LEXINGTON — When Ryan Harrow was a high school senior in Marietta, Ga., he was a five-star point guard.
A third-team Parade All-American, Harrow was rated as the No. 19 player overall and No. 7 point guard in the country, according to Rivals.com.
But when Harrow committed to then-North Carolina State coach Sidney Lowe and the Wolfpack program during the summer of 2008 before his junior year, the skinny but lightning-quick guard (who was only 6-foot and 150 pounds) was not even ranked or heavily recruited at that time. While several big-name schools did express an interest in Harrow, he only had a handful of firm offers from colleges, including Auburn and Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Then, in the next two years in high school, he improved and became a great playmaker who can score, earning numerous state and national honors (Georgia’s Class 5A Player of the Year, participating in the Derby Festival Classic, among others).
And now the 6-2, 170-pound guard is rapidly becoming a major force as a promising sophomore for coach John Calipari’s Kentucky club after leaving N.C. State as a part-time freshman starter when Lowe was fired in 2011.
Harrow has blossomed in a big way, helping the Cats, now 9-4, in the backcourt after the communications major returned to UK after a brief trip to home in North Carolina along with an illness earlier in the season.
Going into Thursday night’s road matchup with Vanderbilt, Harrow has scored double figures in four consecutive games, averaging nearly 17 points during that span. He also has an assist-turnover ratio of 29-7 in the past seven games.
With his small frame, you can tell it’s not easy for Harrow to play college basketball in physical terms, but he is certainly getting his job done in playing the game’s most important position with his speed, quickness and leadership.
“It’s hard because I’m not a big individual, but I’m getting stronger,” said Harrow following Kentucky’s 82-54 win over Marshall on Dec. 22. “It’s just being mentally disciplined. I’m sure you’ve all heard that, that’s what I have to do so he (Calipari) will keep me on the floor.”
Calipari said Harrow — who hit a career-high 23 points against Marshall — has a good feel for the game.
“He can run our team,” said the coach. “I mean, there are point guards that are tougher than him, but if he would be tougher, then he’s just as good as them.”
While Calipari is very pleased with Harrow’s recent improvement, the coach gets irritated when his point guard occasionally acts like a “cool” player on the floor. When that happens, a frustrated Calipari puts Harrow on the bench.
But Harrow understands that he “can’t be the cool guy. I have to be the aggressive guy that shows emotion and plays hard.
“When I’m that cool guy, it’s me laid back acting like I don’t care, and I can’t do that for the team to do well.”
Unlike Calipari’s previous point guards at UK (John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague), Harrow is not listed among the candidates who have been nominated for the 2013 Bob Cousy Award, which recognizes the top point guard in college basketball. Over 80 candidates, including eight from the SEC, have been nominated for the Cousy Award this season before the list is being trimmed to 20 players sometime this month.
But that doesn’t mean Harrow — who gained useful experience in competing against Teague during everyday practices last season when he sat out the games due to NCAA transfer rules — can’t be one of the top, if not the best, point guards in the nation by the end of the current campaign.
Calipari said there is no limit what Harrow can do.
“When he’s playing the right way with aggressiveness, talking to his teammates, that look in his eye, he’s as good as anybody in the country right now,” said the Wildcat coach.
And Calipari was ecstatic with Harrow’s overall performance (15 points, 4 of 5 three-pointers, eight assists, and four steals) in UK’s energetic 90-38 victory over Eastern Michigan.
“Wow! How about that today? It wasn’t even the steals,” added Calipari. “He played, he competed, he battled, and he got punched in the face to today on a play and it didn’t affect him. So I’m more than pleased.”
Meanwhile, Harrow, who will be 22 in April, is not listed in a couple of recent 2013 NBA mock drafts, but is mentioned as a high second-round pick in another 2013 draft.
Ex-NBA assistant coach/scout and current UK radio broadcaster Mike Pratt said earlier this week that it’s very premature to talk about Harrow’s immediate NBA future, especially next winter.
“(It’s) way too early to tell about him,” explained Pratt, who was a two-time All-SEC performer at Kentucky. “He is really improving his game but let’s look at the remainder of the year against many different types of point guards.”
Pratt also pointed out that it’s not helpful for the team development when there are lots of talk about UK or other college players going pro, saying it “can divert a player’s attention from what is important — winning games.”
Even if Harrow is not quite ready for the pros after this season, he still can be a future standout in the NBA.
With Calipari’s successful track record of producing five point guards (who were selected in the NBA draft’s first round for five straight years) and Harrow’s recent improvement, it won’t be surprising to see the current Wildcat playmaker join a long list of Calipari’s NBAers like Wall, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist down the road.
And with Harrow becoming a very valuable cog in Calipari’s Big Blue machine, there’s no telling how the far the Wildcats will go this winter.
Only the sky’s the limit.
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Jamie H. Vaught, a long-time sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is currently a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.