AUBURN, Ala. — While TJ Dunans was a little hurt when he learned he wouldn’t be spending much time at point guard this season, the senior’s disappointment quickly faded.
Because after a season in which multiple players — including a 6-foot-7 power forward, a true freshman and a walk-on — attempted to fill the void left by Kareem Canty’s in-season departure from Auburn, the Tigers have something better than stand-ins: they have not one, but two true floor leaders.
Bruce Pearl will have to decide if freshman guard Jared Harper or graduate transfer Ronnie Johnson will start at the position. Either way, the head coach won’t be scrambling.
“It’s great having two point guards,” Pearl said. “When TJ Dunans is your third point guard — and last year when he got healthy, he was our starting point guard — we’ve clearly upgraded the position.”
Though only one will start, the twosome won’t exactly be battling for minutes — each will have opportunities to lead.
In many ways Harper and Johnson are similar. They’re both quick and capable playmakers who understand the game, but they also possess unique strengths.
Harper, a Mableton, Ga., native, was a 4-star signee. As a senior at Pebblebrook High School, the 5-foot-10 Harper averaged 27 points, 10.1 assists and 5.7 rebounds, leading his team to back-to-back state championship game appearances.
He’s transitioned well to the college game, playing like a veteran despite his youthful appearance.
“He can make plays defensively and offensively,” Pearl said. “Not a lot of guys can make plays defensively, but he can. He draws charges. He anticipates things. Jared, as he continues to get experience, he sees and makes a lot of things happen.”
In a short time, Harper has earned the respect of his teammates, too. Expectations continue rising each time he’s stepped on the hardwood.
Another scrimmage, another buzzer beater. Jared Harper from half-court to give Orange some payback. pic.twitter.com/p6rUvjV21t
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) October 13, 2016
“I feel like Jared is going to be one of the best freshman point guards in the country,” junior TJ Lang said. “He’s quick, he can really shoot it, he can really pass. There really isn’t anything he can’t do. He’s got the pass-first mentality. He looks young, but he plays like an old man.”
Johnson, on the other hand, has the experience Harper lacks.
In 2012, Johnson played in 34 games as a freshman at Purdue. The following season he started 32 games and was the Boilermakers’ second-leading scorer.
As a junior, Johnson transferred to the University of Houston. He averaged 9.4 points and 2.9 assists, helping the Cougars reach the first round of the NIT tournament.
“Ronnie can really pressure the basketball as a physical defender,” Pearl said. “He’s really tough. He wants to win. Ronnie wants to win.”
His teammates appreciate his eagerness but also trust his experience.
“He’s been at a winning program,” Lang said. “He knows what it takes to win so he brings in that competitive aspect.”
Lang and Dunans believe the duo could be two of the best point guards in the SEC and possibly the country. They expect them to create and make players around them better.
No matter who takes the floor initially, each player will have to power Pearl’s high-tempo offense and disrupt on defense.
“We’re not very big and you could see that, but we’re fast, we’re athletic, we shoot it pretty well, we’re deep and I’m hoping that our style of play will bother opponents.”