There’s a lot to like about Gary Harris.
A former McDonald’s All-American, the freshman guard was highly touted before he even stepped foot on campus. He’s a highlight reel in the making, possessing the combination of size and speed to be successful in the Big Ten and beyond. On top of that, he has the charisma of a much older athlete, while still carrying the natural whimsy of a first-year college player.
But until Tuesday, something was missing.
Even taking the eye-popping performance of junior guard Keith Appling into account in a 67-64 upset over No. 7 Kansas, it was Harris who made footprints in the sand against the Jayhawks.
Harris scored 18 points on seven-of-12 shooting (58.3 percent), along with a rebound and a steal, in a much more confident performance than his regular-season opener against Connecticut, where he only was four-of-13 (30.7 percent) from the field.
“He looked more like everything mattered to him as far as understanding what to do,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “He’s a great kid, and he’s done a great job. Call it what you want — nervousness, it doesn’t matter — I think he got more aggressive; I think he watched the film; I think he did what a good player should do: He realized what his mistakes were and tried not to make the same mistakes twice.”
Perhaps Harris still is trying find his bearings on the floor — a symptom not uncommon of a student-athlete in the beginning of a collegiate career. Although Harris has cracked the starting lineup in each of his first few games under Izzo, nerves are bound to persist.
However, in a standout showing against the Jayhawks, Harris touted much of the same ability that saw him win the 2012 Indianapolis Star Indiana Mr. Basketball and 2012 Gatorade Indiana Player of the Year honors at Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers, Ind.
With the Spartans trailing in the second half, Harris knocked down back-to-back scores to spark an 8-0 run leading up the heroics of Appling, who had 16 points in the second half to carry MSU to the victory.
For Harris, many of the opportunities afforded to him spawned from the work of the players around him on the floor for much of the evening.
“I was just out there trying to find open shots, just trying to find plays where I could help us score,” Harris said. “My teammates were finding me open places and giving me easy shots, and thankfully, I was able to knock them (down).”
Another thing many of the Spartans are beginning to appreciate is the way the defense has to approach attacking a player of Harris’ caliber. Harris’ athleticism is beginning to draw multiple defenders on the floor, which opens up space for Appling and sophomore guard Branden Dawson, among others.
Such was the case on Tuesday, as Appling picked up a game-high 19 points to go along with 12 from Dawson to upend a talented Kansas team in an exciting affair.
Playing alongside the diaper dandy, Appling said defenses can expect much of the same showing down the stretch, so long as Harris continues to progress in his first season.
“The defense has to respect (him) or he’s going to continue to make shots, you know,” Appling said. “When he’s out there making shots, it opens up the lane for me to penetrate and make plays for my other teammates.”
Harris and the Spartans return to the floor for the team’s regular-season home opener on Sunday against Texas Southern (noon, BTN.com).