Justin Harper: From Under-the-Radar to the NBA
It pays to be underrated.
by Rachelle Jean-Louis / @RJL24
Dwight Howard isn’t the only Orlando Magic player creating a buzz lately.
Forward Justin Harper is a new addition to the Magic roster—and a welcomed one. The 6-10 rookie, selected with the 32nd pick in the 2011 Draft, flew under the radar for quite some time. Now, he enjoys his home with the Magic (despite some rookie pranks) and proves he has much more to contribute than people think.
After sitting most of his freshman season at University of Richmond, Harper worked his way to a starting position his sophomore year. But no one really knew exactly who Justin Harper was until he really made a name for himself senior year.
“I had a different mindset going into my senior year, that I’m just as good as all these guys in college,” Harper explained. “I had enough of it, so I worked my hardest the summer before my senior year. I went up to Boston and was working out with some guys. It was to the point where I really started having the mindset of a professional instead of just a college basketball player.
“It was my goal to prove to everybody how good I was my senior year, and I think that’s what helped put me on a larger stage. It definitely helped that we had success my senior year, making it to the Sweet 16,” Harper said.
Harper finished an impressive senior season, earning First-Team All-Atlantic 10 honors after finishing second in the league in three-point percentage, fourth in scoring, fourth in field-goal percentage, and fifth in three-pointers per game. Though impressive, it seemed that no one could foresee what team would jump at the opportunity to grab the Virginia native.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the Magic actually had not spoken with Justin at all prior to the 2011 NBA Draft. That definitely didn’t matter too much. After the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted Justin in the second round, the Magic gave up two future second-round picks to obtain him.
Then there was the infamous lockout.
“After I got drafted, there was the lockout,” Harper told SLAMonline. “I was saying I want to make sure I’m ready whenever [the NBA] comes back, so I think the best opportunity for me is to make sure I go play pro ball elsewhere, make a little money on the side and also improve my game. I was in France, and I got a chance to play with my teammate from college, our point guard, Kevin Anderson. I also got to play with one of our A-10 rivals, Lavoy Allen, from Temple. It was a good experience. It wasn’t like I was going over to France and didn’t know anybody.
“I thought it was a good decision because I wanted to have an easier transition. I started to get used to it, being over there for three months, and then I got called back. It’s not necessarily your typical journey to the NBA.”
Now the rookie has to prove himself to his teammates, though that seems to be the fun of it all. Howard recently tweeted a hilarious picture of the newcomer in “timeout”—standing in a corner facing the wall.
Justin doesn’t mind at all.
“I’m just embracing it,” he laughed. “I’m just happy to be here, having the opportunity to be a part of a team like the Orlando Magic. We have all these great players and a lot of good veterans on the team that are helping me along. But at the same time, we work sometimes and, like the picture that Dwight put on [Twitter], we joke sometimes too. I think that we’re building some good chemistry on the team. It’s a long season, but even though it’s shorter than the regular season I think that we can do some great things.”
Some of those great things may also be off the basketball court for the 22-year-old. While at Richmond, Harper and his teammates helped out with the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, a non-profit organization for children with brain tumors. While he is no longer as involved with the organization, the forward described the experience as a “touching situation” and wants to pursue other similar activities in the future.
“I’m not sure about which [organizations] yet, but I’m definitely one of those people who looks to help others,” he said.
Of course, he needs to work on a few things for his teammates as well. Averaging 17.9 points per game in college, the raw shooter aims to continue to improve his all-around game.
“Ball-handling and rebounding,” he admitted. “Shooting is not something I necessarily need to improve on, but I can always work on that. As far as ball-handling and rebounding, I think those are gonna be huge and very important for me to help this team and become a better basketball player.”
Right now, the 2011 Virginia State Player of the Year seems comfortable with his team. Veterans like Adonal Foyle, briefly present at the time of the interview, love joking with the rookie, and one can tell they are happy to have him on board. There’s plenty of room to grow, but Harper finally gets to live out the dream put on hold by the lockout.
The humble VA native made his debut in the Magic’s second pre-season game (and win) against the Miami Heat at home in Orlando.
“It’s the first time being on the court with all the guys you’ve been watching on TV for years,” he reminisced. “It’s just something about that feeling when you first step out there.”
As the season unfolds, Magic fans hope to see more of how Harper fits with his team.
“I just want them to be able to say that he brought it every day. He was someone who left it all on the court, was a great player and a great teammate,” Harper said.
That being said, it’s just a matter of time. Don’t underestimate him. The last time that happened—well, let’s just say he ended up where no one believed he could.