In today’s Senior Spotlight, The Daily Targum covers the leading scorer on this year’s Rutgers men’s basketball team, senior guard Ron Harper Jr. The first player in program history to ever be selected as an All-Big Ten member by the Associated Press, Harper has developed from being a highly rated recruit to a possible NBA prospect, exceeding expectations and proving to be an x-factor in the clutch.
Before coming on the Banks, Harper was a high three-star recruit out of Don Bosco Prep who was ranked as the 175th best player in the nation and the seventh in the state of New Jersey. Harper only had two high major offers from Nebraska and the Scarlet Knights (18-12, 12-8).
The Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, native chose to stay home and showed potential early, dropping 31 points in his final high school game.
He made an immediate impact in his freshman year, playing in all 31 games and getting the start in 18 of them. The biggest highlight of his debut season was earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week, scoring 27 points on only 13 shots in an upset win over No. 22 Iowa.
“He showed a lot of things in his game tonight. He's going to be a really good player, and he showed a dose of that,” said head men’s basketball coach Steve Pikiell after that game.
Pikiell could have never realized at the time how much Harper would live up to that statement.
No. 24 became one of the centerpieces of the program as a sophomore, leading the team in scoring while also logging the most minutes. Harper brought more memorable moments, especially the victory over rival Seton Hall, when he was named Joe Calabrese Game MVP for scoring 18 points in front of a sellout crowd.
In front of the largest crowd that the arena had seen in 17 years, Harper delivered and set a precedent of stepping up in the biggest moments.
His third season at Rutgers is where Harper truly established himself as a nationally recognized player, finishing as a top-five small forward and a top 20 player in the country. He and senior guard Geo Baker led the Knights to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years, winning their first-round matchup against Clemson before a heartbreaking defeat to Houston.
The small forward was one of the biggest pieces in the rebuild of a program that had been a cellar dweller in the Big Ten since joining in 2014. With all he had accomplished, Harper was already established as a great player who NBA scouts were watching. With this, he chose to enter the 2021 NBA Draft process.
Questions were asked all offseason before an Instagram post confirmed that he would use his final year of eligibility to return this season. Fans of the Rutgers team rejoiced, and Harper responded with one of the most memorable seasons in recent memory by a player in the program.
He became the first player in program history to make an All-Big Ten second team and also helped the Knights upset the number one team in the country in December. Harper dropped 30 points and hit a buzzer-beater from half court, sending the fans into a frenzy and a memorable court storm.
“It's unreal man, it's something you dream about," Harper said. "When it went off my hands, and I saw it go in I was jumping around like a little kid on Christmas day.”
Harper continued to lead the Knights through an up and down season, with a buzzer-beating three at Indiana, possibly saving the NCAA Tournament hopes of this team.
"Hitting a shot at home is great, but I feel like hitting a shot on the road is better," Harper said. "The place was roaring in the final minutes, and when they hit that three to tie it, the place erupted. For me, to hear it go from 100 to zero is just the best feeling."
With the Big Ten Tournament and a probable NCAA Tournament run coming up in the next few weeks, Harper has a chance to take Rutgers places that would have seemed unfathomable when he enrolled. His big-time shots and overall play are one of the biggest reasons for the rise of the program over the past few seasons.
“When we all got here, we couldn’t imagine our journeys being like this,” Harper said. "We wouldn’t rather do it any place else. The fans showed up all season. The best home-court advantage in college basketball. It means a lot for us to get this win on our last game at Jersey Mike’s Arena. There is still so much more basketball left to play.”
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