LOUDONVILLE — The easy move would have been to start freshman Gary Harris right away.
And, to be clear, plenty of Siena men’s basketball fans clamored for that, as the 6-foot-6 wing player often dazzled with his athleticism and promise early this season.
But, besides one spot start in late November, Harris came off the bench for the Saints until a couple weekends ago at Niagara. Now, Harris has started Siena’s last three games, and it’s difficult to see that not continuing given how the Saints have played since injecting Harris into its opening mix of players.
“You want to be able to show him and teach him, and let him grow — and, then, I think you’ve got to be able to let him get out there and show what he can do,” Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello said at Wednesday’s practice. “I think we’ve been able to grow him that way, and, more or less, nurture him into that starting role.”
Harris has started Siena’s last three games, a stretch that saw the Saints start fast against Niagara before falling, then score a pair of double-digit wins against Marist and Quinnipiac. His statistical output has been modest in those three games — he’s averaged seven points and 2.7 rebounds, plus a steal and a blocked shot per game — but he’s offered the Saints’ starting lineup extra length and athleticism with him in it after Siena started 6-foot-4 Matt Hein, a fifth-year senior, for the campaign’s first 15 games.
“For us, he gives us one of the . . . better athletes, not only in the conference, but probably in the country,” said Maciariello, whose team plays Friday at Iona.
With junior Manny Camper, Harris gives Siena another athletic wing in its opening lineup. That provides sophomore Jalen Pickett another player to find in fast-break settings, and the point guard has averaged 7.7 assists per game since Harris was inserted into the starting lineup at Niagara, up from 4.2 assists per game prior to that.
Like many freshmen, Harris struggled early in his first college season with some of the basics. Defensive assignments were missed, and questionable shots were taken.
But he’s come along. He’s scored at least six points in seven of the team’s last eight games, and he’s used his combination of size and athleticism to produce several highlight-worthy defensive plays.
“I’m getting in the flow of things,” said Harris, who is averaging 5.6 points in 17.3 minutes per game. “I’m getting used to the game more, and it’s becoming more natural for me.”
Harris, Maciariello said, “kind of sets the tone for how we want to play.” While Harris needed to use practice to earn a starting role, the coach said he views Harris as more productive as a starter than as a reserve, too.
“I think starting Gary gives him a greater focus to pay attention to things,” Maciariello said. “I thought he’s worked extremely hard and he’s gotten a ton better defensively from the beginning of the year until now.”
“In practice,” Harris said, “I’ve just been working hard and playing hard.”
And keeping his focus on the right things. He doesn’t mention scoring when talking about his role with the Saints, but instead brings up how he needs to rebound and defend to contribute the rest of this season for Siena.
“That’s what we need to start the game,” Harris said.