Steve Alford barely knew Jalen Harris from Neil Patrick Harris, Emmylou Harris or even Franco Harris when he became the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball coach in early April.
“We didn’t know a whole lot about him,” Alford said. “It’s not like we knew a lot about any of these guys when we got here.”
Alford, though, knew one thing back in early April. He knew he needed players. After former coach Eric Musselman left the program for Arkansas (Alford replaced him a week later), Harris and the rest of the Pack players also started looking for new opportunities elsewhere.
“When we got hired here we basically had the whole team in the transfer portal,” Alford said.
One of Alford’s first tasks as Wolf Pack coach?
“To get (Harris) out of the portal,” Alford said. “And we were kind of doing it long distance since he was in Dallas (Harris went to high school in Duncanville, Texas). It was crucial.”
Alford, whose Wolf Pack plays at UNLV on Wednesday, also had a bit of inside information about Harris. It seems the 6-foot-5 shooting guard, who sat out the 2018-19 season at Nevada after transferring from Louisiana Tech, was more than just a guy to help fill out a roster.
“The guys coming back, Jazz and Niz (seniors Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua), all these guys were telling us just how good he was,” Alford said. “And they were obviously exactly right.”
Nobody attached to the Wolf Pack has ever been more right. Harris, who averaged a pedestrian 12.2 points a game in 38 games at Louisiana Tech (2016-18), now leads the Mountain West in scoring at 21.2 points a game. He is also currently on a torrid streak of 30 or more points in a school-record four games in a row.
None of this, by the way, surprises anyone in silver and blue, especially the players who watched Harris in practice a year ago.
When asked about Harris’ performance lately, senior point guard Lindsey Drew, who has played with such standout Wolf Pack players at Nevada as Cam Oliver, Cody and Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline, didn’t hesitate.
“Honestly, spectacular,” Drew said. “You couldn’t ask for more. He’s doing everything he can to help us win.”
The argument can be made right now that Harris is putting together one of the best all-around seasons in Wolf Pack history.
In addition to leading the Mountain West in scoring, Harris is first in field goal percentage (.455), fifth in assists (4.1), third in free throw percentage (.847), sixth in 3-pointers (57), sixth in turnover-to-assist ratio (1.78), eighth in defensive rebounds (5.3), ninth in overall rebounding (6.0) and 14th in steals (1.1). His 38-point effort against Air Force last week is the highest scoring game in the conference this season. He also leads the conference in 3-point percentage (.453).
“He’s hitting about every statistical category,” Alford said. “And the stat that doesn’t show up is how you guard and he’s one of our better defenders. He’s just having one of those special years.”
“Jalen’s run now is unique,” Wolf Pack assistant coach Craig Neal said. “In addition to his scoring, we also ask him to do a lot defensively. That’s what makes him different. He’s a guy who drops 30 every night and he also guards the best guy on the other team.”
“We’re asking a lot out of him,” Alford said. “There’s really not a whole lot more we can ask of him. And he’s playing at a very, very high level. He’s definitely a special talent.”
Harris is big, strong (195 pounds), smart, athletic and graceful. He doesn’t hog the basketball, throw up wild shots or pout and disappear on the floor when on the rare occasion his shot doesn’t fall consistently.
On the night Harris scored 38, for example, Alford was even impressed with him when he wasn’t scoring.
“It was late in the game and we told him he was coming out,” Alford said. “I just told him, ‘We can’t leave you in any longer.’ So he’s got the ball and he drives and two (Air Force players) meet him and instead of forcing up a shot to try to get to 40 (points), he makes a great pass. That speaks volumes of who he is, how he’s grown as a player.”
Musselman, now in his first year at Arkansas, said it best when announcing the signing of Harris last January. “Jalen is a great fit for the Wolf Pack from an academic, basketball and social perspective,” Musselman said.
And to think Harris was a mere phone call or campus visit away from leaving the Pack last April. And, to be sure, other schools definitely tried to lure him away from Nevada.
“I’m humbled by every coach and their interest,” Harris wrote on Twitter last April when he announced he was coming back to Nevada.
The former Louisiana Tech guard, though, clearly fell in love with Northern Nevada during the year he was away from the court.
“I love this group,” he wrote on Twitter last April. “And we can level up together.”
Harris’ affection for the Wolf Pack and Northern Nevada is even stronger now.
