How 4 days in Portland with NBA All-Star Damian Lillard helped shape Jared Harper's season

Thursday, March 15, 2018

How 4 days in Portland with NBA All-Star Damian Lillard helped shape Jared Harper's season

For four days in July, Jared Harper woke up and walked into the Beaverton (Ore.) YMCA and went to work.

The Auburn point guard spent the better of the a week last summer working out one-on-one with his favorite player, Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard. From July 11-14, Harper and Lillard met up at 7:30 a.m. inside the empty gym and spent the next 90 minutes working out together before Lillard's youth basketball camp each day.

"He looked like Rajon Rondo, just athletic and looked like a pest," Lillard told "He looked like he could defend, looked like a really solid young dude. I was like, 'Let's do it. Let's work.'"

Harper, who started 30 of 32 games at point guard as a freshman, wanted to take the next step after averaging 11.4 points and three assists per game last season, so he traveled West with the help of his uncle, David Hudson.

Hudson, a former player at the University of Washington -- where he was teammates with former Trail Blazers star Brandon Roy -- is the owner of Elite Youth Camps, which helps organize basketball camps, clinics, tournaments and non-profit events for professional athletes and teams. Among Hudson's clients are Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson, who were former high school teammates of his, and Lillard.

Hudson reached out to Lillard about Harper and said he wanted to bring the Tigers' point guard out to Portland with him in July. Hudson promised Lillard his nephew could actually play and wouldn't slow the NBA star down.

Lillard, who said he's always willing to help out, agreed to let Harper come out and join him that week in the Pacific Northwest.

Over the course of those four days, Harper picked the brain of the three-time NBA All-Star and former Rookie of the Year. The two got up countless shots, from floaters to pull-up jumpers to 3-pointers. Lillard was surprised by how well Harper -- who shot 34.4 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman -- shot the ball.

"I could tell he was competing with me," Lillard said. "He was trying to make shots like I was making shots, so that was good."

They also completed a gauntlet of drills that Lillard described as "different parts of the game that any good guard should have in his pocket."

As they worked out, Harper asked questions and Lillard answered, offering up advice on how to become a better point guard -- and the kinds of things that make the difference between a good college player and the type of player who can make it in the NBA.

"Just with him being my favorite player currently, it was great just to pick his mind and see how he plays and how he's able to get to his spots," Harper said. "It was definitely a great learning experience."

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They started to talk more and more as the workouts continued. The conversation, Lillard said, was organic, smooth and casual.

He began to explain to Harper why he does certain things on the court, like why he'll explode to his left at times, why he'll look off a defense to the left before making a move to the right. They discussed pace. Lillard gave him advice on how to be a better point guard and impact a game beyond points and assists -- like being cognizant of the opposing team's foul count, managing the offense and just generally being a good teammate.

Harper asked, and Lillard answered. It was a dream come true for the Auburn point guard.

The biggest advice Harper took away from the early-morning sessions was to be more cerebral on the court and how to better find his spots--slowing the game down at times, not dribbling as much and just being "calm, cool and collected." That last trait is something Lillard already saw in Harper, who he could immediately tell was "just tough" by the way he carried himself.

"I did see a little bit of myself in his demeanor," Lillard said. "He was just kind of quiet, laidback, but you could tell he was really confident, though. You could just tell he was a dog and was ready for a challenge. You could just tell. Fearless. Competitive. You could see it. He had it written all over him."

Those four days in Portland helped shape Harper's game ahead of his sophomore season at Auburn, where he averaged 13.7 points and 5.7 assists per game, including 15.2 points and 5.9 assists in SEC play while earning second-team All-SEC honors.

Lillard and Harper haven't kept in touch since that week, though Lillard was quick to note Harper has his number, but the Trail Blazers star has kept some tabs on Harper's progress this season, usually through Hudson.

"He was kind of keeping me updated, like, 'You see our young boy did this?'" Lillard said. "He sent me a link every now and then, so I've seen a few things."

Harper, a 5-foot-10 point guard with unlimited range, saw his offensive rating improve from 112.9 as a freshman to 123.4 as a sophomore. His 3-point shooting improved to 36.4 percent for the season, and his true shooting percentage jumped 57.3 percent. Harper posted the highest win-share among Auburn's players this season as the team went 25-7, won a share of the SEC regular-season crown and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament to snap a 15-year program drought.

Harper was a major reason for the team's surprising campaign in the face of adversity -- playing without star players Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy following the Sept. 26 arrest of then-associate head coach Chuck Person amid an FBI probe. Following a Feb. 3 home win against Vanderbilt, Harper credited his offseason workouts with Lillard for his overall jump in production.

As Harper has gone this season, so too has Auburn. When Harper is on top of his game and plays well, Auburn usually wins. When he struggles, so does the offense.

In Auburn's 25 wins, Harper averaged 14.2 points, 6.1 assists and just 1.96 turnovers per game while shooting 40.5 percent from the field and 42.5 percent from 3-point range. In the Tigers' seven losses, Harper averaged 11.7 points per game, 4.14 assists and just under three turnovers while shooting 27.5 percent overall and 14.3 percent from beyond the arc.

"I don't know of many football teams that win big games without their quarterback playing. You tell me," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said late last month. "He's our quarterback. When Jared plays well, we have a chance to win. When Jared doesn't play well, we don't. That's not putting too much pressure on the young man; that's the position he plays, is quarterback... So the key to beating Auburn is to stop Jared Harper. You got that? Everybody got that? You can put that out. He's one of our best players, so it goes without saying."

Harper's play this season has led to Pearl repeating what he said when Harper first arrived on campus that the point guard would be well worth the price of admission for fans. It also earned him the nickname "Little General" from Auburn legend Charles Barkley, and his performance against Alabama last month -- when he outdueled likely NBA lottery pick Collin Sexton -- prompted Tide coach Avery Johnson to call Harper a "maestro."

By many advanced metrics, Harper has been the most valuable and important player to Auburn's success this season, taking to heart the advice he received from one of the NBA's premier point guards last summer. He'll look to continue that Friday, getting back to his standard play after an uneven finish to the season, when Auburn takes on College of Charleston and its talented backcourt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 6:27 p.m. (TruTV) in San Diego.

"I just want to come out every game and prove I'm one of the best guards in the country and one of the best guards in the SEC," Harper said. "I'm just looking forward to every game to prove to everybody what I'm capable of doing."

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

from Auburn Sports Impact

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