Ryan Harrow, as the expected starting point guard for Kentucky, must decide on the fly. As chaos erupts around him and his feet move at a rapid pace, Harrow must assess the situation, make a decision and execute.
Those are the responsibilities of a John Calipari-coached point guard.
For example, when Harrow drives into the lane, does he go with his instincts and drive to the hoop? Or does he wait for the help defender to commit and throw a lob pass to his teammates? What if Harrow’s defender drops off and dares him to shoot? What if a double team tries to trap him?
All those things must go through Harrow’s head in the time it takes for the ball to bounce from the floor back to his hand. Oftentimes it’s even quicker.
“It’s kind of difficult because it’s like, alright, I’ve got a wide open lane, but I can throw the alley-oop too,” Harrow said. “Which one am I going to do?”
Harrow’s gut tells him to drive and score. It’s how he’s gotten to this level of college basketball. He thrived in high school by beating slower defenders off the dribble and finishing at the hoop.
His mind tells him he has elite players around him who are capable of finishing at the hoop.
His coach just wants him to make good decisions.
“I want Ryan to be the best layup shooter in the SEC,” John Calipari said. “I don’t need any cuteness. Get to the basket, shoot layups. If they absolutely back off like they tried to play Marquis Teague, he shoots it a little bit better. But I want you to shoot layups, and that’s what you’re doing, which means you’ve got to play through bumps and keep going.”
It isn’t that cut and dry though. At this level there are faster defenders to get by and bigger obstacles that stand in the way. More importantly, there are better pieces around him.
With that in mind, Calipari wants Harrow to balance his score-first mentality with a willingness to distribute, but he demands solid decisions more than anything.
The key for Harrow, as Calipari explained it, is to play fast but think slow. In other words, while the moving parts around Harrow materialize at such a rapid pace, Calipari wants him to train his mind to slow down how he sees the game to make better decisions.
“Just because your feet are moving fast doesn’t mean your mind has to move that way,” Coach Cal said. “Every drill we do is to slow the mind down so that you’re not panicked and so that you can make those kinds of decisions. I tell them I want you to think like a duck.”
When a duck is moving across the water, its feet are pumping rapidly beneath the surface to move it along. Above the surface, however, one sees calm, fluid movement.
“You must practice that way,” Coach Cal said. “You have to practice at a very high pace, practice very fast and get them to make those split-second decisions where it’s moving a little bit slower.”
Initially, Harrow struggled with that idea. He’s so crafty with the ball and so quick on the bounce that slowing the game down in his mind seemed to take away his greatest strength.
Fortunately for Harrow, he didn’t have to learn on the fly last year. He had a season to sit back and watch.
After transferring from North Carolina State, Harrow had to sit out last season due to NCAA rules. He averaged 9.3 points and 3.3 assists in his lone season with the Wolfpack, but like most freshmen – at least the ones that aren’t at Kentucky – he struggled with consistency and his play was often erratic.
While Calipari’s previous five point guards – Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague – had to learn on the run, Harrow enjoyed the benefit of practicing with the team while watching from the sidelines during games.
“I learned the system, which was most important to me, just figuring out what Coach Cal wanted out of his point guards and how he wanted them to lead,” Harrow said. “He wants you to get everybody around you better and think about the team first instead of being a score-first point guard, which I’m used to. He also wants me to be a vocal leader. I had to adjust to that. That year gave me a lot of time to practice on that.”
Perhaps that experience is what has excited fans the most about Harrow. The fact that Calipari’s previous five point guards have stepped in as freshmen and flourished – all five went to the NBA after one season – has convinced many that Harrow is the next link in a long chain of great point guards.
Throw in the rabid fan base’s proclivity to speculate and anticipate and it’s easy to see why Harrow has become somewhat of a practice legend.
“I know a lot of people are excited to see me play because they saw me in a couple of scrimmages last year or watched my YouTube videos,” Harrow said. “I’m just as excited as they are to be able to get out on the floor and play.”
With the success of the previous point guards and the additional experience Harrow has received, he knows there is pressure to live up to their play. Harrow is a far different player than his predecessor, but there is no hiding from the prior line of success.
Harrow said he’s just trying to be his own player.
“I know that there have been great point guards ahead of me and I feel like I can keep that torch going and be one of those next great point guards, but I’m not trying to think about that because that will put too much pressure on myself and that will mess me up,” Harrow said. “I’m just really focused on getting better as a player and getting better as a team.”
In addition to learning the system, Harrow said he used the transfer season to bulk up. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 145 pounds when he arrived at North Carolina State, Harrow is up to 170 pounds. He had little choice in putting on weight after going head to head in practice last year with Teague, arguably the most physical point guard Calipari has ever had.
“He got beat up playing against a pit bull every day,” Coach Cal said.
Harrow is never going to be a bruiser, but the added muscle is a significant increase for a point guard who is learning to play through bumps to finish at the rim.
“I know you can’t really tell (that I’ve put on weight) but it shows in my play now that I’m finishing around the basket,” Harrow said. “I’m taking the bumps and learning how to play in the pick-and-roll. Coach just wants me to take those bumps and still finish or at least get fouled and not get thrown out of the way and not get up the shot.”
Fast, slow, strong or quick, Calipari just wants Harrow to become the floor general that has become the staple of so many of his teams.
Harrow said he’s ready to take on the challenge.
“I’m somebody that nobody can really guard on the dribble so that makes it a lot easier for everybody on the floor,” Harrow said. “Either they have to guard me or they have to guard their man. It will give everybody an opportunity to get open and get the ball and it will give me an opportunity to score too. I think I’ve become a better leader and gotten better at playing to my teammates’ greatest skills.”