CHARLOTTESVILLE — As he strained in the weight room with his high school teammates cackling around him, struggling to bench press more than 100 pounds, the notion that Joe Harris would someday drop 36 points on No. 3 Duke seemed absurd.
It wasn't that Harris — all scrawny 5-foot-10 and 140 pounds of him — couldn't come close to benching his weight as a 14-year-old freshman playing varsity basketball on the team coached by his father that embarrassed Harris. It was that his 17-year-old sister, Kaiti, who was a senior at Chelan (Wash.) High, could bench press more than him.
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"Older guys on the team would make fun of me for that one," said Harris, who will lead No. 4 seed Virginia on Friday in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals against the winner of Thursday's Virginia Tech-North Carolina State first-round game. "That was kind of rough."
Harris has come a long way. Seven years later, he's a first-team All-ACC guard, averaging 17 points per game and trying to help get U.Va. (20-11) off the NCAA tournament bubble this week in Greensboro, N.C., with an ACC tournament win or three.
Joe's dad, who is also named Joe, was in John Paul Jones Arena that night Feb. 28 when Harris scored his career-high in U.Va.'s big win against Duke.
Joe Sr. had seen his only son go from 6-year-old team manager for Chelan High's boys basketball team to that skinny, floppy-haired 14-year-old playing point guard with a mask on his face (the product of a broken nose) that made him look even thinner for four or five games, to an All-ACC talent. Yet, something about seeing him torch Duke that evening in person seemed like an out-of-body experience.
"It's one thing to be in a college basketball atmosphere like the one they had that night, but it's another thing to realize, 'My kid is just slicing Duke apart,'" said the elder Harris, who also has three daughters with his wife, Alice, and who has coached Chelan High for 22 years. "That's just something you dream of."
The younger Harris made a habit of having those kinds of explosive scoring efforts this season in ACC play. After scoring between 20 and 22 points just three times in U.Va.'s first 19 games, and never eclipsing the 22-point mark, he put up between 21 and 36 points in six of nine games during a month-long span that ended with the win against Duke.
"He's a threat when he's moving and shooting the ball and all that, but he's just … he's rugged," U.Va. coach Tony Bennett said. "He's a competitor, and he's willing to do whatever. If you say, 'Joe, don't shoot,' he'll do whatever. He just wants to win. He is a coach's son. He's really invested in trying to get Virginia basketball to the highest point it can get to.
"Every year he's gotten better. He's made that big jump from his sophomore to his junior year."
Harris' big run started to put him in the conversation for ACC player of the year, but it was the way he was doing it that turned heads.
He's always been a threat to score from the perimeter, as evidenced by the fact he's leading the ACC in 3-point shooting percentage (44.4), but he's added the ability to score off the dribble and in traffic this season — a product of the fact the 6-6, 210-pound junior has finally figured out how to put muscle on that frame.
He's also posting his points while averaging just under 12 shots per game (11.9). He's third among ACC guards and ninth in the conference overall in field goal percentage (47.8).
"He scores, but he does it in taking very few shots," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "That's why I call him very efficient. He doesn't have to take 20 shots to get 20 points, and I think that efficiency fits very well with the way Tony likes his teams to play. He takes good shots, doesn't take bad shots and he makes most of them at the same time. I think he's better defensively than people give him credit for."
Bennett is a coach's son himself, which means he has a soft spot for the kind of relationship the Harris men have, but Bennett didn't take it easy on the younger Harris when he first got to campus. He had a lot to learn about defense, which is the foundation of Bennett's program, after arriving in Charlottesville from Chelan, a town with about 4,000 residents located three hours east of Seattle.
"I remember my first year he used to always say I couldn't guard my own shadow," said Harris, who was first recruited by Bennett when he was the coach at Washington State from 2006 to '09. "He'd say, 'We're going to have to match up Harris on the other team's worst offensive player.'"
His improved strength and footwork has done wonders for the development of his defensive game. He's no longer the liability on the defensive end that drew Bennett's fury.
Harris didn't flinch when Bennett would get on him about defense. Describing his dad's coaching style as "old school" and calling him "a yeller and a screamer," Harris had seen the not-so pleasant side of a coach's demeanor.
Still, his dad was the first person to stoke the passion for playing the game inside the younger Harris. As a first-grader, the worst kind of punishment for not doing his homework was being forced to stay home when it came time for his dad to go lead practice at Chelan High.
The game was in his blood from an early age.
"I think being coached the way I was growing up really helped," Harris said. "I was taught to not just be a shooter. … I don't know if more people are paying attention to those other things this year, or what. I know I'm not that great in a lot of areas, but I guess I can occasionally do some things consistently well. I know I have a lot of things I need to improve on."