The Michigan men’s basketball locker room is a testament to consistency. Every locker is exactly the same — stark-white uniforms, navy blue warm-ups and sweats hang in closet-sized cubicles, each accompanied by a plush blue chair. You’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart, if it weren’t for the numbers on the jerseys and nameplate squarely attached to the polished wood above each player’s space.
That is, every locker except one.
While the other players have no personal items in their lockers except street clothes and shoes, a large poster is tacked up inside the locker belonging to Corperryale “Manny” Harris. It mashes together pictures of Michael Jordan to form a question mark with a tagline that reads, “ANY QUESTIONS?” The poster might just be an homage to His Airness, but there’s a clear message to draw from that giant question mark Harris sees every day.
Nobody, not even Harris, knows quite what to expect from him this year.
The pressure on Harris to perform this season is astronomical. He has proven himself as a pure scorer and one of the best slashers in the Big Ten. But Michigan coach John Beilein wants more from him this year. He expects Harris to not only be a top scorer, but also a vocal leader, a distributor, a 3-point threat and a master of his complicated offensive scheme. Harris has to be an all-around player, more mature and more developed. And he knows that.
“At this point now, you just gotta come to the conclusion that it’s not about you anymore,” Harris said. “It’s about the team. And whatever it takes for the team to win, then you will get yours. If the team wins, you will get yours.”
Just as it’s almost impossible to know how the Wolverines will fare this year, it’s futile to predict whether Harris can fill all these roles.
This quiet, unassuming 19-year-old is a preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore. He worked with LeBron James to improve his game this summer. But only time will tell if those experiences will amount to anything this year.
Shutting down ‘Manny Fresh’
You can’t average more than 16 points per game as a freshman and not expect to be the center of every defense’s attention in your sophomore campaign.
The ‘3’ on Harris’s jersey this year might as well be a giant target. Teams will look to stop him by any means necessary, and they’ll probably use film from the Michigan-Illinois series last season as a how-to manual. That’s because Fighting Illini guard Chester Frazier might be the Big Ten’s resident expert on stopping Harris — or at least slowing him down.
“When I guarded him, he scored some points, but I don’t think he had the same success he had against a lot of other guys in the league,” Frazier said.
But the now-senior was being modest, to say the least.
In the 68 minutes Harris played in two games against the Illini last year, his combined stat line was cringe-worthy: 6-for-21 from the field, including 1-for-6 from behind the arc, 19 points and a 2:3 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Frazier’s philosophy is easy enough: Put constant pressure on Harris to separate him from the rest of Michigan’s offense. If he could back Manny into the corner while the Wolverines set up, Harris would be largely ineffective. But you can’t keep him away from the ball all game.
“Basically, in their offense, once he gets the ball, he’s attacking,” Frazier said. “You gotta try and keep him out of the paint, cause once he gets in the paint, he’s pretty much unstoppable.”
With three minutes left in Michigan’s home game against Illinois on Feb. 23, Harris took the ball at the top of the key with the Wolverines up by two points. He slipped straight by Frazier, whose hips weren’t squared up, giving Harris an inside path. A touch floater from the lane sealed the win for the Wolverines. Even with Frazier’s blanket coverage, Harris proved he’s a playmaker.
Purdue’s Keaton Grant had a different outlook on covering the Detroit native.
Give him the ball. Let Harris try to beat you with a hand in his face.
“If you put him in situations where he’s gotta make the plays, he’ll wear his own self out,” Grant said. “Make him handle the ball all the time. If he wants to shoot all the balls, make him shoot all the time. Make it so he gets frustrated.”
It worked in Ann Arbor on March 9, when Grant held him to 10 points, zero assists and seven turnovers.
The blueprints to shut him down as a scorer are laid out for the many teams that struggled to defend him. All they have to do is follow Frazier’s and Grant’s leads.
That makes Harris’s maturation into the all-around player Beilein thinks he can be essential to Michigan’s success this season.
From a scorer to a player
Beilein loves to make his team run.
Players run sprints when they slack off in practice. Even the big men run when they can’t complete shooting tests, which include making free throws, 3-pointers, layups and jumpers in a certain amount of time. They run when they do anything wrong.
