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Harper Jr. poised for success in 2nd year with program

One of the storylines during the Rutgers men’s basketball team's late-season resurgence last year was the promising play of the freshman class. 

Sophomore center Myles Johnson established himself as a rising star in the paint, while sophomore guards Montez Mathis and Caleb McConnell showed improvement and earned key minutes as the Big Ten slate continued.

The Scarlet Knight (6-1) with the highest upside this year, though, could be Ron Harper, Jr., the 6-foot-6-inch sophomore forward from Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. Harper Jr. has a championship pedigree, growing up under the guidance of his father, Ron Harper, who won five NBA championships with Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Harper Jr. soon made a name for himself on the court, becoming a star for Don Bosco Prep under head coach Kevin Diverio. He took a major leap in his senior season, doubling his scoring output to average 20.8 points per game. That scoring punch was a key factor in the Ironmen’s second straight TOC final appearance in 2018.

While Harper Jr.'s career at Don Bosco Prep earned him a four-star rating from Rivals, he wasn’t as highly sought after as guys like Mathis or true freshman guard Paul Mulcahy. Harper Jr. only had two Power 5 offers: one from Rutgers, and the other from Big Ten rival Nebraska. 

Despite the Knights being the worst team in the conference (3-15 Big Ten record) at the time of his commitment, Harper Jr. bought in to head coach Steve Pikiell’s vision of what Rutgers basketball could be.

His commitment, which came just a week after Mathis’s in August 2017, marked a significant early milestone for the Pikiell era, as the duo of Harper Jr. and Mathis would be the first time since 2008 that the Knights had multiple four-star recruits in the same class. While it would take time for this group to develop on the court, the tide was beginning to turn for Rutgers on the recruiting trail.

Harper Jr.'s freshman year wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. After dropping 15 points on Fairleigh Dickinson in his debut, he struggled to find minutes in the rotation. When he did see the floor, he was inconsistent — the roughest outing being when he went 2-of-11 from the field in the loss against Seton Hall. 

As the team went on a late-season surge in conference play, Harper Jr. finally came into his own and looked the part of a Big Ten scorer. He burst onto the scene in Iowa City, where the forward led the Knights with 27 points as they blew out Iowa 86-72. 

But, the real jump for Harper Jr. came out of the offseason. An emphasis on conditioning and physicality saw the forward go up from 230 to 245 pounds, and it’s been paying off through the first seven games of the season. 

Harper Jr. is now much more aggressive in the paint, using his added strength to get better looks inside. He’s now a much more efficient scorer, averaging 13.1 points a game on 54.8% shooting. 

While Rutgers hasn't faced any Power 5 teams so far this year, its young core seems poised to take the next step in its development this winter. 

But, Harper Jr.'s game translates well to the Big Ten, and the added physicality will bring another dimension for a Knights team that is heavily reliant on Johnson and senior forward Shaq Carter in the paint. He also brings a presence on the glass, averaging six boards a game this year. 

While there probably won’t be a single go-to guy for Rutgers this year, it’s clear that Harper Jr. is poised to stand out in big moments on the Banks.

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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