LAWRENCE — Dajuan Harris Jr. is facing a Kansas basketball locker room that will look different from the one he just won a national championship with.
So many key voices and talents from that title-winning squad are moving on to professional careers, like Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot to name a few. They won’t be donning Jayhawks uniforms as the program looks to defend its championship. And among those departures is Christian Braun, someone who has been close with Harris for years.
Harris, who hopes to see Braun selected in the first round of the upcoming NBA draft, became used to hearing Braun’s voice around the team. They each had their respective place on the roster the past three seasons under head coach Bill Self, even starting the title game of the NCAA tournament together against North Carolina. And as Harris looks to do his part to fill the leadership openings that naturally arise in situations like this, he will have to do so without Braun.
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But Harris isn’t lost by any means. Harris has been around the program for a while now as a player. He’s looking to be one of the Jayhawks’ most significant leaders this season, and certainly will have the support of those around him as he pursues that goal.
“We were fortunate last year that we had good upperclassmen that were good leaders, no question, but … I don’t know how many times I said this to you guys in the fall and preseason, Dajuan Harris’ team won every day,” Self said. “They always won. He has to step up in that area, but he’s been doing it, too. I mean, it’s not like that’s something that’s going to be totally new to him.”
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Self pointed out that where Harris goes, Harris wins. That was true in high school, when Harris won a state championship at Rock Bridge in Missouri. That was true in Harris’ first season as the starting point guard at Kansas, when the Jayhawks won a national title back in April.
Harris can develop as a vocal leader, but the track record for success is already there. Harris also won’t have to do it all alone, with Self mentioning Jalen Wilson and transfer Kevin McCullar as two others to look at in that area. Self said that while sometimes a team that’s full of alphas can see athletes trip over each other when it comes to who’s trying to lead, he doesn’t think there will be any doubt who’s looking to who’s on this team this upcoming season.
Bobby Pettiford Jr., another returner, highlighted Wilson, Harris and McCullar as leaders to watch for, too, in addition to Joseph Yesufu. Pettiford noted while Harris may not look like he’s leading in the same ways as others publicly, behind closed doors Harris is handling his role. And Pettiford thinks Harris has the potential to be louder, depending on how Harris feels.
“Me and Dajuan have been talking about it,” said Pettiford, who also considers Harris to be possibly the smartest basketball player he’s competed with. “I don’t know why, last year, everybody gave him a hard time with how he plays. He’s kind of laid-back and just passes. But he’s, like, the heart of this team. Like, without Dajuan, I don’t think we, like, make it as far.”
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As a point guard, Harris said the coaching staff has been preaching to him about leadership all the time. That was true when he was a freshman, and he wasn’t even playing. There’s always been an effort, to develop his ability to be a leader.
After redshirting the 2019-20 season, Harris started two of 30 appearances in 2020-21 before starting in 39 of 40 appearances in 2021-22. He’s become a stalwart defender, leading Kansas in steals this past season. If his trajectory as a talent is mirroring that of his ability to lead, that’s a trend that bodes well for the Jayhawks moving forward.
Harris’ high school coach at Rock Bridge, Jim Scanlon, said he saw Harris grow and mature each year they were together there. Scanlon, who described Harris as having probably the highest basketball IQ of anyone he’s coached, has been so glad to see what Harris has been able to accomplish. Watching Harris win a national championship at Kansas, almost made Scanlon cry.
“I’d never had anybody in that position,” said Scanlon, who considered Harris a quiet leader in high school. “I’ve coached a long time. So, my wife and I watched the whole tournament and we watched the semifinal game and watched the finals and it was just really exciting for us. I mean, when you have somebody there, involved, it’s — you take it a little more serious.”
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.