“You have to start somewhere.”
These were some of the first words Detroit Piston power forward, Justin Harper, told me as I held onto my I-Phone, trying not to sound nervous over the phone.
Harper was called up from the NBA D-League by the Detroit Pistons on early on Tuesday morning. Harper was currently playing on the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
Harper was drafted with the 2nd pick in the 2nd round of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Harper was a four-year player out of Richmond. He did not stay in Cleveland. After being drafted, his draft rights were traded away to the Orlando Magic, who were at the time being coached by current Pistons’ Head Coach Stan Van Gundy. That Magic team would go on to lose in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Indiana Pacers. Harper would then be waived by the Magic before the start of the 2012-2013 season.
Following being waived, Harper would go on to play a season overseas.
After that, Harper took his talents to the NBA D-League. He was drafted 3rd in the 2012 NBA D-League Draft by the Idaho Stampede.
In his first season in the D-League, Harper averaged 11.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. unfortunately, Harper was not called up that season, and he would then move on to play overseas. He would play two more seasons internationally, before returning to the D-League prior to this season.
This time though, Harper was determined to receive a call up to a NBA team, and this time he got it.
Harper was cut by the Brooklyn Nets prior to this season, and was claimed by the Los Angeles D-Fenders off of waivers. He seemed very happy with his team this season. “They(the coaching staff) allowed me to do what I do.” Harper did what he does, and is having a tremendous season in the D-League, averaging 14.8 points and 5 rebounds per game. He’s grateful for his opportunities as a D-Fender because he has the ability to improve through repetition he said. Harper was also named to the D-League All-Star Team. He posted 8 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists in the All-Star Game.
Harper wants to be a Detroit Piston, and he is happy to be a part of the organization. “This is just a blessing for the opportunity to come and play with the Detroit Pistons.” He has been a part of the Pistons’ organization for more time than you likely know. He has played for the Pistons’ Summer League Team in Orlando for the past two seasons.
The Pistons already had the impression that Harper had NBA talent. He averaged 10.6 points and 4.6 rebounds combined in the two Summer League seasons. Harper has played alongside some of Detroit’s current players such as Darrun Hilliard, Spencer Dinwiddie, Stanley Johnson, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. That is just another factor that made Harper a good option to add to the roster. Not only had he been coached by Stan Van Gundy(He told me that he still remembered most of Van Gundy’s offensive system, so that helps) but he had already played with nearly 1/3 of the Pistons roster.
Harper also had some high praise for his former and current head coach:
“He is very gifted in his coaching abilities.”
Harper is not wrong about Van Gundy either, he is one of the best coaches in the NBA. He’s been to the playoffs numerous times, and has an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. Van Gundy has been to the playoffs seven times in his career, only missing the playoffs once. He did not make the playoffs last season with the Detroit Pistons, who finished 32-50 on the year.
A major piece to Stan Van Gundy’s winning method was his 4-out-1-in offensive system. This system requires a power forward that can stretch the floor, and Justin Harper is a stretch four. He has shot over 40% from the three-point line in the D-League. Not only does he have shooting abilities from outside the arc, but he has a developing mid-range game as well.
He is a talented player. Stats show just how effective Harper has been. When he played with the Brooklyn Nets in the preseason, he averaged 9 points and 4.7 rebounds in only 19 minutes per game. As a player filled with the talent to play basketball, Harper has been one of the best prospects in the D-League all season. He is only 26 years old and has played in the NBA, D-League, and overseas in his young career. In each one of those experiences, he has gained knowledge that has helped him grow as a player.
In Harper’s first game as a Detroit Piston, he tallied 1 point and 1 assist in 5:04 in Detroit’s 111-91 win against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“It’s been a great experience so far,” Harper said, on his limited time with the Pistons.
But Harper is not satisfied with himself yet. “I just want to continue to work,” he said.
Harper must continue to work. The Pistons can only offer one more 10-day contract to Harper before they would have to make the decision on whether to sign him to a contract extension or to let him walk. The pressure is on for Harper to prove himself.
Detroit was in a similar situation last season with small forward Quincy Miller. He was signed to two 10-day contracts and then signed an extension with Detroit. He was traded in the offseason and eventually waived by the same team that waived Harper this offseason, the Brooklyn Nets.
“This has just been a blessing to come play for the Detroit Pistons,” Harper said. As it is for all D-League players looking to reach their NBA aspirations, Harper cannot be satisfied. He must continue to prove himself to Stan Van Gundy and the rest of the Pistons organization.
From the D-League to the NBA, from unknown to known, Justin Harper is a man on a mission.
You can listen to my full interview with Justin Harper here.
Featured Image via: Getty Images