Ron Harper Jr. is stepping into his own light

LAS VEGAS — NBA legacies are tricky. On one hand, following the league long enough all but ensures the descendants — or second generation — of generational stars are bound to appear. Predisposed not just by body type, but also by interest, in the same way so many kids take after their parents, to gravitate toward basketball as a potential career. On the other hand, none of that, not their lineage or access to professional knowledge or training, assures them of securing a job in one of the most competitive fields: as a professional player in the NBA. Yet when the son of someone great does make the league, the first hurdle they’ll inevitably have to clear is their own name.

This past season saw Gary Payton II, son of Hall of Famer Gary Payton, win a title with the Warriors and Gary Trent Jr., son of nine season NBA veteran Gary Trent, become the Toronto Raptors' — a team his dad also played for — most reliable spot-up shooter. But these career benchmarks weren’t weird basketball wormholes; they were effortful inroads paved with resiliency. We love ready comparisons; look no further than sorting incoming NBA draftees by body type or play style of existing stars. But the generational stacking of young athletes whose careers have been barely a blip, or not even begun, to their predecessors is by far the strangest. Summer League had Shareef O’Neal and Scotty Pippen Jr. take the floor and step right into criticism that had been forming before they even got there. The underscoring and undermining point being that it didn’t really matter how well they did, because their dads are already canon.

Another player shouldering the same load of legacy, albeit in a quieter fashion, is Ron Harper Jr.

Ron Harper Jr. could step out of his father's imposing shadow with a strong showing at the Toronto Raptors' training camp in the fall. (Getty Images)
Ron Harper Jr. could step out of his father's imposing shadow with a strong showing at the Toronto Raptors' training camp in the fall. (Getty Images)

Harper Jr. was snapped up quickly by the Raptors in the undrafted market, signed to a two-way deal in early July, and named to the team’s Summer League roster. A downhill getaway driver in the paint, Harper Jr. has a steady, quick propulsion and knack for finishing that made him an anchor for his team at Rutgers. He’s a careful shooter who knows his best spots — outside pocket, just beyond the arc’s elbow, in a hurricane’s eye of bodies under the basket — springing up from his 6-foot-6 frame to clear defenders, and as a wing, he’s watchful. Prior to the draft, Harper Jr. put more emphasis on diet and nutrition, shedding weight and keying into what would make him work and feel the best. These were the traits that drew the Raptors to him, but it was his easy and fast camaraderie in Las Vegas that made the fit feel settled.

“At the scrimmage yesterday, we’re just having fun on the bench. I feel like all that stuff’s kind of important,” Harper Jr. told Yahoo Sports Canada after Toronto’s second practice, a day before the team’s first Summer League game. “It brings a lot of team chemistry, just being able to rope guys together. Those guys have welcomed me with open arms, and it’s something I’m definitely grateful for, as a transition can’t be the easiest thing for everybody. Those guys are definitely helping me get to the right place.”

The scrimmage in question, though closed to media, was against the Pelicans and apparently lively. The fledging Raptors team shouting encouragement and cracking jokes throughout. Harper Jr. credited his time playing against Toronto’s second-year players, Dalano Banton and Justin Champagnie, at the collegiate level for being able to pick up so quickly on familiarity.

“I feel like I’m one of them. I just come in and practice everyday like I’ve been here for years,” Harper Jr. said. “That’s how it feels like. I don’t feel like the new guy around here, which is great. I feel like Christian [Koloko] would say the same thing. It’s been a great process, everybody is helping out along the way.”

That ability for social versatility isn’t something everyone has. Like skillsets, it has to be honed. It speaks to the Raptors system, in general, that saw a full contingent of coaches, trainers and team staff join the 15-man roster in Vegas, giving the sense that nothing about the trip was assigned lesser importance to development of the team’s ecosystem as a whole. It also speaks to the maturity and readiness of a young athlete like Harper Jr., something entirely evident when he talks, candidly, about his dad, five-time NBA champion Ron Harper.

“As a kid, it was definitely something I always battled with. His name versus my name,” Harper Jr. said, when asked how he’s tried to step out from the shadow of his father. “I always said, if I was to write an autobiography I’d name it ’Jr.’, just cause I’m my own man, my own person, my own basketball player, and that’s how I like to be addressed.”

That separation wasn’t a passive process for him. He vividly recalls what it felt like to have his dad’s name mentioned every time he did something, “Whether it was that I had a bad game, or if I was the worst player on the court, or the best player on the court.”

A former New Orleans college player and current coach, it was Harper Jr.’s mom, Maria Harper, who took on his training early on. Because of the space it gave Harper Jr. to focus and find his own light, out of his father’s shadow, he was able to fold his dad’s lessons into his game and approach as he got older.

"Him and my family have done a great job with that, separating me from him. Knowing that I really don’t like all the comparisons,” Harper Jr. stressed. “He’s done a great job helping me, telling me ‘Listen son, no matter what happens, I’m proud of you. We have different paths. You’re your own man, own basketball player.’”

“But growing older, maturing, you realize it’s just what comes with it,” he continued. “And I might feel like it’s a burden some days, but he has a lot of great advice he gave me, he knows what it takes to have a long NBA career. To win a lot of games, a lot of championships. So, the advice that he can give me from his years playing in the NBA definitely trumps everything that makes it a bad thing.”

A lot like the historic repetitions of the NBA (it was the Raptors current senior advisor, Wayne Embry, who drafted Ron Harper to the Cavs in 1986 as Cleveland’s then-GM), 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 well-worn because it so often proves true.

On that point, Harper Jr. enthusiastically agreed. “Exactly,” he said with a chuckle.

Asked if he’s found that annoying point to be true beyond himself, appearing now as inherited beats in his game, and he smiled softly again, nodding.

“You know, I always thought me and my dad were completely different players, just because he’s a point guard and I’m a wing player. But playing the game for a long time and being where I am today, I realize that we do a lot of things the same. Especially on the defensive end, that’s where I see the biggest replica of him. He was a guy that could guard multiple positions, so being able to be a guy who can do that too is a great trait to have in the NBA.”

It was at the defensive end where Harper Jr. ended up shining at Summer League. He yanked down 25 total rebounds over the team’s five games, besting the rangy reach of Banton and Koloko, and showed a tenacity around the rim as well as under it, diving into defensive scrambles even when Toronto was up by double-digits with under a minute left. As far as defensive assignments, he stuck, becoming that same pesky shadow to opposing players that he worked so hard to shed for himself over the years.

“I used to tell my dad I was going to change my name because I didn’t want people to know he was my dad,” Harper Jr. said. “Looking back on it, it’s funny."

The next step for Harper Jr. will be showing up at Raptors training camp in Toronto with the same tenacity and natural assurance he demonstrated in the clamour of Vegas, and securing a spot for himself on the team’s 2022-23 roster. Whether he cracks the rotation with the Raptors, or with another team astute enough to see his potential, there’ll be no mistaking him for anyone else.

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