Tramel: Elijah Harkless has brought a blue collar to OU basketball
Elijah Harkless showed up in Norman with a vow to do the dirty work. And in OU basketball practices, Harkless showed the willingness to do the same.
But in games, not so much. In his first five games since the NCAA granted him eligibility for his transfer from Cal State-Northridge, Harkless looked mostly lost. The 6-foot-3 guard had eight steals but hardly distinguished himself otherwise. Offensively, Harkless made just four of 17 shots and missed all five of his 3-point shots.
Then Brady Manek and Jalen Hill were sidelined by COVID-19 protocols, Lon Kruger’s rotation got really thin really fast with a game at Kansas upcoming, and Kruger had to think fast.
So he put Harkless into the starting lineup, as a defacto power forward, and the results have been superb. OU played tough at KU, before losing 63-59, then has posted back-to-back routs of Texas Christian and Kansas State, the latter 76-50 Tuesday night at Lloyd Noble Center.
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And Harkless has become a box-score stuffer. His K-State line was stunning -- 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals, to go with eight points. In Harkless’ 31 minutes of play, OU outscored the Wildcats by 30.
“He came in with the idea of being a blue-collar guy, intensity high,” Kruger said. “Been making progress, but today obviously he was very very comfortable. He was great. Rebounded the basketball, got us in transition. Good to see him kind of let it go and play with that level of confidence he did today.”
The Sooners were struggling offensively until turning up the tempo late in the first half. De’Vion Harmon scored nine points on four fast-break baskets as OU took a 32-24 lead. The transition scoring continued in the second half, with Harkless feeding Kur Kuath for a dunk and Harmon for a layup on back-to-back possessions that produced a 56-38 score.
“I believe energy can be there any night,” Harkless said. “You might not make some shots. But the energy, the blue-collar mentality, you can have that every single night.”
Harkless’ energy is such, Kruger wouldn’t even commit to returning Manek to the starting lineup. Manek was back with the Sooners against KSU but played only 11 minutes.
“We’ll take a look at it, for sure,” Kruger said. “Regardless of who starts, Brady’s going to be in there a lot. See how he responds from a physical-conditioning standpoint.”
Either way, Kruger has found an extra player. Harkless is no great scoring threat -- he’s averaging 3.8 points a game at OU, after averaging 7.7 in two years at Northridge.
“I think it’s pretty cool to kind of help fill Brady’s shoes,” Harkless said. “Those are big shoes to fill. Keep this train going for us to be better every single game.”
Harkless has at times ended up guarding much-bigger players and admitted he’s not accustomed to it, “but my teammates make it very easy for me.”
Starting with Kuath, the 6-11 center who has had to play an even bigger defensive role with Hill and Manek out. Kruger decided not to start Victor Iwuakor to prevent serious foul trouble, and it’s worked out.
Kuath said he knew Harkless was capable.
“Since summer, he’s always been showing that dog side of him,” Kuath said. “He can play in this league with us, he hustles, he works hard. He’s just like that. He comes to fight day in day out. I like that about E.J.”
Harkless’ offense remains a work in progress. He nailed a corner 3-pointer vs. Kansas State, but his other 3-point make was a sheepish bank shot from the wing. No matter. Guards who grab 13 rebounds, dish six assists and hold up defensively inside will always have a role.