For most players, it takes a certain level of optimism to remain the D-League for an extended period of time. Although the D-League offers up the opportunity to be one hypothetical step away from the NBA, those players also deal with the struggle of living off salaries that range between $26,000 through $19,500 for the season. In contrast, those same players could earn up $100,000 to compete in some of the top leagues in Europe. That change in salary could be the difference between a young player having a stable life back in the states or even thinking about getting a part-time job in the off-season.
That thought is probably the biggest reason behind why D-Leaguers always need to be optimistic to remain in the NBADL for an extended period of time. Because whether you’re an NBADL All-Star or someone scrapping for minutes, the thought of going to Europe or China to receive more money will always remain in the back of those players. One current D-Leaguer that clearly fits that description is current LA D-Fenders forward Justin Harper.
From the moment that the Orlando Magic selected him with the 32nd pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Harper has always stood as a player that always seemed like he should have an established role with the NBA team. Harper stands as someone that should be an ideal pick-and-roll candidate due to having a beautiful outside jumper and being able to on or off-ball cuts to the rim.
Alongside that positivity, Harper has spent his pro career by being recognized as a front-court tweener: someone that teams don’t think is quick enough to play power forward or big enough to work as a center. That label forces Harper to be in this weird purgatory as teams across the NBA remain perplexed about where Harper should be in their rotation.
While those NBA teams continue to scratch their heads, Harper has spent the last two seasons absolutely shining in the NBA D-League with the Los Angeles D-Fenders. That success started last season where Harper put up 15.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game on 47% from the field and 39% from beyond the arc. That play allowed Harper to be named to the 2016 NBADL All-Star game and also get a cup of tea with the Detroit Pistons. Harper’s great 2015-16 performance left a lot of optimism for what would come next.
That optimism was definitely warranted as Harper has been absolutely phenomenal in the early stages of the current season. In his first fifteen game, Harper is averaging 17.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists on 52% from the field and 46% from beyond the arc on 5.3 perimeter attempts per game. Those shooting numbers have pushed Harper to have a phenomenal 66% True Shooting Percentage, which allows him to be the fourth most efficient starting player in the entire NBA D-League.
Harper’s incredible efficiency has a lot to do with his high basketball IQ and knowing his exact role within the D-Fenders’ offensive system. From the opening tipoff, Harper seems to be in-sync with his surrounding teammates as he knows when exactly he should set screens, make off-ball cuts to the paint or spot-up on the perimeter. That cohesion with the other four men on the court allows the D-Fenders to be a lot better when Harper’s playing (114 points per 100 possessions) compared to when he’s on the sidelines (109.2 points per 100 possessions).
His combination of incredible efficiency and importance to the D-Fenders is due to how versatile Harper is on the offensive end. Harper shines through a multitude of different ways whether it’s on-ball cuts, post-ups, offensive rebounding or perimeter jumpers. As can probably tell, Harper’s perimeter stroke is the benchmark of his work on the offensive end, as his efficiency would even make Stephen Curry blush.
Unlike Curry, Harper does a lot of his work in catch-and-shoot situations, whether it’s utilized in transition or in the pick-and-roll. In either instance, Harper absolutely shines as he possess a really compact and quick jumper. Whether he’s catching the ball low or high, Harper does a great job of having a quick stroke that finishes with a high release point.
Outside of his tremendous perimeter jumper, Harper’s next best skill is as a cutter, whether he’s working on or off-ball. From an off-ball perspective, Harper’s really good at reading the situation, and knowing when he should crash the paint. From the perspective as an on-ball cutter, Harper is a solid ball-handler as he can drive towards the paint with the ball in his right or left hand. Just that singular ability is impressive for a 6’10 forward.
Although it’s not as prevalent as his cutting or perimeter jumper, Harper shows plenty of promise as a low-post threat. Harper’s potential in the low-post is mainly due to him having an incredible soft touch from around the rim. That soft touch allows Harper to utilize hook shots or a post-up fadeaway. The second example of that is seen in the clip below.
While it might be impossible for Justin Harper to remove that “tweener” label, its definitely time for an NBA team to call him up. As I’ve explained in this piece, Harper shines as a versatile 6’10 forward with a terrific perimeter jumper that can also work around the paint as a cutter or post-up threat. Over the last few seasons, we’ve seen plenty of players similar to Harper shine in pretty significant roles, whether it would be Mirza Teletovic, Channing Frye or Ryan Anderson.
Should we expect Harper to immediately be at the level of someone like Anderson? Probably not, but it’s reasonable to see Harper as somebody that shine in a role where he plays 15-20 minutes per game. Although that role might not seem like much, it would be a huge accomplishment for Harper. Because as we already know, he’s one of the many D-League players that stay optimistic and work their ass off.