East Lansing — The first decision felt like a weight off his shoulders. The second one felt like added weight, and it was.
But for Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris, that’s a relief, nonetheless, as he looks stronger, feels healthier and says he’s eager to shoulder a bigger load for a team that’ll begin this season with a top-five national ranking.
Tuesday was media day at Michigan State, and most of the talk centered on the lofty expectations, which coach Tom Izzo did little to quell. He says he feels better about this team’s prospects than any in the last decade, going all the way to the 2000 national championship team and the Final Four squad that followed it.
And Izzo’s players, as you’d expect, feel the same.
“Go big or go home,” said Harris, the Big Ten freshman of the year after averaging nearly 13 points in an injury-plagued debut last season. “I just feel like those are our expectations. …
“I mean, we have the talent and the tools. That should be the goal. That’s what we want to do. We want to win a national championship. And I feel like if we don’t reach that, we will have failed.”
It’s a realistic goal, certainly, with four starters returning from a team that went 27-9 and advanced to the NCAA regional semifinals. The Spartans have a veteran core, a deep bench and a pair of likely first-round NBA draft picks in forward Adreian Payne and Harris.
Both players considering going pro last spring, but decided to stay. Only for Harris, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard and former McDonald’s All-American out of Indianapolis, that difficult decision followed a more painful one in April.
Harris suffered the first in a series of shoulder injuries last November, and he spent the rest of his freshman season in and out of the training room. On and off the court, too, as his shoulder popped out of place more times than he cares to remember. He’d go up for a layup or a dunk, and he’d come down favoring his shoulder. He’d dive for a loose ball or reach for a steal and come away wincing. If it happened once, it probably happened a half-dozen times.
“He played hurt the whole year,” Izzo said. “He just didn’t tell anybody.”
He didn’t have to, really. They all knew, and there were plenty of discussions about how to handle it. Harris decided against having surgery during the season, opting instead to play through the discomfort with treatment and rest. And a fair bit of apprehension, which is why Izzo said more than once last spring, “You have not seen the Gary Harris I recruited yet.”
We will this season. That’s the expectation, at least.
When his freshman season finally was over, after a disappointing Sweet 16 loss to Duke in which Harris admittedly got “schooled” by Seth Curry and partially dislocated the shoulder again, there was another decision to make.
After consulting with specialists, Harris again opted for rest and rehab over surgery, skipping summer all-star camps and spending 5-6 days a week strengthening the muscles around his shoulder joints, among other things.
About the same time, he decided to pass on the NBA draft despite being projected as a potential lottery pick as maybe the third- or fourth-best shooting guard on the board behind Ben McLemore (Kansas) and Victor Oladipo (Indiana).
“That was my dream, so at times I was like, ‘This is what you’ve been waiting for, so why pass it up?’ ” Harris said.
Yet at other times, he says, he’d ask himself, “Are you just trying to get to the NBA, or are you trying to stay in the NBA? What are you trying to do?”
A different Harris
What he’s trying to do now is make the most of this opportunity at Michigan State, something his teammates can’t wait to see.
“It was pretty tough for him last year,” said Denzel Valentine, Harris’ roommate and a fellow sophomore guard. “There were times where he really just played through it and a lot of people would’ve just quit.
“But I think you’ll see a different Gary this year. You’ll see a more confident player that’s healthy. When you’re hurt, you kind of hold back what you can do.”
An ankle injury suffered in late August held him back earlier this fall, but Harris is back practicing now and says he’s feeling great, from head to toe.
Izzo jokes about NBA scouts telling him Harris is “illegal” and “un-American” because he’s a shooting guard that’s also an elite defender. He calls his backcourt tandem of Keith Appling and Harris the “two best defensive guards in the country.”
But it’s at the offensive end — and in transition — that a healthy Harris, along with a more-confident Branden Dawson, now 18 months removed from his torn ACL, where the Spartans should get the biggest boost.
“I think we should be a team that can run, run, run and run,” Izzo said.
The shoulder concerns forced Harris to be more of a spot-up shooter last season, and he did shoot better than 41 percent from 3-point range. But much like Dawson, Harris is at his best when he’s slashing to the basket, attacking the offensive boards, and getting out in the open court, all of which he expects to do this season. Finally.
As he put it Tuesday, “It’s time to showcase my whole game.”
As his coach says, it’s time to see the real Gary Harris.