If Rutgers wants to take advantage of the opportunity of the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years, Ron Harper Jr. needs to play like the player he is capable of being. After a sizzling hot start to the season, opponents made shutting him down a priority and adjusted accordingly. The junior forward has battled through it all and as the most important Rutgers game in decades approaches, there should be hope that Harper Jr. will be ready for the big stage.
In the first seven games of the season, Harper Jr. 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 50.0% from three-point range on 50 attempts. In addition, he was averaging 7.1 rebounds, only grabbing less than 6 once.
Harper Jr. then sprained his ankle in practice and missed the Purdue game, returning one game later in the showdown at the RAC against Iowa. He didn’t look like the same player in that game and truth be told, he hasn’t ever found the same groove that he began the season in.
A big reason why is as good a player as he had become, shooting 50% from three-point range just wasn’t sustainable and it was only a matter of time before he started to cool down. Then you add teams game planning against him, his ankle sprain, working Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell back into the offense, all while becoming too reliant on the three and it just seemed for a combination of those reasons that Harper Jr. struggled to find any rhythm.
Part of the problem was his preference to play along the perimeter instead of attacking the rim. This put more pressure on him having to hit jump shots and made him easier to defend. He became one dimensional and when a few didn’t fall in the early part of games, his confidence seemed to wane. This is something he battled with most of January and February.
Even during his struggles though, Harper Jr. has been consistent in scoring in double digits in 20 of 25 games this season. However, he went through a stretch in early February where he was held to single digits in four of seven games. He averaged only 10.3 points per game on just 33.8 shooting from the field. Harper Jr. was mired in a miserable 1 of 27 slump from three-point range and his body language indicated he was struggling to regain his confidence.
The good news is Harper Jr. has recently made the adjustment to be more assertive on the offensive end and it has resulted in him playing much better of late.
In the past five games, he is averaging 15.0 points on 51.9% shooting, including a solid 36.0% from behind the arc. He scored 20 or more points twice during this five game stretch after failing to hit that scoring mark at all since his hot start in December. His willingness to get into the paint and use his body so well in getting mid-range and close looks at the rim has been a major key to his improved play. Playing inside out, instead of hanging around the three-point arc, is when he is at his best.
His renewed style was on full display in the loss to Illinois in the Big Ten Quarterfinals. Harper Jr. was the lone bright spot on the night, scoring 21 points on 7 of 13 shooting. The most notable stat was just one shot attempt from three-point range. In a game that Rutgers was getting outmuscled by the Illini, Harper Jr. was punching back. It proved he doesn’t have to make threes to be an effective offensive player.
“I feel like teams are closing out on me, so I’m trying to utilize my pump fake and my dribble more,” he said after the loss to Illinois last Friday. “Shooting open threes is great, but teams are over contesting now so it’s time to use the pump fake, get into the lane, get fouled, get to the line and pick up some easy ones.”
Getting to the free throw line has been a huge part of Harper Jr. staying productive when his shot hasn’t been falling from deep. Against Illinois he made 7 of 9 from the foul line. The odd thing about his season was that he actually struggled from the charity stripe during his torrid seven game stretch, making only 15 of 27 attempts for 55.6%. However, since he returned after missing the Purdue game, Harper Jr. has become Rutgers’ most reliable free throw shooter. He’s made 45 of 55 attempts for 81.8%. The issue is he needs more trips to the line, as he has only averaged 3.2 free throw attempts during these past 17 games.
“Ron did a really good job of taking what he could get and not settling,” Pikiell said after Friday’s loss to Illinois. “We really needed him to get to the free throw line and he did. He got us some timely points. We need Ron. He’s been a really good player for us and we need him to be that.”
Harper Jr. got to the foul line for 14 attempts in the two Big Ten Tournament games and Rutgers needs him to focus on that moving forward. It seems like that fact has clicked for him and that’s an encouraging sign.
In games this season in which Harper Jr. makes at least three free throw attempts, Rutgers is 9-3. On the flip side, the Scarlet Knights are 1-4 in games when he has had zero trips to the foul line.
Clemson is not a strong team inside, lacks size, and is very susceptible to teams that attack the rim. It’s not just getting to the line, as Harper Jr. does a great job of driving under control and he is able to adjust his shot in the air while maintaining his accuracy. He is shooting 56.0% from two-point range this season.
The other area in which Harper Jr. needs to be a more consistent force is on the glass. He is easily the second best rebounder on the team, but isn’t always as aggressive as Rutgers needs him to be. That was another part of the problem of him becoming a more perimeter player due to the three ball. He wasn’t in the paint to fight for offensive rebounds.
When Harper Jr. has pulled down double digit boards this season, RU is 4-0 and 9-1 when he grabs at least 7 rebounds.
Clemson’s best player is Aamir Simms, who is Harper Jr. is likely to matchup against on Friday. The two-time All-ACC player can be prone to hanging around the perimeter as well, so Harper Jr. needs to be focused on what he does best and use his physicality to his advantage. While it’s likely Pikiell will use more than one player to defend Simms, it’s very possible that whoever wins the head to head matchup between him and Harper Jr. will determine the outcome of the game.
To advance in the NCAA Tournament and potentially make an extended run, Rutgers needs Ron Harper Jr. at his best. He is capable of being a difference maker for this team and his time is now.
“We are going to take it head on and attack it like we attack any other opportunity. The stakes are a little higher this time,” Ron Harper Jr. said after Sunday’s Selection Show. “Forty minutes gets you an extra forty minutes. We are going to work hard. The attention to detail, everything is going to be a little more crisp just because we are playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years.”
Ron Harper Jr. in attack mode on Friday night is exactly what Rutgers basketball needs. After his recent play, there should be hope that he will do just that.