Elias Harris had just arrived in Spokane from his native Germany and was playing in a pick-up basketball game with some of his future Gonzaga teammates.
“His first four or five times down the floor he dunked on somebody. Right then, you knew he was going to make an immediate impact,” senior guard Matt Bouldin said. “We came down, I hit him on the low block, and he went up and banged (dunked) on somebody. Hit him again, and he banged on somebody. Fast break, banged. It was pretty sweet.”
Head coach Mark Few knew early on in practice, if not sooner.
“We could tell,” Few said. “He was aggressive, he was strong and able to make plays over people and through people. We had a pretty good inkling when we signed him.”
Perhaps most important, Bulldogs assistant coach Tommy Lloyd knew right away to contact Harris after a tip from a coaching buddy in Germany. Harris was on a third-division (amateur) team in Speyer with hopes of playing collegiately in the U.S.
“From when I played in Germany I had some coaching friends and there was a coach in his area that I keep in contact with named Torsten Daume,” Lloyd said. “I asked him if there were any kids in his area that were good prospects and he said, ‘There is one kid in a neighboring town that I wanted to sign on my team, but he doesn’t want to sign a contract. His name is Elias Harris.’
“That happened on a Tuesday, I believe. I spoke with Elias the next day or so and he told me Dirk Bauermann, the national team coach, was helping him with his recruitment. So I talked to Dirk and he had nothing but good things to say about Elias. I was at (Harris’) game that Saturday (in Germany).”
“I thought he’d be a great fit here,” Lloyd said.
Just past the midpoint of the regular season, Harris is putting up numbers rarely posted by a freshman, at Gonzaga or elsewhere. He leads the team in rebounding (8.2) and he’s second in scoring (15.7). He’s made 59 percent from the field and 44 percent behind the 3-point line.
The 6-foot-8, 215-pound Harris has introduced himself to the West Coast Conference by averaging 22.3 points and 10.5 rebounds in four Gonzaga wins heading into tonight’s contest with Loyola Marymount (10-10, 1-3).
“You have to respect him on the perimeter, although he hasn’t made a ton of 3s,” San Diego coach Billy Grier said. “In the post, it’s not like he’s 6-10, but he has long arms, and he’s extremely athletic, and he kind of has a mean streak it seems. Everybody in our league is going to struggle matching up against him.”
Harris, who was also recruited by Cincinnati and Washington, committed to Gonzaga before taking a visit. When he did visit, it confirmed that he made the right decision.
“I was talking to Tommy a lot on the phone and he gave me the feeling that I could really trust him and believe him,” Harris said. “I looked at it and Ronny (Turiaf) was happy here and he was European, and all the others who played here were happy. I knew it was going to be a good place to play basketball.”
Basketball is in Harris’ genes. His parents met while his father was stationed in the Army in Germany. His father played in Germany’s second division (pro). His mother played youth basketball but declined an offer to play professionally.
They separated when Harris was 7. His father relocated to Houston three years ago.
“When I was little I watched a lot of college basketball with my dad, and it amazed me from the first day on,” Harris said. “I was always planning on playing in the U.S.”
When Austin Daye left Gonzaga early to enter last year’s NBA draft, it created an opening in the starting lineup that Harris has filled. The 20-year-old has played against older, more experienced players for years. He gained valuable experience on Germany’s national team last summer, matching up against the likes of ex-Bulldog Turiaf, Tony Parker and Boris Diaw in the European Championships.
“When we played France, Ronny said, ‘OK, before the game we’re not friends, but after we’re friends,’ ” Harris said, laughing. “After the game he wished me all the best and welcomed me to the Zag family.”
Harris has scored in double figures in GU’s last seven games and 13 of 18 overall. He has become a primary option on the low block or stepping out and posting on the wing, where he delivered a winning basket against Illinois.
When he first dunked the ball as a youngster, his dad encouraged him to finish that way as much as possible because it’s a certain two points. That’s one of the reasons he tries to get to the rim, and above, whenever possible.
Few likes that Harris is improving.
“He’s made a jump defensively in the last week because we’re asking him to guard perimeters and big guys,” said Few, adding that Harris reminds him of ex-Zag Casey Calvary with his penchant for attacking the rim. “And then don’t settle on offense because he’s really tough when he takes guys to the hole.”
Harris has settled in comfortably with his teammates and Spokane, which is a bigger than Speyer but has similar weather. He appears content as a student and key contributor for the 15th-ranked Bulldogs. Teammates needle him for his accent and for keeping a tidy locker and apartment.
“Everybody makes a little fun of me because I sometimes pronounce words wrong because of my dialect,” Harris said. “They’re cracking up and they think it’s so funny. But my answer is, ‘Well, you guys can speak just one language, I can speak two.’ ”
And his play on the court speaks volumes.
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