AUBURN, Ala. — Jared Harper came out firing away against Vanderbilt, draining a few early 3-pointers.
In the second half, No. 8 Auburn’s point guard found a different way to take over the game. Time after time, he dished it off to first Mustapha Heron and then Bryce Brown for big scoring surges in last Saturday’s win.
Harper, the point man in the Tigers’ rise to their first top 10 ranking since January 2000, had 13 points in the first half and 10 assists in the second.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound sophomore is a big reason why Auburn (21-2, 9-1 Southeastern Conference) enters Wednesday night’s meeting with Texas A&M (15-8, 4-6) atop the league standings.
“I feel like he is the best point guard” in the SEC, said Brown, Auburn’s leading scorer. “He can get his teammates involved. He can score the ball. I feel like he does everything a point guard is supposed to do. I just want him to continue to get better doing what he’s been doing for us.”
Harper is averaging 12.9 points a game and his average of 5.8 assists ranks third in the SEC. He has more than doubled his assist average from his freshman season when he started all but two games.
Harper has been especially good lately. He has scored in double digits in 15 straight games while averaging eight assists during Auburn’s current five-game winning streak.
That 93-81 win over Vandy showed his importance to the Tigers, the league’s top scoring team. Harper scored 14 points and had 14 assists, the most of any SEC player this season. It was also one shy of Eddie Johnson’s school record of 15 assists set in 1976 against LSU.
In the second half, Heron and Brown both went on double-digit scoring tears with help from an array of Harper passes.
“I’m just learning and growing as a player,” Harper said. “In the offseason, I was looking at what I did last year and what I could do better. Just knowing I can lead the team in assists, almost get six a game and get scorers and shooters in the right spots makes it good for the team.”
He split time at point guard with Ronnie Johnson last season but is clearly running the show now.
Brown said Harper came into college with a veteran’s high basketball IQ but has grown into his role.
“If a guy has made a couple shots in a row and he’s noticed that, he tends to call a certain play call so that person can get another shot,” Brown said.
Harper said he spent some time working with the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard during the offseason.
He already has 39 more assists than last season in nine fewer games while improving his 3-point shooting percentage and scoring average.
Harper has also gotten better in other areas.
“Jared is twice the defender he was a year ago,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “Twice the defender. He is not taking possessions off. He’s impacting the game.
“Then the other thing he’s doing is he’s recognizing that he’s got really good team and it’s his job to get the ball to people. He’s not looking to score as much as he is looking to play-make and defend. And those two things are translating into a lot of winning.”