NBA legacies are difficult. On the one hand, following the league long enough will ensure that the descendants – or second generation – of generation stars are bound to appear. Predisposed not only by their physique but also by their interest, just as so many children aspire after their parents to be interested in basketball as a potential career. On the other hand, none of that, their lineage or their access to professional knowledge or training, secures them a job in one of the most competitive fields: as a professional player in the NBA. But when the son of a great personality makes it into the league, the first hurdle is inevitably your name.
Last season, Gary Payton II, son of Hall of Famer Gary Payton, won a title with the Warriors and Gary Trent Jr., son of NBA veteran Gary Trent, who was nine seasons old, became the Toronto Raptors – a team , for which his father also played – most reliable spot-up shooter. But these career benchmarks weren’t weird basketball wormholes; they were arduous advances paved with resilience. We love ready-made comparisons; Look no further than sorting incoming NBA draftees by body type or existing star playstyle. But by far the strangest is the generational succession of young athletes whose careers have hardly been a blip compared to their predecessors, or have not even started yet. Summer League let Shareef O’Neal and Scotty Pippen Jr. take the floor and address the criticism that had formed before they even got there. The underscoring and undermining point was that it didn’t really matter how well they did because their fathers are already canons.
Another player shouldering the same legacy burden, albeit in a quieter way, is Ron Harper Jr.
Quickly snapped up by the Raptors in the undrafted market, Harper Jr. was signed in early July and drafted into the team’s Summer League. A downhill racer in color, Harper Jr. has a steady, fast drive and a knack for finishing that has made him an anchor for his team at Rutgers. He’s a careful marksman who knows his best spots — the outside pocket, just behind the elbow of the bow, in the eye of a hurricane of bodies under the basket — who pops out of his 6’6-inch frame to take down defenders , and as a wing he is watchful. Before drafting, Harper Jr. put more emphasis on diet and nutrition, losing weight and focusing on what would make him work and feel his best. Those were the qualities that drew the Raptors to him, but it was his easygoing and quick Las Vegas camaraderie that caused the seizure to calm down.
“In the scrimmage yesterday we just had fun on the bench. I think all of those things are kind of important,” Harper Jr. told Yahoo Sports Canada after Toronto’s second practice session, a day before the team’s first Summer League game. These guys welcomed me with open arms and I’m definitely grateful for that as a transition can’t be the easiest thing for everyone. These guys are definitely helping me get into the right place.”
The scrum in question, while closed to the media, was anti-Pelicans and apparently lively. The new Raptors team roars encouragement and cracks jokes everywhere. Harper Jr. credits his time playing at the collegiate level against Toronto sophomores Dalano Banton and Justin Champagnie to the fact that he had acclimated to familiarity so quickly.
“I feel like I’m one of them. I just walk in and practice every day like I’ve been here for years,” Harper Jr. said. “That’s how it feels. I don’t feel like the new guy here, which is great. i feel like a christian [Koloko] would say the same. It was a great process, everyone helps.”
Not everyone has this ability for social versatility. Like skillsets, it needs refinement. It generally speaks to the Raptors system, with a full contingent of coaches, coaches and team staff joining the 15-man roster in Vegas, giving the impression that nothing about the team’s ecosystem development journey is less important was attributed as a whole. It also speaks to the maturity and readiness of a young athlete like Harper Jr., which is quite evident when he’s open about his father, five-time NBA champion Ron Harper.
“As a kid, it was definitely something I always struggled with. His name against my name,” Harper Jr. said when asked about how he’s tried to step out of his father’s shadow. “I’ve always said that if I were to write an autobiography, I’d call it ‘Jr.’ just because I’m my own man, my own person, my own basketball player, and that’s how I like to be addressed.”
This separation was not a passive process for him. He vividly recalls how it felt when his father’s name was mentioned every time he did something: “Whether it was that I had a bad game, or whether I was the worst player on the pitch or the best player was on the pitch.”
A former New Orleans collegiate player and current coach, it was Harper Jr.’s mother, Maria Harper, who started his training at an early age. Because of the space it gave Harper Jr. to focus and find his own light from his father’s shadow, he was able to incorporate his father’s lessons into his game and approach as he got older.
“He and my family did a great job with that and parted with him. Knowing that I really don’t like all the comparisons,” Harper Jr. pointed out, “he did a great job of helping me out and telling me, ‘Listen, son.’ No matter what, I’m proud of you. We have different paths. You are your own man, your own basketball player.”
“But as you get older, mature, you realize that’s exactly what comes with it,” he continued. “And I might feel like it’s a drain some days but he has a lot of great advice that he gave me, he knows what it takes to have a long NBA career. Win many games, many championships. The advice he can give me from his years in the NBA definitely trumps anything that makes it a bad thing.”
Much like the NBA’s historical iterations (it was the Raptors’ current senior advisor, Wayne Embry, who brought Ron Harper to the Cavs as Cleveland’s then-GM in 1986), we tend to fall into the same patterns in our personal lives. The trope of becoming our parents, in once hated mannerisms or moral beliefs, is dated because it so often proves true.
On this point, Harper Jr. enthusiastically agreed. “Exactly,” he said with a smile.
When asked if he found that annoying point beyond himself that now shows up as inherited beats in his game, he smiled softly again and nodded, “You know, I always thought me and my dad were completely different players, just because he’s a point guard and i’m a winger. But if I’ve been playing the game for a long time and I’m where I am today, I realize that we do a lot of things the same. Especially on defense I see the biggest replica of him there. He was a guy who could defend multiple positions, so it’s a great trait in the NBA to be a guy who can do that too.”
It was on the defensive end where Harper Jr. shone in Summer League. He ripped down 25 total rebounds in the team’s five games, surpassing the reach of Banton and Koloko and showing a tenacity around the rim and under, diving into defensive tussles even as Toronto rose in double digits with under a minute left. He got stuck as far as defensive duties went, becoming the same annoying shadow for opposing players that he’d so hard cast for himself over the years.
“I always told my dad that I was going to change my name because I didn’t want people to know he was my dad,” Harper Jr. said thoughtfully. “Looking back, it’s funny.”
The next step for Harper Jr. will be to show up at the Raptors training camp in Toronto with the same tenacity and natural confidence he displayed in the noise of Vegas and earn a spot on the 2022-2023 team roster. Whether he cracks the rotation with the Raptors or with another team smart enough to see his potential, he won’t be mistaken for anyone else.
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