After starting the season a disappointing 9-9, the Los Angeles D-Fenders have begun to turn it around as 2016 has rolled in. Going 8-5 since the start of the New Year (as of the morning of 2/8), the team has won its last four games and is going to head into the 2016 All-Star Game running at full steam.
While this effort has been aided by players all across the roster, the play of Justin Harper has been especially notable. Since the calendar rolled over, Harper has been averaging 16.8 points per game on 47% from the field and 40% shooting from beyond the three-point line to go along with over six rebounds per game.
Throughout the first half of the season, Harper's averages were at just 12 points per game on 45% shooting (38% from deep) and he was managing to reel in just 3.7 rebounds. Some of this can be attributed to an uptick in minutes, but that in itself has been through the improvement by Harper on the defensive end.
It is clear that Coach Casey Owens would prefer to have him on the floor, but Harper was getting into foul trouble early and often throughout the early part of the season. He was averaging nearly 5 fouls per 36 minutes and he's seen that drop all the way down to 3.8 per 36 in 2016.
The D-Fenders jump in the standings has mainly been due to their offense, which has been assisted by the floor spacing that Harper can provide with this added time on the floor. While he officially plays at center on most nights, he's not the type of big man that's going to command touches in the post. He'll typically play around the perimeter or facing the basket and when he's hitting, it allows Vander Blue and the other scorers on the roster to do as they please in the lane.
His consistent three-point shot has been big, but his defense cannot go overlooked, either. While Josh Magette will get most of the recognition for Los Angeles on that end, and it's well deserved, Harper has been steady there as well. Though he stands 6'10 he's not going to be a player that protects the rim with any regularity, but on the ball he's very tough and can cause headaches for opposing big men, especially after they're forced to chase him around the perimeter on the other side of the court.
Looking towards his NBA prospects, he would almost certainly be a stretch-four if he's called up, as his game is just not suited for that of a center at the next level. If he wants to earn that call-up, he's going to have to continue to put in work on his rotations and off-the-ball defense, where he occasionally looks lost and out of place. Offensively, his jumper has been relatively consistent this year, but his game would be infinitely more dynamic if he could add a post move or two to his repertoire.
After being selected in the second round by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2011 NBA Draft, Harper has bounced around a bit over the past few years. He spent time in the D-League, but most recently prior to this year he was playing in Italy and producing at a similar rate as he was in the 2015 portion of this season. He has progressed enough in the 2016 portion to be named an NBA D-League All-Star and if he can keep taking steps forward, at 26-years old he has more than enough time to make the next leap in his career.
Just for this season, however, the improvement of Harper has been an enormous boost for the D-Fenders and it could make them a dangerous threat in the post-season if he's able to keep it up. If he can avoid fouling and stay on the court for long stretches of time, Justin Harper may be the X-Factor for the D-Fenders moving forward.