Joe Harris: Virginia's underrated star

Joe Harris: Virginia's underrated star

Published Jan. 18, 2012 8:19 a.m. ET

Joe Harris isn’t going to grab most people’s attention when the Virginia Cavaliers go through their layup lines before games.

Harris looks like just another guy on the team. Mike Scott? Assane Sene? Yeah, those bigs easily stand out. But not Harris, until the game starts.

He’s sort of like fine wine to the average basketball observer. After a while, though, watching him come off screens for 3-pointers, jumpers in the lane, his use of the dribble, how he adroitly gets to offensive rebounds, his desire to box out so bigger teammates can grab defensive boards, and just the way he carries himself on the court, one comes to appreciate Harris’ overall game. When Harris is on the floor, No. 16 Virginia is usually at its best.

Harris is a well-rounded player capable of dipping his hands into every statistical basket and then some. But for those in and around the Virginia program, sometimes Harris’ impressive stroke overshadows his many other attributes. That’s only because he has such a gorgeous shot.

“Every time Joe Harris shoots, I always think it’s going in,” said Cavs point guard Jontel Evans told the Roanoke Times following a win at LSU in December, a game in which Harris scored 14 points and hit a crucial 3-pointer with 90 seconds to play, preserving the victory.

“He’s a great shooter. Textbook. Perfect. Even with a hand in his face, I knew it (the key shot) was going in.”

A 6-foot-6 wing who led UVa by hitting 41.7 percent of his 3-point attempts last season – the most by a freshman in the ACC since 2000 – Harris is the consummate gym rat, and it shows.

He loves making nice passes to cutting teammates, wrap-around bounce passes, no-look kick outs to the perimeter, and later fake the same moves while sinking a 13-footer. Harris is happy taking the mid-range jumpers, seemingly a lost art in basketball. It has become an effective weapon, especially since teams are trying to take away his perimeter game more than they did a year ago.

Harris knew this would happen, so he had to adjust. First, he worked over the summer on raising the arc of his perimeter shot and second, he improved his ballhandling, especially his first-step handle, so he could get past overzealous defenders.

So far, it’s working. Harris is averaging 12.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists and a steal a game for the Cavaliers, and that doesn’t include intangibles such as always being in the right place offensively to allow the Wahoos to execute more smoothly, his poise, defense and growing leadership.

“You set your game up with that outside shot because it’s a weapon,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “But he’s actually got some quickness that he’s not just your typical spot-up shooter or zone buster. He can get by you. He’s worked that attack.”

Harris has saved his better performances this season for the more challenging opponents. In wins vs. Michigan, at Oregon and at LSU and in a 3-point loss at Duke, Harris is averaging 15.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and two steals.

“He’s really good,” said Duke forward Ryan Kelly. “He’s got a lot of moves; he can score a lot of ways. He’s just a polished player.”

Harris spent much of last season playing out of position after Mike Scott went down for the year with an injury. But this year, the Chelan, WA, native is playing his more natural position.

The Cavaliers’ 14-2 start to the season is a reason, but that’s only happened because the Cavaliers are executing their roles so well. At the top of the list is Harris, who just might be the most underrated player in the ACC.