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Michigan State Men’s Basketball Defensive Game Plan: How to Guard Ron Harper Jr.

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Establishing the concepts and ideologies to stall the Rutgers sharpshooter.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Marcus Carr piece, we will take a look at Ron Harper Jr., the leading scorer for the upstart Rutgers Scarlet Knights program. Rutgers is currently 7-2 (3-2 in Big Ten play). The Scarlet Knights sit at 14th in the latest AP Poll. Rutgers will travel to East Lansing on Jan. 5 for the top-25 matchup.

Harper’s game is very different from his father’s (that guy who played a little for the Chicago Bulls). While his father only had one season where he made at least one three-pointer per game, the son already has three college seasons in which he has met that threshold. This season, Harper is averaging 3.5 made three-pointers per game. Amongst Big Ten players, he has put in the second most buckets from long range, only behind Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic.

His game revolves around his ability to shoot the ball from deep. He gets to these shots mainly off the catch and off of screening actions. That is apparent based on the fact that 96.4 percent of his made threes have been assisted. He creates advantages in the mid-range based on how defenses overreact to his shot fakes and jab steps. He is also very good at taking advantage of poor screening defenses, both on and off the ball. Defensive miscommunications and poor schemes can result in excess space for Harper to take advantage of. What makes him most effective is his ability to take care of the ball. This season, Harper has taken care of the ball with extreme care, refusing to turnover the ball. He has not had a single game with multiple turnovers. He is one of only five players in the country with a turnover percentage under 4.5 percent while playing over 200 minutes.

Make him use his left hand

Harper excels at getting to the rim and using his frame to finish tough layups. Although he shines statistically in this area, the eye test provides a little bit of context. He relies strictly on his right hand. Even when driving to the left, he refuses to finish with his left hand. He also does not offer much of an in-between game as he never really rises up early for floaters.

In these three clips against Illinois, Rutgers runs this set action to get Harper an isolation possession in the mid-post. Every single time he attacks with his left, but reverts to finishing with his right hand.

Once again, against Maryland, Harper settles for the tough finish at the rim rather than the automatic left hand finish. Using his left hand in this scenario would provide added extension and completely remove shot blockers from the action.

Switch Screening Actions

This will go along with the follow up criteria on how to guard Harper, but switching screening actions goes a long way to stopping Harper from getting open looks. This principle applies for both on-ball screening actions such as pick and pops and dribble hand-offs (DHO), as well as off-ball screening actions such as down screens and floppy screens.

In this specific example, Harper is ran off a pindown on a secondary action. His defender decides to go under the screen rather than over or communicate a late switch. The big defender is in drop coverage and forces Harper’s defender to navigate the screen by himself. A switch would completely negate the opportunity for the catch and shoot jumper. Michigan State has some switchable bigs that could pull off that defensive action.

In this pick and pop action against Maryland, Harper sprints out of the action with a quick slip. Jarius Hamilton is completely unprepared for the slip and that leads to Harper getting the wide open jumper. This is another action where switching would be the preferred defense.

Ohio State was switching on-ball screens and it works extremely well in this example. Harper does not even attempt to get downhill and then proceeds to settle for the long two-pointer. This is a bad shot for just about anybody from a statistical perspective. Harper does not create enough space off the dribble and throws up the air-ball.

The switching principle can apply to more actions than pick and rolls. In this DHO action, a switch would remove the unnecessary space between Harper and his defender. That space is created by the off-ball movement by Paul Mulcahy. Mulcahy’s man goes under the screen, which forces Harper’s man to backup. A simple switch would not create the opening.

Create contact

Harper excels at getting to his stepback or sidestep with quick twitch muscle movement. This helps him get his shot off in rhythm. He does not create an enormous amount of space with those moves though as shown by the following clip. This is an area where defenders can anticipate this move and get into his personal space. Harper is inferior at drawing fouls despite his size. This makes him susceptible to physical defenders.

This clip also shows that Harper uses his step back to get in a rhythm rather than create an abundance of space. This play ends in an air ball because of Harper’s hand placement on the ball.

This is a great example of solid contact being implemented as well as a unique defensive coverage. In this scenario, Illinois ices the screening action with Da’Monte Williams. He stays on Harper’s hip and does not overplay the drive. Because Williams does not overplay the drive, he is in great position to recover on the step back.

Michigan State needs to be physical with Harper. Hopefully Aaron Henry can step up to his status of captain and take the lead on guarding Harper. As the screening coverage should include switching, everyone should be prepared to guard the wing in some capacity.

Statistics are current as of Jan. 3, 2021. All statistics can be found on Basketball Reference and Barttorvik.