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For a guy who has moved around a bit in his relatively young basketball career, Wilson native Jalen Harris is more than happy in his current home.
Harris is about to begin his second year at the University of Arkansas but this will be his first season playing for the Razorbacks. Harris sat out last season after transferring from New Mexico after only one season. He made a quick trip home to Wilson last week before heading back to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to get ready for the start of the fall semester.
“It’s beautiful. It reminds me a lot of home but it has more to do than Wilson,” said Harris, who played two varsity seasons at Greenfield School before transferring to Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh his last two years of high school.
Now, with another year of college under his belt, the 6-foot-2 junior point guard is excited to restart his career in the always competitive Southeastern Conference. Mostly, however, Harris is happy that he will be back on the court this season after watching from the sideline last season.
“I know that playing against two of the best guys in the SEC that I was only going to get better, so I just took it one day at a time,” said Harris, referring to Razorback guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. However, both Barford and Macon, who were 1-2 in scoring for Arkansas last season, were seniors, two of the six on the roster as the Razorbacks finished 23-12 overall and 10-8 in the SEC in head coach Mike Anderson’s seventh season.
But the 2018-19 roster is vastly different with no seniors and only a couple of juniors, besides Harris.
“I’m the oldest guy on the team so it’ll be a fun experience,” he said with a grin.
The Razorbacks do have a promising freshman class that numbers six, along with one of the top post players in the SEC, if not the country, in 6-11 sophomore Daniel Gafford.
Harris, who was listed as a top 10 impact transfer in the SEC by national college basketball writer Jon Rothstein, embraces his role as a leader.
“I have to become more of a leader,” he said. “I have to be the guy that I was at Greenfield and just show, because we have, I think, six freshman and I have to show them the small stuff in games and the big difference between high school and college. Everybody you play against and everybody on your team was the best player where they were in high school, so you’ve just got to fit into a role. You might not be happy but you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do to win.”
HIGH SCHOOL MEMORIES
Harris knows about winning. He helped Greenfield to 52 victories in two years but it was the one win the Knights didn’t get that haunts Harris. Greenfield led Fayetteville Trinity Christian by a point late in the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association 1-A championship game in 2014 when a questionable foul sent Crusaders star point guard Dennis Smith Jr. to the foul line. The future North Carolina State star and lottery pick of the Dallas Mavericks, just a sophomore at the time, drained both free throws and Harris’ desperation heave at the buzzer was off the mark. It’s a loss that Harris admits he’s never really gotten over.
“Yeah, that still haunts me, thinking I was going to Word of God and getting another chance to play in it but not knowing that year was my last year getting to play for a state championship,” he said. “Yeah, that still bothers me a little bit.”
For reasons that Harris didn’t specify, he transferred to Word of God before his junior year. However, the Holy Rams ran afoul of the NCISAA for allegedly recruiting players and was expelled from the association. So Harris never got to play for another state championship, although he did help the Holy Rams to more than 40 wins over two seasons.
Harris fielded more than 20 scholarship offers as a senior with New Mexico, California and Alabama getting the most traction. Ultimately, he chose the Lobos of head coach Craig Neal, a former Georgia Tech standout.
ONE AND DONE
Harris did well in his first season at the collegiate level in 2016-17, playing in all 31 of New Mexico’s games and starting 18. He averaged 4.5 points and 2.3 assists per game while shooting 43.9 percent from the floor.
But he wasn’t happy.
“I felt like Coach kind of took my confidence away,” Harris said. “He’s a great guy off the court but I just felt like it wasn’t the right fit for me as a basketball player. Yeah, I did all right but I was hoping to do a little better.”
So, when the season was over, Harris started looking for a better place to play. He wasn’t alone. Three other Lobos with eligibility decided to transfer and, by April, Neal had tendered his resignation. However, there was no looking back for Harris as he decided that Anderson’s Razorbacks were the right fit for him.
“The coaches give me a lot of confidence to shoot the ball more,” Harris said. “I know at New Mexico, regardless of whether I was shooting it good or not, he didn’t really want me to shoot the ball. But Coach Anderson and his staff, they tell me to just keep a lot of confidence in myself.”
A NEW HOME
Harris said he is at home in Anderson’s up-tempo offense.
“Since high school that’s my style of game so whenever in practice he tells me to push it as fast as I can, I loved it,” he said.
Arkansas has flourished under Anderson, averaging 21.6 wins per season. The Razorbacks nearly upset North Carolina in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, blowing a late lead against the eventual national champion Tar Heels.
Now Harris hopes to write his own chapter in the Arkansas basketball history book but he’s glad to have the folks back home putting aside their loyalties as they cheer for him.
“I have a big fanbase behind me so just knowing that I have family back home rooting for me, changing over from Carolina to Arkansas and from Duke to Arkansas is just great,” he said with a big smile.
Harris, a communications major who should graduate in 2020, is already thinking of the next step — professional basketball.
“I feel like I’m real close,” he said. “I just have to keep working each and every day and not take anything for granted because I know it can be taken away from me at any given point.”