-back set against the Westchester Knicks. Asked about preparing for the second half of the series, Harper announced he would have to miss it for his brother’s funeral.
“I learned that I’m resilient,” Harper said about lessons gleaned from his first professional season. “I feel like that comes from where I was raised. My mother is a big part of that. (With everything I’ve had to deal with,) it makes it real easy to show up to work every day knowing that I got guys on the 905 and the Raptors that look at me as family, and that makes me smile for a couple hours of my day. I had to overcome a lot this year, but at the end of the day that’s what makes me a great person, a better player, so I’m thankful for everything I went through.”
On the court, Harper has dealt with the uncertainty and transience of an undrafted two-way player with grit and grace. He’s only appeared in four NBA games, logging 14 total minutes. While some two-ways might turn their resulting G League stints into personal stat-chasing quests, Harper has emerged as the 905’s most efficient guard (50.3 FG percentage), and the vocal leader of the team.
Harper’s leadership first showed itself in the same game we learned was the eve of his brother’s funeral. Former 905 forward Reggie Perry had already picked up a technical foul and was toeing the line for a second and an ejection, until Harper physically stepped in and delivered a message to the team’s leading scorer and rebounder.
“Don’t let the game get away from you, big fella,” Harper intimated to Perry. “Your impact on the floor is key for us to win so we need you to be out there. I just told him ‘it’s not worth it bro.'” Perry did finish the game, logging 20 points and 10 rebounds in a seven point victory, and was appreciative of Harper’s timely advice.
“It’s good to have someone that young, in their first year in the NBA, to be that mature,” said the 23-year old Perry, who’d played in 36 NBA games compared to Harper’s none at the time of the conversation. “That type of stuff is contagious.”
“I was like Reggie,” Harper reflected. “Sometimes I let the game get away from me. I can’t help it. It’s an emotional game. When you’re not getting calls or you’re missing shots the game gets the best of you. So I try to be that reassuring teammate that tries to make you know that ‘it’s ok. We’re all gonna mess up.'”
The season wore on and the 905 were mired in mediocrity, never able to climb further than three games above .500. Harper’s style of play never waivered. He’s taken six shots or fewer in five games, and the team is a plus-27 in those contests. Harper credits his unselfish and adaptable ways to his entire basketball career before his latter years in college. He was never the best player on any of his teams, so he had to be a role player, a spot most legitimate NBA prospects never experience.
Raptors 905 Head Coach Eric Khoury saw Harper retreating into that dutiful role-playing mindset in his early days as a Raptor. In scrimmages he noticed Harper sprinting to the corner, waiting to knock down a three if the ball came his way, leaving the shot creation to his new teammates. But in the G League, Harper can work on his playmaking chops, which fully bloomed in the home finale. He offered value in so many diverse ways, including drive and kicks:
attacking unbalanced defences:
(You get it.)
“He’s really grown as a player,” Khoury said.
“I don’t walk into the gym thinking I’m better than anybody,” Harper said in October during Raptors 905 training camp. “Whether I’m walking into the OVO Centre or whether I’m walking into G-League practice. I walk in the gym with the same mindset: that I gotta go out there and I gotta earn it and I gotta prove it.”
Prove it he has, culminating in his first career triple double on Tuesday. Harper was a known scorer and rebounder at Rutgers, but had never tallied six assists in a college game, let alone 11. Harper credits the amplified assists total to the coaching staff and the onus being on the recipient of those passes to actually score for it to count as such. While the counting stats are impressive on their own, they also came in a must win game, with the team devoid of assignees and their lead guard and scorer Jeff Dowtin Jr.
“There’s never pressure. I love it,” Harper said of playing in crunch time with the game, and in this case, the season on the line. “In college when it was a close game I used to tell my teammates, ‘this is where boys become men and men become boys. Who you wanna be today?’ That’s the mindset I carry into the game. Today we were a bunch of men out there.”
Today Harper is a two-way player for the Raptors. In a couple months, who knows? Harper demurred when asked if he’s had conversations with the Raptors front office about next season, not because he isn’t hopeful of a more sturdy NBA future, but because it’s not worth his time.
“A lot of this stuff is a lot bigger than me so I’m just going to keep showing up every day, try to bring energy to the building and be the best guy I can. That’s it.”
The 2022 NBA draft had 58 selections, and Harper wasn’t one of them. When Harper signed his two-way with the Raptors, he declared that he had “58 reasons to work,” meaning he wanted to prove every team wrong for not selecting him. Pending an unlikely jump into a Raptors’ postseason roster spot, Harper has two more G-League games to show the Raptors and other NBA onlookers that his understated but effective style is worthy of another contract.
The pervading NBA mantra goes that if you’re not a star, you need to be a star “in your role.” In his first professional season Harper has shown he has the stats and the intangibles every team says they want. The Raptors have first dibs on Harper, as they can extend a qualifying offer in the summer to make him a restricted free agent. He’s played well, in diverse ways, and improved throughout. But given his complete lack of NBA burn it is very possible the Raptors just aren’t interested.
Perhaps Harper will add another team to the list he’s ready to prove wrong.
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