But Beilein has never made a player run for finding an open pass instead of taking a 3-pointer — until this season.
The coach made Harris run sprints during the Wolverines’ first week of official practice last month. With an open look at the basket, Harris dished the ball inside without taking the shot. Beilein knows that, even with opposing defenses keying on him, there will be times when the game will have to be in Harris’s hands.
“You’re trying to teach him the sweet spot between being running a play and being a player,” Beilein said. “If you call a play and they jump it, then you gotta option out and be a player. That’s the part that the good players get while they’re in college.”
No matter how much Harris develops the other aspects of his game, he can’t forget the skill that earned him second-team All-Big Ten honors as a freshman:
“I think probably right now, that he’s trying to assist his teammates so much that he’s more hesitant to shoot the outside ball,” Beilein said. “We’re going to make sure that he can shoot it, drive it, and if he can do those two things, he can assist it more.”
Harris began the difficult task of growing from a pure scorer to an all-around player early last summer, when he attended the LeBron James Skill Camp in Akron, Ohio with junior teammate DeShawn Sims.
James actually worked with Manny and his position group, both on the court and in the weight room.
“He would take you aside, talk to you,” Harris said. “He was telling everyone, basically, it’s not how fast you do a move. It’s being patient and taking your time with it.”
It’s been a slow process, and in last Thursday’s exhibition games against Saginaw Valley State, Harris proved he hasn’t quite found the balance between knowing when to shoot and when to distribute.
He shot just four times in the first half, often looking timid with the ball. Midway through the first frame, Harris powered through the Cardinal defense in transition, and where he would have easily taken the ball to the rim last year, he dished a pass down low to junior center Zack Gibson.
Though Gibson finished the play with a dunk, Manny passed on too many shots that he would have taken without hesitation last year.
But the second half was a different story.
“(The coaches) told me to just go (at halftime),” Harris said. “Not to blow up the play, but just go if I feel like I can take the person in front of me.”
He came out much more aggressive and found a good balance between shooting and distributing. On consecutive possessions early in the second stanza, Harris drove to the basket. On the first, he finished with a floater, and on the second, he kicked the ball out to Sims for a wide-open 3-pointer.
But only time will tell if Harris can find that balance on a consistent basis this season.
Is Manny up for it?
He can shoot. He can drive. He can take over a game. But evolving into the player that can do everything for Michigan will be the biggest challenge of Harris’s young career.
Can he handle that type of pressure?
“I don’t know that — I don’t think anybody knows that,” Michigan associate head coach Jerry Dunn said. “That’s something that Manny will have to deal with on a personal basis.”
And if it’s up to Harris, he’s going to succeed this year — in a big way. He’s never backed down from a challenge before.
Playing with a hyperextended knee, Michigan’s eventual Mr. Basketball took the court in the 2007 Michigan high school state championship game for Detroit Redford. Nobody would have blamed Manny for sitting out or turning in a less-than-stellar performance — he sustained the injury in the semifinals, just a game before.
Harris scored a game-high 31 points, helping his team coast to a 79-57 victory over Saginaw.
“Manny was the only guy out there (not overwhelmed),” his high school coach, Ken Flowers, told the Detroit Free Press after that game. “That’s why I know he will be a hell of a player at the next level.”
No one questions that Manny is dedicated to winning.
“He’s a competitor,” Dunn said. “He wants to win, and he wants to be successful. And those are the things that drive him.”
Harris is starting to get it now — the way to win, the path to success, does not necessarily mean he has to score 20 points a game. He openly says that eight or 10 points is fine, if he took the shots he needed to take and dished the ball to open teammates.
It’s the sign of a more mature Manny — exactly what the Wolverines need.
“The whole time I worked out this summer, I just thought about Michigan basketball and putting Michigan basketball where it needed to be,” Harris said.
He may not have the specifics down yet, but Manny Harris has the tools, the talent and he’s developing the mentality to take the step from a good college player to a great one.
The game has already started to slow down for him. If he can make the decision to pass or shoot on instinct rather than thought process, no one is going to stop him.
Not even himself.