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For Auburn's 5-foot-11 Jared Harper, there are no vertical limits

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Auburn wins in OT with help of Harper's 25 points. (1:00)

No. 8 Auburn wins in overtime against Xavier 88-79 with the help of Jared Harper's 25 points and a big-time dunk. (1:00)

AUBURN, Ala. -- We might still be talking about Jared Harper's dunk against Xavier in overtime of the Maui Invitational if it weren't for generational dunkers Zion Williamson and Ja Morant performing acrobatics on our televisions for the past five months.

But what Auburn's point guard did in November deserves another look.

Harper, who checks in at just 5-foot-11, knifed through the lane, took a step into what should have been a one-on-four wall of defense and instead soared past everyone to slam home one of the most jaw-dropping baskets you'll ever see. It was beautiful and savage all at the same time.

His stare afterward -- an ice-cold look familiar to those who know him best -- seemed to say we should have seen it coming. But what made it so special is that no one did. His father stood up in the stands, stunned into silence by what he'd just seen. Meanwhile, his high school coach went absolutely bonkers back in Atlanta, running around his home with his 8-year-old son screaming at the top of their lungs. Auburn's bench was thrown into such a tizzy that players feigned holding one another back from rushing the court.

DVRs went to work across the country, rewinding the play over and over again. There's a very good chance it ended up somewhere on your social media feed.

"I'm sure that opened a lot of eyes," Harper told ESPN last month. "It was great being able to showcase how good a player I am. I'm 5-11, but I'm still able to dunk on someone. That's just another reason that keeps me pushing to show I can do anything."

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl describes Harper -- the streaking Tigers' floor general -- as having an air of confidence, which is appropriate because there's no noise or look-at-me antics to draw upon. But get near him, talk to him, and there's no mistaking the unflinching belief he has in himself. You may see him as 5-foot-11; he doesn't. The day after his dunk against Xavier, he tried to posterize Mr. Slam Dunk himself, Williamson. And there are those bleeding orange and blue who believe Harper might have done it, too, had Williamson not fouled him. Pearl chased down the refs to chastise the non-call, despite what appeared to be contact before the block. Harper finished with 22 points and six assists.

You'd think a player with those numbers and that dunk on his resume would be a household name, but he's not. Because of his size, because he doesn't play at a college basketball powerhouse and because he doesn't make top-10 plays every week like Williamson and Morant, he's largely overlooked nationally.

Ask Pearl, though, and he'll tell you to pay attention. He'll tell you all about Harper's "off-the-charts" athleticism -- how his three-quarter court sprint clocks in at 3.15 seconds, and how, on approach, his vertical is 42.5 inches.

"Pound for pound," Pearl said, "Jared is one of the top players in the SEC."

On offense, he's in complete control. Ditto on defense. His will to win has turned a perennial cellar-dweller into one of the conference's better programs. Last season, he was the most important piece of an undermanned team that was rocked by scandal and still somehow managed to win a share of the SEC championship and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years. This season, it has been more of the same. He's still the team's linchpin, as Auburn is poised to make back-to-back tournament appearances for the first time in 31 years.


THERE'S A THEME that comes up when you speak to those closest to Harper: He has plans.

Take last month, for instance. At the time he spoke to ESPN, his team was reeling, having lost six of its previous 11 games, and he made a statement that sounded more like a promise. "We're ready to go on a run," he said. And it happened. Auburn went out and won six of its next seven, including last week's tilt on the road at rival Alabama in which the Tigers trailed by 13 points in the second half. Harper came up big during the final 2:32, getting a key steal and scoring six of his team's final 10 points.

His performance, according to Pearl, was just as you would expect. Put the ball in his hands, he said, and "get out of his way."

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Auburn celebrates upset win with fans

After upsetting No. 5 Tennessee, Auburn's players share the moment with the home crowd.

On Saturday against No. 5 Tennessee, Harper's 16 points and eight assists helped the Tigers upset the Vols en route to their fourth straight win.

"He's had four great games, in many ways put the team on his back," Pearl said after the game. "It's the responsibility of a quarterback to make plays and he's been exceptional."

But you have to go back further to truly understand how Harper arrived at this point in his life, as the leader of an SEC program and the conference's second-leading assist man. You have to start with his father and how he was raised in the game.

Back when Patrick Harper was a similarly undersized point guard at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, he and his friends would talk about becoming parents one day and how they'd raise their sons to play the sport they loved. And when little Jared Harper was born, it wasn't long before a Nerf hoop showed up and completely took over the dining room. It was there that Patrick marveled at how his son could dribble a ball in both hands simultaneously.

