When then-high school sophomore Malek Harris took the 90-minute drive from Orland Park, Ill., to Milwaukee in June 2012, his expectations weren’t all that high. Marquette had begun to show interest one month after assistant Isaac Chew and his Chicago ties were hired to Buzz Williams’ staff. But by Harris’ own admission — “I was far from the player I am now” — he wasn’t exactly the recruit the Golden Eagles were looking for: a 6-foot-7 undersized power with severely limited perimeter skills.
The Golden Eagles didn’t offer Harris on that unofficial visit, and they didn’t offer when Chew and the staff invited him to attend Marquette Madness in October. Marquette’s staff was keeping a close eye on the improving forward, but even then Harris had his doubts about how much of a chance he had of one day playing for the Golden Eagles. Harris recalls two other 2014 Chicago small forwards, Zion Benton’s Malik Yarbrough and Whitney Young’s Paul White, being among the invitees to the annual Madness event. The two of them had scholarship offers; he did not.
Undeterred, Harris went back in the gym and worked on his game to prepare for his junior season at Sandburg H.S., where he eventually averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds for the Eagles. Understanding the growth spurts were ending and there wasn’t much serious, high-major interest in a 200-pound power forward, Harris got to work on adding a jump shot, improving his ball handling and guarding the perimeter. It all culminated with his performance in the Jayhawk Invitational in Kansas City this April.
And in the stands watching Harris dominate the competition for the Illinois Wolves’ AAU team was Chew, who offered Harris a scholarship after his weekend performance.
“I kept working on ball handling, shooting with my size — it’s a gift to be versatile,” Harris said. “So I kept working and Coach Chew saw me in Kansas City and told me, ‘You look like a Marquette player.’”
Marquette wasn’t the only team that weekend taking notice of Harris’ improved skill set. Auburn, Creighton, Kansas State, Oregon State and St. Louis all offered the 6-foot-7 wing, adding on to his offers from DePaul, Illinois State, Iowa and Miami (OH). Later that spring Northwestern and Purdue offered, too, and most Big Ten teams began showing interest late in the process.
That made it all the more important for the Golden Eagles to bring in Harris for an unofficial visit, which they did last Wednesday. It was on that day when Harris, spending his third day on the Milwaukee campus but the first as a serious recruit, gave an oral commitment to play for Buzz Williams in 2014.
“After Marquette offered me they got on me hard and they told me that I was a top priority,” Harris told Paint Touches, “and Coach Buzz came to visit, and I talked to him and he sees me how I see myself in college. He knows my game up and down and I feel like he’s going to be a great coach for me.
“Coach Buzz is one of the realest people that I’ve ever met. He told me the truth and he doesn’t hold back. He cares about his kids which really means a lot. I wouldn’t go anywhere where the coach doesn’t care about me personally and my teammates just as much. And that’s why I can’t wait. I wouldn’t want anyone else to be my head coach,” he added.
By the time Harris made his pledge to the Golden Eagles, he also was considering Iowa and Kansas State. Gonzaga and Xavier showed late interest, but both schools wanted him to take a campus visit before offering.
The retooled Harris describes himself as a versatile, combination wing who “plays with a lot of energy at all times.” The switchable says he’s more of a small forward — a testament to the hard work he made improving from a year ago — who wants to be a matchup problem wherever he is on the court and in the lineup.
“I can handle the ball. When guys are on me I can attack the rim off the dribble or take him down to the block to post up,” he said. “I feel like unless I’m missing shots, you can’t stop me at this height. There’s no way any people should be able to shut me down defensively. Coach Buzz can tell me to do anything on the court and I can do it.”
The changes didn’t come on his own, though. His trainer and mentor, Coach Ed Gibson, who has been a major help off the court and his biggest asset on it. The two met years back at church, and he picks Harris up every day to work in the gym. Harris credits his improved ball handling and shooting to Gibson, and it’s just one example of the importance he has put on family.
As Harris has matured throughout the recruiting process, he began to understand that proximity was going to play a major factor. With his mother, brother and sister just a 90-minute drive away, the excitement in Harris’ voice is evident as he speaks of how they will be able to attend his games.
“Distance is a bigger factor than I thought it would,” he said. “As you grow older you realize it’s important to be close to family and have a great relationship with them. The fact that Marquette was an hour and 30 minutes away just makes it even better.”
He’ll have his family nearby, but the one he’s joining at Marquette has him just as excited. Harris ironically did not meet what would be his future teammates before committing. When he did, he hit it off right away. Talking to them for the first time at Marquette’s basketball barbecue the day he committed, the brotherhood that so many players speak of in the Marquette basketball circle was visible from the start.
“They were all so cool and are a family. And that’s the biggest thing: I want to be a family,” he said. “I don’t want to have any guys that I butt heads with because we’re all out there fighting for the same goal.”
The core recruits Williams has secured in the last three recruiting classes has Marquette seeing big in the near future. Harris will step in as the only true small forward on the roster next season, and whether he’s part of the rotation or a motivational boost off the bench in Year 1, the one aspect he can control, and will control, is the mentality he brings to the team every day.
“If we’re winning, I don’t care if I’m scoring zero points a game. I just want to do whatever I can to win, no matter how they get it done. I was there when they got their Elite Eight rings, so I know what it takes,” he said.
“If you don’t win at the end of the day, you don’t mean anything. We might not be a great winning team right away, but every day we’re going to have a winner’s atmosphere at Marquette.”