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The game that turned Nevada's Jalen Harris into a scoring monster

Jalen Harris
Jalen Harris is on a torrid scoring streak. (Nevada athletics)

Nevada's Jalen Harris has been a scoring monster of late.

Over the last five games, the Wolf Pack guard is averaging 32 points per game while making 51.8 percent of his shots, including 39.5 percent from three, while shooting 84.4 percent from the free throw line. It's a scoring stretch that is unmatched in Nevada history, with Harris' school-record streak of four straight 30-point games ending in Wednesday's win over UNLV only because he notched 29 points (Harris missed a free throw with 3.8 seconds remaining to fall shy of the 30-point mark).

So what has changed with Harris? The junior started the season slow, in part because of a foot injury suffered in the opener and in part because he hadn't played a game in 22 months following a transfer from Louisiana Tech. Harris eventually found his groove, playing at an All-Mountain West level for a six-week stretch. But his last two weeks have been at another level.

Harris' 30-point streak began with a game at Colorado State on Jan. 29. But it was the next game that Erion and Karlin Harris, Jalen's parents, point to as their son's turning point. Three days after the Colorado State loss, the Wolf Pack played at Boise State. The first half didn't go well -- for Harris or his team. Nevada scored only 21 points in the first half and trailed by 15 points at intermission. Harris had as many turnovers as points in the first half (five) and was 2-of-8 from the field.

“Old Jalen, high school Jalen, even early college Jalen would have shut down at that point and played not to make any more mistakes," said Erion, who has trained Jalen since his youth. "For him to remain aggressive, really aggressive, at that point I knew he had turned that corner for good.”

Harris' sensational second half -- he scored 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting without a turnover -- pushed Nevada within one possession of Boise State before the Wolf Pack eventually lost. But Harris' aggressive disposition after a bad first half was a watershed moment in his development, his parents said.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, this could be really ugly for him,’" Karlin said of the Boise State game. "To come back and see that he scored 30, I was, like, ‘Oh, my, gosh!' With the old Jalen, that wouldn’t have happened. He would have checked out."

Why would he check out?

“It’s that his expectations are so high so when you miss a shot, you don’t want to miss another shot and then all of a sudden you’re 0-of-4," Karlin said. "The confidence kind of builds, one way or the other, good or bad. It’s definitely a confidence thing with Jalen. And I think the way (Steve) Alford doesn’t pull him, he lets him play through it, he’s fostering him. He’s had coaches who have pulled him whenever he missed a shot. He’s never really had a coach who was fully confident in him and on his side. I think he’s getting that now.

“It seems like Alford has been letting him play and giving him the green light. That’s what he needs. He needs to be relaxed and comfortable and feel, ‘This guy has me.’”

While Harris is making scoring history this season, he's not really a score-first kind of player. Growing up in the Dallas metro area, Harris was developed as a point guard, the position he most enjoyed playing. Yes, he could score, but he was equally adept and equally willing and happy to make plays for others, a trait that has carried over to his time at Nevada (he's first in the Mountain West in scoring and fifth in assists). Harris' mother, Karlin, was SMU's all-time leading scorer during her playing career, but she, too, preferred to defer.

“When I played, I didn’t like to shoot," she said. "I feel Jalen kind of got that. I don’t even know if you can pass that down. Maybe it’s how we raised him. But he doesn’t want to be selfish. He doesn’t want that. The fact that he can do it all but still looks out for his teammates is really gratifying. That’s Jalen.”

Harris has become more aggressive during this five-game stretch. His five highest field-goal attempts at Nevada have come in his last five games. Harris has taken at least 21 shots in all five of those games. But he's remained exceptionally efficient, hitting more than half of his shots, and he has more assists in this five-game stretch (4.2 per game) than he had before it (4.0).

Alford has praised Harris' ability to score from all three levels (at the rim, in the mid-range and from three), noting one of the reasons Harris' scoring output has increased is because he's shooting a higher percentage at the rim, which has been an area of focus this season. Harris has made 61.7 percent of his shots at the rim, which isn't an elite mark but is a good one, especially considering how many attempts Harris has taken close to the basket. He's also improved his mid-range game, hitting 41 percent of long two-pointers after sitting in the high-30s for much of the season.

“He’s got a good frame to him, really athletic," Alford said. "Where he’s really grown is how he drives the basketball and he’s finishing at the rim."

Harris said slowing down has played a big part in his improved ability to convert shots at the rim. Harris also is the only Wolf Pack perimeter player who gets to the free throw line at an above-average rate. His 126 free throw attempts are 52 more than anybody else on the team.

During his four-game 30-point streak, Harris hit 17-of-35 3-pointers, nearly 49 percent. In the 82-79 overtime win over UNLV on Wednesday, Harris' 3-point shot was off as he missed all eight of his attempts from beyond the arc. But Harris still managed to dominate the game, not letting a bad shooting night keep him from delivering, a theme that started with that Boise State game. Harris still cashed in 29 points, a career-high 14 rebounds, five assists and two steals.

In the win, Harris became the fourth Nevada player this decade (and 11th player in school history) to tally at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a game, joining a list that includes luminaries like Edgar Jones, Kirk Snyder, Pete Padgett, Cody Martin and Cameron Oliver, among others. His 29 points were the second most for a Nevada player in a 20-10-5 game behind Marvin Buckley's 30-point effort against St. Mary's in 1973.

Harris played all 45 minutes in the win over UNLV and has logged 192 of 205 potential minutes in Nevada's last five games (93.7 percent of available playing time). This weekend's bye comes at a good time for Harris, who will be asked to carry a large load for the remainder of the season.

“What he’s doing now is not a surprise because I’ve seen that from him before, but not at this level," Erion Harris said. "For him to put it into play at this level has been really impressive.”

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