Joe Harris rewards Tony Bennett’s faith, assumes role of leader at Virginia
Tony Bennett was only a few months removed from leaving Washington State to take over Virginia’s basketball program in 2009 when he reached out to a recruit he already knew well.
He had wanted Joe Harris to stay close to home in Chelan, Wash., and attend Washington State. Now, he was intent on seeing if the guard would be willing to come across the country to help revitalize the Cavaliers’ program and was eager to sell the possibility during an elite camp.
Harris arrived on a red-eye from an AAU tournament. He was exhausted, and it showed during his first day in Charlottesville. It didn’t the next day. A scholarship offer soon followed, and Harris quickly became one of the centerpieces of Bennett’s first recruiting class.
“Just that commitment to say I’m coming, across the country,” Bennett said last month. “He’s the mayor of Lake Chelan. He’s a hometown hero, and for him say, ‘I trust you and believe in you, and I want a chance. Let’s forge this together. Let’s try to build this thing together.’ Kind of coming from the same neck of the woods, it was a special bond that he took a chance to come and do that.”
Harris hasn’t disappointed in his first two seasons, but he finds himself in a different spot entering the second half of his career.
Forward Mike Scott, who hauled the short-handed Cavaliers to a 22-10 record and their first NCAA tournament appearance in five years last season, graduated. Virginia’s top 3-point shooter (Sammy Zeglinski) also is gone. No one on the roster besides Harris has averaged more than eight points in a college season.
Harris, it would seem, will be on the spot to become an even larger factor than a season ago, when he averaged 11.3 points and 3.9 rebounds and played the final eight games with a broken left hand.
“I think on that end of things, I have to take it upon myself to be a lot more aggressive,” Harris said. “I feel like the first couple years of my career, I kind of played off guys. I didn’t really try to force the issue or anything. I wasn’t really as aggressive as maybe I could have been. This year, I’m trying to make a point of being a lot more aggressive offensively.”
He and the Cavaliers got a head start on their new look with 10 summer practices that preceded a tour of Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Harris also is working at point guard for the first time since his high school days and might open the year as the Cavaliers’ primary ballhandler as senior Jontel Evans recovers from early October foot surgery.
The 6-foot-6 Harris isn’t a traditional point guard but is comfortable with the task in front of him.
“Being able to make defenders play at your pace, it’s not like you have to speed anything up just because you’re bringing the ball up the floor,” Harris said. “It’s not like I have to blow by anyone or anything like that. I take my time with it.”
Assuming Evans can make a healthy return and some of Virginia’s freshman guards can develop, Harris‘ scoring will generate more attention than his work running the offense. Chances are his volume of shots will increase simply because of the Cavaliers’ needs.
Harris boasts a solid .430 career shooting percentage, and his judiciousness (less than 8.5 shots per game despite playing nearly 30 minutes a night) has worked well over the past two seasons. Harris probably won’t be asked to score as much as Scott (18 points a game last season), but an uptick of some sort is likely.
“Joe’s unselfish, and I think he’ll do what’s required,” Bennett said. “We’re going to be a different team that way, but certainly we want him to be assertive. We want him to be aggressive, because he’s a good player. He wants to win desperately. If I told him, ‘Don’t shoot once, Joe, just move the ball and go guard the best guy,’ he’d say ‘OK, whatever you want.’”
His attitude also reflects the course of his time at Virginia. He was one of Bennett’s first commitments and has navigated an average season and a breakthrough for the Cavaliers. Only one of the five other players in his recruiting class, however, remains at Virginia.
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