'He does all the dirty work': How OU basketball's Elijah Harkless is giving Sooners surprising boost
NORMAN — Late in the first half Tuesday night against Texas, Elijah Harkless was being a pest in all the right ways.
Guarding potential first-round draft pick Kai Jones on the perimeter, Harkless bodied up the Longhorns player who has eight inches on him.
He swatted at the ball with his right hand, then moved to his left around Jones, who was scrambling back near midcourt for the ball. Harkless dove, knocking the ball free once again, cradled it and passed from his back to teammate Victor Iwuakor.
“Those are winning plays,” Sooners coach Lon Kruger said. “Elijah has no hesitation to get on the floor or stick his nose in there on a rebound or play in a physical way.”
Looking for a reason why the Sooners are thriving in the midst of one of the toughest stretches in their schedule not only in recent years but in program history?
Look no further than Harkless, the transfer from Cal State Northridge who a little more than a month ago was expected to redshirt but who has helped give OU a gritty defensive identity since moving into the starting lineup in early January.
Harkless figures to be a big part of the No. 24 Sooners’ plans Saturday when they host No. 9 Alabama (11 a.m., ESPN).
Searching for a comparison for Harkless, De’Vion Harmon settled on a name that figures to resonate with the large group of crossover fans of both the Sooners and the Thunder.
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Harmon compares Harkless to longtime Thunder nemesis Patrick Berveley.
“He gets in you,” Harmon said. “He takes pride on the defensive end. … He does all the dirty work for us.”
When the Sooners started scouring the transfer portal for help, they were looking for a guard who could add toughness along the perimeter.
“In the frontcourt, we have that in Jalen Hill, Victor Uwuakor, even Brady (Manek), but we were looking for some backcourt toughness,” Sooners assistant Carlin Hartman said. “Someone alongside Austin Reaves as almost like an enforcer type guy.”
Harkless’ name kept popping up as a player who fit the bill and the more they dove in Harkless’ background, talking to Northridge’s coaches as well as others who had seen him play the last two seasons in the Big West, the more they liked.
“A lot of times you call on a kid who’s interested in transferring and you find out things that you really don’t intend to pursue after that,” Kruger said.
It didn’t take long after his arrival for the coaching staff to start to think Harkless was maybe even better than they thought but it still looked like the only players Harkless was going to frustrate this season was going to be his teammates in practice.
But in mid-December, the NCAA issued a blanket waiver allowing any player who transferred this season immediate eligibility.
It took Harkless some time to work up to making significant contributions in games — though he did have a three-steal, three-assist performance against Houston Baptist in his second game.
By the time Manek and Hill were sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols beginning with the Jan. 9 game at Kansas, Harkless was fully up to speed and after some consideration of how to adjust the starting lineup, Kruger decided to insert Harkless at Manek’s formal forward spot.
The Sooners lost that first game with Harkless in the starting lineup, but the defensive improvement was apparent.
He had three steals, a block, five rebounds and helped the Sooners get to the doorstep of what would’ve been their first win in Allen Fieldhouse since Billy Tubbs coached OU.
“I feel like you can earn everybody’s trust on the defensive end and play hard,” Harkless said. “That’s something I adopted when I was a young kid growing up.”
Going into that game, opponents were shooting nearly 40% from behind the arc, making 10 3-pointers per game on the Sooners.
In the five games since Harkless moved into the starting lineup, opponents are shooting 26.7% on 3-pointers, averaging just 5.4 per game.
“We thought that he could be this in time but I would be lying if I said we thought he was going to have this type of an impact so comfortably,” Hartman said. “We kind of stumbled upon something that’s been really good for us.”
Harkless has 13 steals over the last five games and is averaging 6.6 rebounds while also ramping up his offensive production, especially getting to the free-throw line more consistently.
But though he’ll score when necessary, Harkless would rather make his impact in other ways.
“You can play with anybody playing like that,” Harkless said. “I don’t need the ball as much as everybody.
“I feel like I can impact the game in other ways and help those guys out.”