There were rumors after Elias Harris' freshman season at Gonzaga that he'd leave for the NBA. Three years later, he's completing an outstanding four-year career, hoping to lead the Zags to the Final Four.
SPOKANE — After Michael Harris spent a weekend with his son for Senior Day festivities two weeks ago, they parted. Harris said he regretted not being able to be with Gonzaga for the early stages of the NCAA basketball tournament.
“My plan is to meet them in Atlanta,” said Harris.
Whether the Zags have the chops, and the magic, to find their way to the Final Four is a question mark. But it was similarly doubtful Elias Harris would be there for the long haul for Gonzaga, and here he is, a 132-game starter and the most prolific combination scorer/rebounder in school history.
Through all that, Harris somehow seems fated for the back burner in the public consciousness, whether it’s NBA scouts who question whether he’s a “tweener” forward who might not have a position in the pros, to the fact that his productive final season has been widely overlooked as a mere complement to the spectacular rise of Kelly Olynyk.
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Fact is, he’s richly appreciated by the Gonzaga coaches, right down to his understated personality and personal habits.
“Good dude, really good dude,” says Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “Incredibly humble. We were just talking about how low-maintenance he’s been over the course of his entire career. There’s been nothing, zero, never an issue where we had to bring him in and had to have a meeting.
“He lives by himself and his apartment is immaculate. You take your shoes off when you go in.”
Few laughs. “He’s not your typical college basketball player.”
Harris established that very early. He burst onto the scene in 2009, the Zags’ explosive German import, averaged 14.9 points and seven rebounds, and for some reason, consensus had him leaving after a year for the NBA.
All of which was confusing to Harris.
“I came from Germany,” he said. “I had no clue whatsoever how the whole process works. After my freshman season was over, it was like a given thing to come back.”
Michael Harris says he got calls then from agents regarding his son, who concluded he wasn’t ready for such a leap.
“I think they were going through me so they could persuade Elias to do something he didn’t want to do,” the senior Harris says.
The possibility seemed enhanced by reports that Harris, playing for a club team in his hometown of Speyer, Germany, had been paid before he entered college. The NCAA vetted the issue, however, and Harris suffered no ineligibility.
“It was a brand new club, it had no money,” says the senior Harris, referring to BIS Speyer, his son’s team. “I always said to Elias, ‘Don’t sign any paperwork where it’s saying they’re paying you.’ “
Elias Harris’ father says he played small-college basketball, went into the Army and was stationed in Germany, where he played for a team there. He returned briefly to the U.S., was beckoned back by the team, TSV Speyer, and played from 1979-88.
He retired from basketball and worked as an accountant in Germany, met Elias’ mother Svenja — they have since divorced — and works now for the Army Corps of Engineers in Galveston, Texas. Michael says Svenja, a post player, had opportunities in pro basketball but chose not to play.
As an adolescent, Elias Harris would watch NCAA or NBA games and wonder aloud, “Do you think I could play with those guys?”
He got better and better, played for Germany in the 2009 European championships, and then arrived at Gonzaga, picking GU over Cincinnati, Washington and Delaware.
After his big introductory season, injuries caused his numbers to recede slightly as a sophomore, and following both of his first two years, he left campus to play with the German nationals, which Few thinks retarded his progress.
“They were playing games,” Few says. “It’s not like he was ever getting to work on himself.”
After staying last summer, he has averaged 14.9 points this season, matching his freshman total, with 7.4 rebounds a game. His career point total of 1,840 puts him fourth, only 27 behind Adam Morrison, and his 964 rebounds is tops in what Few calls the “modern era,” second overall only to Jerry Vermillion’s (1952-55) 1,670 in Gonzaga’s pre-Division I period, a time of gargantuan numbers on the boards.
Harris has a quick first step, but questions exist about his ability to play through contact, and this year, he’s making just 16 percent of his three-pointers after a three-year composite of 40.7 percent. Then there’s the bigger issue of what position he can play in the NBA.
“A lot of people have asked me all year, ‘Are you a three or a four?’ ” Harris says. “My answer is, ‘I’m a basketball player. Put me in a position and I’ll figure it out.’ “
He says he’s fine having played cameo to Olynyk’s big year.
“Do I get overshadowed a little bit?” he asks. “Maybe. Does it bother me? Not really. At the end of the day, the people besides the media — the experts, the coaches and scouts — they see what I’m doing.”
The sheer numbers would say that’s been considerable. Now the challenge is for the Zags to have as much staying power in the tournament as Elias Harris had at Gonzaga.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org