When told last week that he is on a school-record streak of 30-point games, he just smiled and said, “That’s a big thing. I love doing it here, especially here at Nevada. I like being here, the fan base and stuff, the support from my teammates, my coaches and the community. It’s been a fun run and we’re just trying to maintain.”
Harris, who now has six games this season with 30 points or more, is averaging 32.3 points, 5.5 assists, 4.3 3-pointers, four free throws, 5.5 rebounds and a steal over his last four games.
“It’s been fun,” the 21-year-old Harris said of his four-game thrill ride. “But as long as we keep getting the wins, that’s the number one goal.”
Harris spent all of last season on the sideline, watching a special Wolf Pack team live in the Top 25 all season long, finish 29-5 and go to the NCAA tournament.
“It was a tough year for me,” he said.
But it was also a year of growth and maturity for the former Duncanville High star who was rated as the No. 16 player out of the state of Texas by Rivals.com. And most of that growth and maturity had nothing to do with playing the game.
Harris, whose parents both played basketball for SMU in the 1990s, always had basketball talent. At Duncanville High he once scored 44 points in a game against Cedar Hill High and had numerous Division I offers coming out of high school. He was then named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team at Louisiana Tech and was leading the team in scoring (15.3 a game) when he left the program in December 2018. His thunderous tip-in dunk against Florida Atlantic in February 2017 even made ESPN’s Sports Center as one of the Top 10 plays of the day.
That’s why last year wasn’t solely about basketball for Harris. It was about maturing off the court and finding a place where he felt at home on and off the court.
“Last year really humbled me,” said Harris, who had to guard the likes of Caleb and Cody Martin last year in practice. “It was hard.
“But it kind of gave me a different mentality. Not having it (basketball) everyday, it taught me to appreciate the game more. I think I took the games for granted before. I learned to come out each and every game and appreciate it and leave it all out there. I’m just trying to take each game and enjoy it.”
His teammates are clearly enjoying watching the newest Pack star.
“Jalen has been huge,” Zouzoua said. “When he gets going he’s very difficult to stop.”
Harris, though, wants everyone to understand that scoring 30 points is not all about him. Nobody, he says, scores 30 or more points in a game all by himself.
“My teammates are doing a great job of finding me,” he said. “And my coaches are going a great job of giving me opportunities.”
Harris, the current Mountain West Player of the Week and the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week, is on pace to become the first Pack player to lead the Mountain West in scoring average. Caleb Martin (680 points in 2017-18) and Marcus Marshall (689 in 2016-17) led the conference in total points but not in average.
“When Jalen gets in that mode we just try to find him the ball and get it to him in a position where he can be the most effective,” Zouzoua said. “He’s a big piece of what we do.
“He can score at all three levels. He can close on you and get to the rim, he can shoot the three and he has a good mid-range shot. You can’t take one thing away from him because he can just go to another facet of his game and score so well.”
The key to Harris’ success?
“I am trying to have the right mental approach at all times,” he said. “You have to have the mindset and believe that nobody can guard you. I try to stay confident and try to make the right play.
“I try to make the right read. If the right play is to score, then I’ll try to score. If the right play is to kick it out and create for somebody else then that’s the play I try to make. You are not always going to do that. But to put forth the effort to do that is important.”
There hasn’t been many tough nights for Harris this year, but there’s been a few. Playing on a bad ankle early in the year, he was 9-of-41 from the floor and 2-of-14 on threes over his first three games. In another three-game stretch, against BYU, Texas Southern and Saint Mary’s, he was 15-of-48 from the floor and 0-of-10 on threes. Alford, though, has never wavered in his confidence in Harris to shake off sub-par performances. He saw that ability in Harris in the very first exhibition game this year against Cal State East Bay.
“He’s learning to play through mistakes instead of harboring them,” Alford said back in early November. “He had a really tough stretch in the second half (against East Bay), we took him out, brought him back and he was tremendous after that. That’s shows growth.”
Harris has grown into one of the better players on the west coast. On and off the court.
“He works so hard at what he does,” Alford said. “It’s nice to see a player that works that hard be so productive on the court. Even during this stretch he’s continued to work on the things to make himself even better.”
Harris is simply squeezing everything he can out of every minute he’s on the floor. Last year, sitting on the bench, taught him that lesson.
“I tell myself before every game just to appreciate it all,” Harris said. “Last year, all the work I put in, that’s what we’re seeing now.”