Experience equals demands on Harris

by Todd Zolecki

Soon after the final horn echoed through Williams Arena in the Gophers’ NIT loss to Tulane last spring, Minnesota point guard Eric Harris began looking toward this season.
He had a lot to prove to himself, his team and his skeptics. And with Minnesota’s high expectations, much of the burden rests upon his 6-foot-3-inch frame.
Harris started in all but two games last season, averaging 4.7 points and 3.5 assists per game. Adequate numbers, but not those usually associated with the point guard of a Big Ten title contender.
With those statistics came criticism. He struggled at times, making rookie-like mistakes, which lead many to believe Minnesota’s biggest liability is at point guard entering the 1996-97 season.
Gophers coach Clem Haskins doesn’t believe that’s the case.
“I showed a lot of confidence in playing him every game last year,” he said. “I probably played him some nights he didn’t deserve to be out there, but I did it because I knew sooner or later it would pay off.”
Haskins hopes he can bank on Harris as a solid point guard this year.
Harris said he is ready for the challenge. He’ll try to answer three questions: Can he cut down on his mistakes, can he be a leader, and will he find a jump shot?
The learning process at point guard has taken two-plus years for Harris, which wasn’t his natural position coming out of St. Raymond’s High School in New York.
His first year he played 30 games, playing behind Townsend Orr. Once Orr left, the job fell into Harris’ lap, if he was ready to handle it or not.
“I felt I struggled a lot at times, but that’s just comes with learning the game,” he said. “Now I really know what to expect. I’ve seen what it was like, and now I’m going to be ready for it. Last year I felt I really didn’t respond like I should have at times.”
When Harris was on the court last year, he wasn’t just playing point guard, he was learning it.
“The thing you need to understand is, there’s no substitute for experience,” Haskins said. “It takes people time to grow into that job or responsibility. He’s really grown up a lot in the last two years.”
Harris hopes he can contribute more this season and said he expects more out of himself. If he can do everything he expects, he might quiet some of his critics.
“I worked as hard as I ever have in my basketball career over the summer,” he said. “I already see things paying off. I can’t wait for the season to start.”
Harris definitely hopes his jump shot has improved. His outside shooting hindered his performance last year. So this summer Harris spent countless hours working on it.
He doesn’t expect to be the team’s top scoring threat, either does Haskins. With players like Bobby Jackson, John Thomas, Quincy Lewis, Sam Jacobson and Charles Thomas, Harris won’t need to be relied upon to put the ball through the hoop.
Passing is his game. But Haskins thinks Harris’ shooting is much better than last year.
“Eric is shooting the ball better than anyone on the team at the present time,” Haskins said. “When he shoots like that, it’s my job to always have the best shooters to take the most shots. Now if he keeps shooting like that, we’re going to have to have somebody else make some passes.”
Don’t count on that happening. Leave the scoring to Jackson, Thomas and the rest. Harris can get them the ball.
A point guard leads the team up the court, sets up the offense and calls the plays. That person sets the pace for the team.
Last year Harris found himself in that position; one he felt he could have handled better. He wasn’t as vocal as he wanted to be; he didn’t become the floor general Haskins needed.
“He’s doing a great job at the time to take on the responsibility of leading this ballclub,” Haskins said. “I put a lot of — I don’t want to say pressure — but a lot of responsibility upon his shoulders. We just want him to step on the basketball court and keep the team focused.”
Harris thinks he’s getting better at it each day. And as the season approaches he gets closer to answering those questions.
If he can come up with the right answers for Haskins, he might be the remaining link in the Gophers’ quest for a conference title.
“People are going to have their opinions,” Harris said. “I feel I was a young player, only being a sophomore. And I never really played point guard a whole lot during my career. Basically coming to college is when I first really started to play this. People are going to have their opinions, but you can’t let that affect you.”