But he knew that the road to competitive basketball -- if that's what Jared ultimately wanted -- wouldn't be easy since it was unlikely he would surpass 6 feet tall. So early on, the sport was taken seriously. Jared would learn to play the saxophone and baseball and even turned an unassisted triple play once, but basketball was always the primary focus. Coaching his son's AAU team in the third grade, Patrick would refer to tournaments as "business trips." Jared was taught not just to know the ins and outs of his position, but all five spots on the floor.

To get him used to being undersized and playing through it, Patrick allowed his son to play up in competition. He'd play sixth graders in the fourth grade and seventh graders in the fifth. He enrolled him in a private school that allowed him to compete on junior varsity even though he was only in the sixth and seventh grade.

"Was it hard? Was it challenging? Yes, it was," Patrick said. "But he toughed it out."

More than just the physical side of the game, Patrick wanted him to understand what went into each level of basketball. His idea, he said, was to show Jared a "future for himself." So in grade school they'd visit basketball showcases like Nike's Peach Jam, and in middle school they'd attend high school state championships. Later, in high school, they'd drive to Nashville to watch the SEC Championship Game.

After every season, Jared said he would make sure to take stock of what he'd accomplished. And more importantly, he'd figure out what he wanted to do next. What started out as a goal of competing for a state championship morphed in Division-I scholarship aspirations.

Kennesaw State was the first to offer and Ole Miss later showed interested. It wasn't until his junior season, during a game against Douglas County, that newly minted Auburn coach Bruce Pearl showed up on campus. What Pearl saw was a special talent -- someone who could shoot, dribble and wasn't afraid to get physical fighting for position under the basket. There was a confidence about him that Pearl couldn't get enough of.

Pearl had come to watch Brandon Robinson, who would wind up at North Carolina, but was blown away by Harper instead. He turned to his assistant in the stands and told him, "If we don't try to get him now -- right now -- he won't make it through the summer."

Jared visited Auburn with his dad and Pearl sold the program hard. Thinking he might favor staying home and going to Georgia, Pearl brought up the notion that then-coach Mark Fox didn't go for smaller guards. The fact that Jared was 5-foot-11 didn't bother Pearl at all.

Jared committed to Auburn and, like Pearl predicted, raised his profile further when he won MVP of Peach Jam that summer. Before his freshman year, Pearl told fans that he didn't know if the team would be good but promised Jared would be "worth the price of admission."

"And I think I undersold," he said.


WHATEVER HIS FATHER did to teach him the game, it worked. Washington believes Harper is the most intelligent player he's ever coached. Then there's Pearl, who thinks Harper is more developed than some coaches -- himself included.

"It's a challenge to coach someone who's smarter than you," Pearl said. "Jared has a great basketball IQ."

And part of that is having great recall, apparently.

Last year, Washington was at practice coaching Harper's younger brother when they had a question. They were trying to remember a specific type of zone play they wanted to run, but were coming up empty. They'd run the defense only once, and it was during Harper's time at Pebblebrook. So they called him out of the blue to see if he could remember.

As soon as Washington could finish his sentence, Harper rattled off the exact play. Not just that, Washington said, but he added instructions about "how you should do it." "He hasn't played for me in three to four years," Washington said. "It just blows your mind."

Because he knows every detail of the game plan and because he has thoughts of his own, it's no wonder Washington trusted him with so much of the offense. At Pebblebrook and now at Auburn, he has been in complete control.

"You don't want to put restraints on players like that," Washington said. "It's like working with a scientist, you don't want to limit them on the exploration of things."

Jared started 30 games as a freshman, but truly skyrocketed last season as a sophomore. It's hard for coaches to put a finger on exactly what changed from year to year, but the combination of competing with Davion Mitchell and the time he spent working out with NBA star Damian Lillard in Portland during the summer has the feel of a sea change.

After gaining All-SEC Second Team honors, Jared put his name in the draft and worked out for the Atlanta Hawks before deciding to return for his junior season. Pearl expects that, regardless of where Auburn finishes, he'll do the same after this season.

His size will keep some teams from considering him, Pearl said, but that doesn't mean he won't be a pro. He's not averaging 15.2 points, 5.8 assists and 2.6 steals per game on accident. To get to the next level will be about fit. There are only two sub-6 foot players in the NBA, and Pearl expects Jared to join them soon.

"You can rarely point in a game where he couldn't do something because of his size," Pearl said. "He can pass out of ball screens. He can shoot over length. He can finish at the rim. He probably needs to finish tough 2s, whether it's his float game or in the paint. I'd say that's the one thing, the last chapter, of his development, because he has everything else."

Harper has studied the likes of Lillard, Jeff Teague, Kemba Walker and Mike Conley. This season, he has shown off an extended 3-point range that goes as far out as the logo.

He may not have scouts drooling like Williamson or Morant, but he has a desirable skill set. And if you get stuck on 5-foot-11, just go back to what happened in Maui. Remember the dunk. If he can do that, who's to say what he can't do?