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Examining the struggles of Ron Harper Jr.

The Rutgers forward is in deep funk, but there should be hope he will rise up down the stretch of this season.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first seven games of the season, Ron Harper Jr. was playing like an All-American and a First Team All-Big Ten player. He averaged 23.4 points per game and only scored under 20 twice, posting 18 points in the season opener against Sacred Heart and 15 points vs. Hofstra. The rim was looking large for him, as he was shooting 56.4% from the floor and 50% from three-point range on 50 attempt. In addition, he was averaging 7.1 rebounds, only grabbing less than 6 once.

And then during the Christmas break, Harper Jr. sprained his ankle, causing him to miss the Purdue game on December 28. He returned the following game on January 2, which was the first meeting against Iowa this season. While he didn’t look 100% healthy and was just 5 of 15 from the floor for 13 points, Harper Jr. still made 3 of 8 from behind the arc and had 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 1 block. It wasn’t the “Ron Fire” level we had gotten used to seeing, to quote the Rutgers Court Club, but it was still a solid performance.

Little did we know it was the start of a steady decline of play that has progressed into mid-February. The concern now is in the nine games since the first Iowa contest, Harper Jr.’s production has nose dived. He has only exceeded 13 points in a game twice and grabbed more than 6 rebounds just three times. It’s not the level we’ve come to expect from him, especially for a player named to the late season Top 20 Watch List for the Wooden Award, which is given to the national player of the year.

I thought it was time to take a more detailed look at his overall performance and the potential path for him to ultimately break out of the funk he is currently in.

In the nine games since his return against Iowa, Harper Jr. has averaged just 11.2 points and 4.8 rebounds. The most glaring deficiency in his performance has been his three-point shooting. He has made just 5 of 40 attempts for 12.5% during this stretch, including 0 of 16 over the last four games. Last night in the rematch against Iowa, Harper Jr. had open looks from deep but couldn’t connect.

Last season, the now junior shot 34.9% from three on 109 attempts. This season, he is now shooting 33.7% on 98 attempts. Perhaps this is an extreme evening out from the start of the season to back to what will ultimately be his normal three-point average, but focusing just on this part of his game would be short sighted.

One positive over the past month plus is that Harper Jr. has been effective offensively in other ways. He is shooting 51.6% from two-point range over the past nine games, falling under 50% in just two of the last nine games and only four all season. However, he is taking less than 7 shots per game from inside the arc during the past nine games. That’s simply not enough for a lead player that is shooting 55.0% this season from two-point range and 53.3% for his Rutgers career. An over reliance on shooting three-pointers has become the core reason for his struggles statistically.

Harper Jr. is quite effective form 8-10 feet away from the basket, as he uses his body well in creating forward momentum towards the rim. You almost never see him fadeaway from the basket when taking a shot and he has almost abandoned posting up defenders. Not only would attacking the rim generate more high percentage shots than he is taking right now, it would also get Harper Jr. consistent trips to the foul line.

He is a career 69.8% free throw shooter and while that’s not anything special, it’s solid and something Rutgers needs him to do more of. Over the last five games, Harper Jr. has stepped up from the line, making 18 of 22 for 81.8% from the charity stripe. However, last night he had just one attempt, converting on a three-point play the hard way, as getting to the line was an issue Rutgers had as a team in the loss to Iowa.

The troubling part of his shooting woes now is how it is starting to negatively impact his overall game. The past three contests specifically are concerning in that he has averaged just 2.7 rebounds and committed 6 turnovers, after only having 7 turnovers in the previous 14 games. He still has the 11th lowest turnover rate in all of college basketball and 3rd lowest in Big Ten play, but that’s what makes the recent uptick so alarming.

Frustration seems to be setting in.

Head coach Steve Pikiell was asked about his recent struggles after the loss to Iowa and he said, “He does a lot of things for us. Everyone will look at stats and everyone looks at shooting percentage. Life isn’t easy in this league. When you have good game, the team you play next is going to make sure you don’t have one. Ron’s learning to live as the top guy on the scouting report.”

That last point is telling and certainly part of the problem. The picture I used for this article in the lead shows Harper Jr. being double teamed by Luka Garza and Jordan Bohannon. Opponents are doing everything they can to make him a non-factor. It’s no secret that Rutgers was playing at an elite level when Harper Jr. was on fire to begin the season and teams are doing everything possible to prevent that from happening again.

The biggest issue for Rutgers is that he seems to get worn down mentally after missing a few shots from three-point range, leading him to defer to others down the stretch of games. His confidence seems to be lacking right now. He deserves the benefit of the doubt that he’ll ultimately get it back.

When it comes to this team, Geo Baker is the soul, Myles Johnson is the backbone and Ron Harper Jr. is the engine. Without him revving on all cylinders, Rutgers has proven to still be good, but they simply aren’t the same team they were to start the season.

I’ve always believed that for Rutgers to reach its true potential as a team, they need Harper Jr. to be the top scoring option. I’m not saying Geo Baker should be supplanted as the first option in the closing minutes of games, as it’s a role that he has rightfully earned. Rather, Harper Jr. is the guy who needs to be a consistent scorer throughout the game that prevents scoring droughts and sustained runs by opponents. That component is sorely missing for Rutgers right now.

That being said, Harper Jr. has never been a one dimensional player. He was an outstanding defender last season and was even named preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year by Lindy’s this fall. This season, he hasn’t played at that type of level and while he has been inconsistent on the defensive end, he is still an above average defender.

He is clearly the second best rebounder on the team, but Rutgers needs him to actually be that in most games and that isn’t happening either.

Offensively, I think Harper Jr. is closer to figuring things out than it may appear. In order to regain his mojo, Harper Jr. can make a big impact by attacking the rim more so, while also focusing on being more consistent with defending and rebounding. There is no way he will continue to shoot so poorly from behind the arc, but for now making the other parts of his game the priority will help him regain his confidence and get back to being the consistent productive player he has been most of his career.

Lastly, when and not if, Harper Jr. regains his stroke from behind the arc, it will make Rutgers that much harder to beat down the stretch of what can still be a special season. It’s coming and I have a feeling the struggles that he is fighting through right now will only make him that much more dangerous come March.