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With his maturity, skilled Harkless sets himself apart from NYC forebears

by | College Basketball Insider
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Harkless averaged 15.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game as a freshman last season. (Getty Images)  
Harkless averaged 15.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game as a freshman last season. (Getty Images)  

Lloyd Daniels. Felipe Lopez. Lenny Cooke. Sebastian Telfair. Even Lance Stephenson.

Moe Harkless knows the names and was fully prepared for the questions that came his way last week while in Chicago for the NBA Draft Combine.

The NBA higher-ups wanted to know why Harkless is different, why he won't join the group of overhyped New Yorkers who have underachieved in their quest for greatness.

"I wasn't highly touted," Harkless said. "It kept my head on straight."

Harkless is more Kemba than Bassy, with people questioning his abilities throughout the majority of his young basketball life. He didn't begin to play organized basketball until high school, when he spent his freshman season on the JV squad.

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"I'd go to the park, but it was never more than that," Harkless said.

Now, though, Harkless is one of the more intriguing players that will hear his name called by NBA commissioner David Stern on June 28. He certainly passes the look test, measuring at 6-foot-8 3/4 at the combine, with a 7-foot wing span and just 5.3 percent body fat. Long and athletic -- just the way the NBA folks like 'em.

But Harkless also passes the other test, the one that so many from his neck of the woods have failed. The mental and emotional evaluation.

Harkless doesn't thrive for the headlines. That's not to say he doesn't enjoy attention like most of his peers, but he doesn't yearn for it in the same way Telfair did when he was coming up through the ranks.

This kid just seems different.

Upon his arrival in Chicago last week, he proceeded to go through four consecutive interviews with NBA teams -- Miami, Milwaukee, Minnesota and Charlotte. Then it was off to dinner to watch the NBA playoffs, followed by a trip to L.A. Fitness at around 11 p.m. to shoot for an hour.

He grew up in a small apartment in one of the most dangerous sections of Queens -- South Jamaica. There's his mother, his grandmother, his 24-year-old sister and her three children and also his 7-year-old brother. Harkless rarely goes home anymore.

"There's no room for me," he laughs. "If I do come home, I have to sleep on the couch."

He'd rather go to Six Flags amusement park than a party, would prefer the gym to video games -- and shrugs off the backlash he received when he announced he'd be leaving St. John's after just one season.

"People were saying, 'How could you be so heartless?' " Harkless said.

But Harkless was ready to leave college. Sure, he may not be prepared to step in and influence an NBA game right now, but his skill set and approach is intriguing enough for NBA teams to consider taking him in the lottery. His perimeter shot needs work, but one thing you can't question with Harkless is production: He averaged 15.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game as a freshman last season.

He did it with his coach, Steve Lavin, battling cancer -- and while watching his sister also fight the disease.

"It wasn't an easy year for me," Harkless said. "I had to stay mentally strong all year."

"He's very thoughtful," Lavin said. "And a super talent. He's the most complete at this juncture of his career as any I've coached."

Lavin compares him to a cross between Rudy Gay and his own last recruit as coach at UCLA, Trevor Ariza.

Harkless actually has a similar disposition to Gay, one of the more likable players in the NBA.

Few actually seem to know Harkless left Forest Hills High for South Kent prep school in Conn., in an effort to play against superior competition, not because he was struggling academically. In fact, he arrived at South Kent with a GPA north of 3.0. Few are aware he was a soccer player when he was younger -- or that he'd kick in some of his tuition money so that his mother, who works three days a week at Applebee's, could pay the rent. While at South Kent, the baseball team was short a few bodies and Harkless did the noble thing -- and volunteered despite the fact he had never played the sport.

"I struck out every time," Harkless said with a smile. "But I caught two balls in right field."

There isn't a single tattoo on his body.

He's just not like those that preceded him coming out of NYC.

One person close to him described Harkless as an "old soul," someone far more mature than 19 years old, which he just turned back on May 11.

Harkless worked out for both Orlando and Boston prior to the combine. This past week, he was in Cleveland and Philadelphia, which holds the 15th overall pick. There's interest from the likes of Milwaukee (12), Phoenix (13), Houston (14 and 16). Several NBA executives told CBSSports.com he could go anywhere from the late lottery to No. 25.

"I feel like I'm definitely one of the most undervalued players out there," Harkless said.

Daniels didn't make it. Neither did Cooke. Telfair is struggling to stay in the NBA and Stephenson may do the same.

Harkless? He's not like those guys.

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