Eastern Washington’s Tyler Harvey grows into nation’s top scorer

One NBA scout has compared Tyler Harvey to Steph Curry.

Michael Hickey

CHENEY, Wash. — Drive past the towering evergreens to the west and the Bitterroot Mountains to the east, past the concrete basketball court that was recently poured in the middle of an empty, soon-to-be-developed field and past the Cheney Rodeo in this small college town outside of Spokane. Park next to Reese Court, an arena that’s the size of a big high school gym, and on this game day is packed with nearly 6,000 fans.

And walk inside, where you will see the most unlikely star in all of college basketball. He’s playing for an exciting, run-and-gun team that’s got a real shot at becoming a Cinderella in what would be the school’s second NCAA tournament. And it’s under the tutelage of a coach whose positive, affirming personality and deep community connections have turned around a program with virtually zero past basketball success.

Tyler Harvey is a junior combo guard for the Eastern Washington Eagles, a team that’s tied for the lead of the Big Sky Conference. The kid is quiet and humble, perhaps the natural result of a childhood spent at church instead of at AAU tournaments. He has a perspective that comes with going on a mission to Uganda with his father instead of living a childhood consumed with nonstop basketball.

He also happens to be the nation’s leading scorer this season, netting just shy of 23 points per game, shooting 43 percent from three and having NBA scouts making their way to tiny Cheney, Wash., population 10,000, to see how this kid who was so far off everyone’s radar going into college has turned himself into a legit NBA prospect.

How far off the radar was Tyler Harvey?

Well, the only reason Harvey got an offer to play for Division III Whitworth University — the Spokane school where current Eastern Washington head coach Jim Hayford used to coach — is because Harvey’s father, longtime college hoops referee Frank Harvey, happened to sit next to Hayford on an airplane and asked the coach to give a look at his son. The Division III offer was Harvey’s only one to play college ball.

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Then Hayford took a job at Eastern Washington and told the lanky, late-blooming Harvey he could walk on to the team, but no scholarships were available.

Then Harvey was inserted into a game in February during his redshirt freshman season for his first real minutes. He surprised not only his coach, but also himself, hitting four of five 3-pointers for the first double-digit scoring game of his career.

Since then, Harvey has played in 66 games. In 64 of those, he has scored double-digit points. Ten times he’s scored 30 or more. Until an injury a month ago knocked him off his scorching pace, Harvey was likely the best long-range shooter in college hoops. An NBA scout gave me a not-even-joking comparison to another under-recruited mid-major player, a kid with a great stroke and a solid handle and an ability to score in a variety of ways: Steph Curry.

What a ride for a kid who once was told he was too short to play for his freshman high school team in Southern California.

"When you don’t expect something in life and then it happens, that makes it that much more special," Frank Harvey said.

It’s a story that’s as unlikely as it is inspiring: A kid who so often was told he was too short that he obsessed over height and he worked his tail off at basketball. He worked so hard that when the height did come — too late to get him a big-time scholarship — his skills were far ahead of what they would have been.

Coming off my senior year in high school, I wasn’t getting any looks. I thought maybe my basketball career was over. But I was always a late bloomer.

"He was consumed with height growing up," said his mother, Susan Raya. "He was always measuring himself against me: ‘I can reach the top shelf now.’ When he saw the world, he saw it by height. Everything was about, ‘How tall are you?’ He just wanted to be tall."

Not only consumed by height. He was consumed by competition, too. If young Tyler lost at a board game, he’d have play again. He’d race his mom to the door when they were carrying groceries to the car. His mother timed him when he was cleaning up his room; he’d race through making his bed, vacuuming, cleaning the closet, all to see if he could beat his all-time best time.

It’s a competitive streak that, instead of giving up when he was overlooked by his high school coach heading into his freshman year, he instead used it as fuel. He would travel to some of the games where his father was the referee, watch players like UCLA’s Russell Westbrook and Arizona State’s James Harden, and think: I can do that.

But going into high school, Harvey was 5 feet 4. The coach on his freshman team originally thought so little of his potential that Harvey wasn’t even invited to try out for the team. (That coach left before the season, and the new coach proved wiser.)

During his sophomore year in high school, an unexpected growth spurt hit its peak. Harvey grew six inches in less than a year. He had so much growth in such a short period that he had to take a few months off from basketball because his bones hurt with what felt like a bad case of jumper’s knee. It was part of a growth spurt that took him from 5-4 entering high school to 6-4 now.

"I never imagined I’d be in Cheney, Wash. — I’d never heard of it," Harvey said. "Coming off my senior year in high school, I wasn’t getting any looks. I thought maybe my basketball career was over. But I was always a late bloomer."

Turns out Harvey’s game ended up being perfect for Hayford’s system — and the fact he was a late bloomer made him thrilled to go to a far-flung school that’s only made one NCAA tournament in its history. Hayford loves a free-flowing, open game of basketball, modeling his European-style offense after the high-flying Phoenix Suns teams of Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni.

With Harvey as the focal point, Eastern Washington has played that fun style to perfection this season. The Eagles are fifth in the nation in points and fifth in the nation in made 3-pointers per game. Nearly 38 percent of Eastern Washington’s scoring comes from 3-pointers, which is 14th in the nation.

"We play what I call percent and possession basketball," Hayford said. "We want to play quickly and keep our turnovers low. We get more possessions because we have fewer turnovers, and we shoot a higher percentage."

A big-time scorer like Harvey is as perfect of a fit for Eastern Washington as Eastern Washington is for Harvey. He didn’t have any other options coming out of college. But what he ended up finding was a place that believed in him.

"It’s been a blessing from God to me," Harvey said. "I belong here."

"I do think," Hayford said, "this part of my life plan and Tyler’s life plan was to come together at this big transition point in his life and my life."

And that, ultimately, is the best part of Harvey’s unpredictable rise. Harvey has always been an underdog. Eastern Washington has always been more than an underdog. They’ve been more of an afterthought, really. At least until Hayford arrived.

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His big personality has transformed the program’s financial situation. The basketball program’s booster group, the Sixth Man Club, went from pretty much nonexistent before Hayford’s arrival to now raising $200,000 a year. That’s why Eastern Washington is now able to recruit so much internationally: six players on the current roster are from Europe or Australia.

And that’s why on Saturday night, Eastern Washington won a share of the Big Sky Conference regular-season title for just the third time in school history.

When Hayford looks at the state of his program, he can’t help but look at the miracle performed over the past couple decades at Gonzaga, just 17 miles down the road on Interstate 90.

"Gonzaga is a mid-major that has become a high-major," Hayford said. "We’re a mid-major that’s done being a low-major."

It’s a story you’d never expect, from a place you’d never expect, and with the help of a quiet kid who never even expected to come this far — but now appears headed even further.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.