Game Preview | Harper Jumps Eagerly Into Latest NBA Opportunity

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

Sizing Up the Sixers (23-39):
Justin Harper might have been sporting the 76ers’ no. 30 ‘Salute Saturday’ throwback uniform this past weekend in a match-up with the Detroit Pistons, but it was the head coach on the opposite sideline who had more experience working with the forward than anyone else in the building.

And although Harper never played for Stan Van Gundy long between stints with Detroit, and earlier Orlando, Van Gundy saw enough of him to come away with a favorable impression.

A four-year University of Richmond product who graduated in 2011 and went on to become an early second-round draft pick, Harper has accumulated a wide breadth of experiences since turning pro. He cracked the Orlando Magic’s roster as a rookie (Van Gundy was then the coach), appearing in 14 games. Upon being waived by Orlando in advance of the following season, Harper took his game overseas, competing first in France, then Israel, and, most recently, in Italy.

Harper’s winding career path brought him back to the United States last year, as he pursued an opportunity in the NBA Development League, where he had also spent portions of the 2012-2013 campaign. A solid showing with the Los Angeles D-fenders - he averaged 15.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while pouring in 39.1 percent of his attempts from the perimeter - put Harper back on the radar of talent evaluators around the NBA.

As much as Van Gundy liked the defense, physicality, and 3-point touch that Harper offered, especially for a frontcourt contributor, something else stood out. When given the oh-so-coveted chance to log NBA minutes, Harper left little doubt that he was prepared.

“He’s always ready to play,” Van Gundy said Saturday, before Detroit’s 136-106 win over the Sixers. “The thing with guys like that, they’ve bounced around so much, they learn to learn quickly and to adjust quickly, because they often times end up playing with three or four teams in one season, and to stay alive, they’ve got to be guys that can come in and adjust, and he’s been able to do that.”

Harper, who signed a 10-day contract with the Sixers last Friday, has never had to shuffle between that many teams in a single season, but, in respect to the NBA, he’s been affiliated with a handful of different professional organizations in a relatively short period of time.

On top of playing regular season games for the Magic, Pistons, and now Sixers, the Richmond native previously had been given summer league trial runs with the Cleveland Cavaliers (the team that originally drafted him), Indiana Pacers, and Phoenix Suns. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.7 rebounds for the Brooklyn Nets during the 2015-2016 pre-season, too.

Take into account his time with the D-Fenders, the NBADL affiliate of the Los Angeles Lakers, and that makes eight NBA teams with which Harper has had an association.

“I guess you could say I’m a journeyman somewhat,” the 27-year old said Saturday at The Center. “I’ve been overseas, D-League, NBA, call-ups, pre-season. I’ve kind of seen it all as far as bouncing around as a basketball player and a professional athlete. I’ve learned not to get too high or too low, just to kind of come in and try to do my job as best I can, and try to help whatever team I’m on win. Right now, it’s with the Sixers.”

While life in the NBADL might not provide the same type of comfort and creature features enjoyed by players in the NBA, or even in some of the top international leagues, it does put prospects as close as possible to their ultimate goal - breaking into the NBA itself. This factor seems to have been on the forefront of Harper's mind the past two years, as he weighed whether to go the NBADL route, or head back to Europe.

“I had some success last year,” said Harper. “I did pre-season with the Nets, and played well. It didn’t lead to a solid spot on the roster, but I kind of took that with me once I got waived by the Nets, and was like, ‘You know what, I’ll give the D-League a shot. Maybe somebody else will see it, and give me a shot throughout the year.’

“It started off slow in the D-League, but I started playing well, getting more minutes, and it turned to us going to the finals in the D-League, and me getting a call-up [Detroit] out of it as well. All of that experience in the previous year gave me more optimism about trying the D-League again. I just saw an opportunity to give it a shot, here I am.”

With injuries and trades thinning the Sixers’ frontline the past two weeks, the team was in the market for a player of Harper’s versatile ilk. While power forward is probably the position for which the floor-spacing 6-foot-10, 225-pounder is best suited, he found himself occupying the center spot for most of Saturday’s game versus Detroit. Jahlil Okafor was sidelined with right knee soreness, and the Sixers needed a back-up for Richaun Holmes, himself not at full strength either as a result of hamstring tightness.

Over the course of his career, Harper has learned to adopt a do-whatever-is-asked approach, finding that it benefits players like himself who routinely live on roster bubbles. So, naturally, he embraced the assignment.

Suiting up for the Sixers for the second time in less than 48 hours, Harper tallied nine points (4-10 fg, 1-5 3fg) and five rebounds in 22 minutes against the Pistons, marking just the second time he crossed the 20-minute threshold in an NBA tilt. Given that Harper is so fresh to the franchise, Brett Brown thought it would be unfair to make any immediate judgments about the performance after Saturday’s game.

“I believe that you could ese he can shoot,” Brown said about Harper, who was also on the court for four minutes in Friday’s victory over the New York Knicks. “We looked initially to bring him in as a stretch four. I think he showed the ability to do that.”

With the clock on his current 10-day deal ever-ticking, Harper is confronted with the following dynamic - get settled quickly, and do enough to earn a longer look. If past evidence is any indicator, he appears to have a grasp on how to walk such a fine line.

“Obviously, I hope to stay with the team long-term,” said Harper. “I’m just taking it one day at a time, go out there and work hard.”

Sizing Up the Bucks (28-33):
In the thick of a packed race for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, Milwaukee scored two key victories over the weekend, beating the Los Angeles Clippers and Toronto Raptors at home. As a result, the Bucks take the floor Monday tied with the Miami Heat for ninth in the standings, and just a game and a half behind the eighth-place Detroit Pistons.

Milwaukee is doing its best to keep pace in the post-season race despite sustaining a considerable blow last month. In a February 8th meeting against Miami, Jabari Parker, the number two pick in the 2014 draft, tore the ACL in his left knee for the second time in three seasons. He suffered the same injury 25 games into his rookie campaign.

Prior to going down, Parker had been putting up quality numbers that backed the pedigree he brought to the pros, averaging 20.1 points and 6.1 rebounds in 33.9 minutes per game.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, has turned in an All-Star performance this season, his fourth in the NBA. The versatile 22-year old Greek Freak has spun together a versatile stat line, one highlighted by 23.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.9 blocked shots per game. His selection to the NBA’s annual superstar showcase two weeks ago was the first of his career.

Series History:
For the first time this season, the Sixers will play Milwaukee in South Philadelphia. The two Eastern Conference foes faced off twice in the span of 10 days at BMO Harris Bradley Center back in the middle of January, with the Sixers winning both contests, 113-104, and 114-109.

Dario Saric posted 17 points, nine rebounds, and four assists in the first match-up, then equaled that offensive output again the second time around.

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