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Terrel Harris & The NBA Dream

In the closing minutes of Miami's 105-94 Christmas Day slaughter of the Mavericks, long after the fans had emptied out of the American Airlines Center, Heat rookie Terrel Harris entered an NBA game for the first time.

His play, grabbing two rebounds and committing a foul without attempting a shot, was largely forgettable. But the mere fact that Harris stepped on an NBA court at all was an incredible accomplishment.

An athletic 6’4, 190 shooting guard, he certainly doesn’t look the part of an underdog. He didn’t exactly come out of nowhere either, as he was was the No. 64 recruit in the class of 2005.

However, every year, assuming an average recruiting class of three players, 1,026 18-year-olds receive Division I men’s basketball scholarships. Even the ones marked for greatness don’t necessarily make it. Of the top 150 players in the class of 2005, Harris is one of only 18 in the NBA seven years later.

Harris was one of six top-100 recruits in Oklahoma State’s top-rated recruited class, a four-star player ranked behind three five stars (6’8 SG Gerald Green, 6’8 SF Keith Brumbaugh, 6’0 PG Byron Eaton) as well as four-star 6’6 SG Roderick Flemings. Harris, Eaton and Flemings are three of the many elite basketball players DFW has produced in recent years.

The Cowboys’ class fell apart quickly, with Green declaring for the draft, Brumbaugh falling into legal trouble and Flemings out of D1 basketball for three years before winding up at Hawaii in 2009. Hall of Fame coach Eddie Sutton had a DUI during Harris’ freshman season, and he resigned at the end of the year, handing over the program to his son Sean.

Sean Sutton lasted only two years in Stillwater, with Travis Ford taking over before Harris’ senior season. Harris and Eaton, the only two players left from the 2005 recruiting class, were part of an excellent college back-court that featured James Anderson, a 2010 first-round pick of the San Antonio Spurs. Eaton even had his very own “one shining moment”, beating Tennessee on a last-second drive in the first round.

Eaton was a two-sport high school star in Dallas, a star QB who lead Lincoln to the state championship game in football and played as a freshman on the 40-0 basketball team that featured Chris Bosh and won the mythical national championship. A third-team All Big 12 guard in 2009, he overshadowed Harris throughout their time at Oklahoma State, averaging 14.3 points and 5.7 assists as a senior.

But while he had better ball-skills than Harris, who averaged 13.9 points and 1.7 assists that year, he had a football player’s build at 5’10 220, making it unlikely he’d ever be able to play adequate defense on NBA-caliber point guards. Harris, meanwhile, had quick feet and long arms for a 6’4 guard, which combined with his superior three-point shooting percentage, indicated he would be a better NBA role player than his more celebrated classmate.

However, replacement-level shooting guards are a dime-a-dozen at the next level, and Harris wasn’t drafted after the 2009 season. He played in the D-League for two-and-a-half years, averaging 9.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and the Maine Red Claws.

Despite not putting up eye-popping statistics in the D-League, his defensive intensity and athleticism caught the eyes of Miami’s scouts, and they brought him into their shortened training camp before the 2011 season.

“He was the surprise of the camp,” Miami head coach Eric Spoelstra told RealGM. “If I had to use one word to describe him, it would be relentless. He forced us to make an incredibly tough roster decision [in cutting Eddie House].”

In contrast, Green, the highest-rated member of Harris’ Oklahoma State recruiting class and the #1 player in the nation in 2005, was one of the last cuts by the Lakers this year.

He has the raw talent to be an All-NBA player, but he struggled with his shot selection, defensive commitment and professionalism while playing for four teams in five seasons after being a first-round pick in the 2005 draft. And when teams are filling out the end of their roster, the last thing they want is a player with a bad reputation.

Harris has an opportunity to carve out a role as a defensive stopper for a Miami franchise that has found jewels in the undrafted ranks (Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony) before. More importantly, they need their guards playing defense and knocking down open 3’s, the two strengths of his game. Last season, two unheralded players in similar roles -- the Spurs’ Gary Neal and the Knicks’ Landry Fields -- made the All-Rookie team.

But, on a Heat squad gunning for a championship that has another rookie guard (Norris Cole) as well as two extremely raw big men (Dexter Pittman and Micket Gladness), there’s no guarantee Harris keeps his roster spot all season. That’s life on the fringes of the NBA, where bench players fight-and-claw for one of 450 possible roster spots in the only basketball league in the world with guaranteed six-figure contracts.

For every Marquis Daniels who becomes a ten-year veteran despite being undrafted, there are a dozen perimeter players whose NBA careers amount to nothing more than a cup of coffee and a few 10-day contracts.

Not only is every guard in the NBDL gunning for Harris’ spot, there are a number of players like Green (Willie Warren, Manny Harris, Terrico White) looking for another chance in the NBA.

There are quality college shooting guards who go undrafted every year. In 2011, David Lighty (Ohio State), Scotty Hopson (Tennessee), Demetri McCamey (Illinois), Durrell Summers (Michigan State), Gilbert Brown (Pittsburgh) and Justin Holiday (Jrue’s older brother at Washington) weren’t selected.

Next season, there will be a whole new crop of replacement-level shooting guards, players younger than Harris who played for higher profile programs than Oklahoma State, players who starred in NCAA Tournaments that fans, media and front-office personnel can more easily dream on than a two-year D-League veteran.

But no matter what happens in the rest of Terrel Harris’ basketball career, which began when he was a middle-schooler trying to play for the AAU team with the best sneaker deal, no one will be able to take away the three minutes he played on national TV on Christmas Day in his hometown.

 

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