Bayamón, Puerto Rico — If the goal of exhibition games is to find ways to get better, win or lose, Monday’s 87-81 loss by Kansas to the Bahamian National Team included one key lesson for Kansas point guard Dajuan Harris Jr.
Harris led the Jayhawks with 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting — including three 3-pointers and a tip-in offensive rebound — but could not out-pace the Bahamas team led by 31 combined points from NBA guards Buddy Hield (19) and Eric Gordon (12).
Harris did in this one exactly what he’s going to have to do in a bunch of games this season, and Kansas coach Bill Self left Ruben Rodriguez Coliseum on Monday afternoon pointing to that as a bright spot.
“Juan looked to score,” Self said. “So, that was a positive.”
“After the game, when they were shaking my hand, they were telling me, ‘Keep shooting the ball.' You know, people are going to try to go under screens, so they were just telling me to keep shooting." — KU point guard Dajuan Harris Jr.
For Harris, looking to score does not mean seeking out a high number of jump shots. But it does mean taking them when they’re there and the Bahamas team made sure they were there throughout Monday’s game.
Quick enough and crafty enough to give them fits when he gets into the lane, the Bahamas team made sure to keep Harris out of the paint as much as possible on Monday. Not by locking him down defensively, but rather by diving under most ball screens and giving him enough daylight to shoot.
“They were trying to make me shoot,” Harris said after the loss. “They kept telling me to shoot the ball. Today, my shots were finally falling, so they couldn’t say nothing.”
Chatter between KU’s regulars and the NBA stars was a common part of the two-game split between these teams here in Puerto Rico. Some of it was trash talk. But a good chunk of it was genuine respect and admiration from the older guys to the younger Jayhawks.
Hield and Gordon made time for several Jayhawks, before, during and after the games, talking to them about their games, their strengths and weaknesses and encouraging them for the upcoming season.
“After the game, when they were shaking my hand, they were telling me, ‘Keep shooting the ball,’” Harris said. “You know, people are going to try to go under screens, so they were just telling me to keep shooting (against that). I thank them for doing that for me, trying to make me better. I just had a great experience playing against them.”
We all know how competitive Harris is and how his teams have typically come out on the winning side far more often than not throughout his life. So, it’s no surprise that he was at least a little bummed that KU came up short on Monday.
“I don’t like losing. I don’t like losing,” he said after the game, repeating it for emphasis. “But it was a great experience and we got better so it’s all good.”
Self offered a slightly different and equally predictable perspective.
“Well, who cares,” he said. “We’re better than what we played today, but, all in all, not bad. We did some nice things while we were here. That was good competition. There was nothing disheartening about this. This doesn’t mean anything. And it’s probably not bad for us to get humbled a bit.”
If the understanding that Harris played with on Monday is an indication that there’s more where that came from, then what Kansas gained in that aspect far exceeds any of the negativity that came from the loss. And now that he’s an upperclassman and this is more or less his team, Harris should have all the confidence and runway in the world to take hold of that approach permanently.
Harris is good enough in all facets of the game, that he can find ways to score even when teams aren’t daring him to shoot. He’s a menace on defense and routinely swipes steals that lead to easy baskets for him or his teammates. There are also times — as there were Monday — when the defense tries to go under the screen but doesn’t execute well enough and Harris finds the crease that leads to the rim.
But there’s no question that the thing that will take him from solid to spectacular — and Kansas along with it — is his willingness to be aggressive on the offensive end.
No one wants to make Harris something he’s not. Buddy Hield showed KU what a big time NBA scorer who can get just about any shot he wants looks like for two games in Puerto Rico.
Kevin McCullar Jr. tried to match it — with varying degrees of success — but Harris did not. He’s so sound and so unselfish that he always looks to set up others before scoring himself and has throughout his time at Kansas.
Look no further than his first two games in Puerto Rico, where he combined for 4 points and 18 assists in two KU victories, for evidence of Harris being who Harris is.
But in order for him to grow and this team to thrive, he’s going to have to be comfortable being a mixture of what he was in those games and what he was on Monday.
He doesn’t have to become a chucker. But he has to be a threat. That’s always been the case and his KU coaches and teammates often have begged him to be more aggressive as a scorer.
But now that he’s in his fifth year with the program — and fourth year playing — it’s time for Harris to put a little more of the offensive burden on his shoulders.
There’s nothing wrong with still looking to make the right plays. And getting the ball to Hunter Dickinson and KJ Adams in tight and with lobs is always going to be the right play. But teams are also going to take that away. Heck, even during a summer exhibition trip, on two days turnaround, the Bahamas team did.
The lobs that were there in Saturday’s win were non-existent on Monday, most notably because Hield and Gordon’s club made Adams a priority and took away the short roll opportunities in the middle of the floor that he has executed so well.
“You knew they would,” Self said. “They scouted us. I mean, they scouted us.”
When that happens — and teams’ ability to scout KU the rest of the way is only going to get more stout — the Jayhawks have to have an answer.
Self will draw certain counters up. And some will work. McCullar wants to be the next Ochai Agbaji and Jalen Wilson and find a way to take games over in those moments.
But no one will have an easier time doing it than Harris. Teams will ask him to shoot. Even when he makes shots, they’ll still try to entice him to let it fly because it beats the heck out of giving up lobs and layups.
So, Harris has to be ready and willing. And what he showed on Monday, albeit in a loss, was a great indication that he will be.
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