College basketball has had an unexpected start to the 2020s, so in a sense it was fitting for a Big Ten transfer to spurn Kentucky and 2019 national runner-up Texas Tech for BYU.
That’s exactly what happened this week, as BYU head coach Mark Pope beat out John Calipari and Chris Beard for Purdue transfer Matt Haarms, a 7’3 center who will be eligible for the 2020-21 season.
Haarms told Stadium’s Jeff Goodman that Pope’s NBA experience was a big factor in his commitment:
“That was important to me,” Haarms said. “He’s played the position and done it at the highest level. He told me he stuck around the league longer than he should have, so I’m hoping he can help me get there.”
Pope now has the task of bringing out potential in a player whose career was due for a breakout that never came. Before last season, the Haarms hype was warranted. As a sophomore, Haarms logged career highs in minutes per game (22.8), starts (23), points (9.4) and rebounds per game (5.4) before finding another gear in the NCAA Tournament. In Purdue’s first three tournament games, Haarms averaged 14.0 PPG (on 69.2% shooting), 6.3 RPG and 2.0 BPG in 33.7 minutes per game until running into a Virginia-shaped buzzsaw in the Elite Eight.
Nevertheless, Haarms came into his junior year poised for a breakout. He kicked off the season with a 16-point, seven-block and seven-rebound night against Green Bay, started in Purdue’s first 10 games and averaged over 10 PPG and 5 RPG per night in that span. Then the calendar turned to 2020, the Boilermakers faltered in conference play and Haarms hurt his hip at Michigan. Haarms made just three starts and scored over 10 points three times in the next 15 games.
Fast forward to April, and Haarms decided he needed “a change of scenery.”
Matt Haarms on his decision to leave Purdue: “Just believe I needed a change of scenery to take my game to the next level, don't have anything but positive things to say about Purdue but I just felt like it was time to move on.” https://t.co/HdZhSca95i— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) April 6, 2020
Now that Pope and co. have a loaded frontcourt, here’s what Haarms can bring to BYU.
A mobile rim-protector
This is the platonic ideal of the Matt Haarms experience:
Early in Purdue’s game at Maryland on Jan 18, Haarms (32) blocked Terrapin forward Jalen Smith, reset and came from behind to block Darryl Morsell’s layup. Then on the ensuing fast break, Haarms ran from one restricted arc to the other, beating everyone back for a transition dunk. It’s easy to see why sequences like that made Haarms a coveted grad transfer.
A self-proclaimed defensive-minded player, Haarms was one of the nation’s best shot-blockers before committing to BYU. Despite coming off the bench for the majority of his career, Haarms has never ranked lower than 13th nationally in block percentage. His 210 blocks also rank fourth in Purdue history, which is even more impressive given the slew of big men Matt Painter has developed over the years.
Although Haarms wasn’t the lumbering giant like Isaac Haas or as willing to do the dirty work as Evan Boudreaux, Haarms’ quickness for his size and positioning on defense is what set him apart from his teammates.
“He’s got unbelievable timing,” Boudreaux told the Lafayette Journal & Courier’s Nathan Baird. “He doesn’t bite on a lot of pump fakes and stuff like that. When he’s not biting on pump fakes and he’s so big, he’s pretty hard to stop.”
Generously listed at 7’3, 250 pounds, Haarms is what happens when God takes a human-shaped clay figurine, stretches it out and calls it a day. To his credit, Haarms has put on some weight since starting college, but he still has a narrow frame and gigantic, draping arms. The former gets him exposed against bulkier big men, but the latter is what makes him an adept shot-blocker. Even if he gets bad positioning, his long arms and quickness can help him atone for his defensive mishaps.
An efficient interior scorer
Because of his physique and background as a prototypical European forward, Haarms is not a back-to-the-basket scorer. At Purdue, most of his scoring came either out of the pick-and-roll...
...or by burning slower big men off the dribble.
Haarms doesn’t put the ball on the deck often or for long — after all, he doesn’t have to cover much ground being 7’3 — but when he does, he’s surprisingly composed and coordinated for his size.
Take him outside the paint, and things get murkier. His jumper needs work. Haarms is only efficient around the rim, and even when he draws contact, he makes just 63.6 percent of his free throws — not ideal for a player that draws 4.3 fouls per 40 minutes, according to KenPom. He’s a jumper away from being store-brand Kristaps Porzingis, yet he only connected on 10 of his 32 threes last season.
Luckily for Haarms, his new coaches can fix that.
A high-upside player
So he wants to become a better shooter? That’s fine. This is where the fun begins for imaginative BYU fans.
Haarms averaged 7.5 PPG on 58.2 percent shooting, 4.4 RPG, 2.1 BPG in a mere 20.1 minutes per game — all while only starting 40 of a possible 102 games. That small sample size was undoubtedly a factor that made Haarms one of the most sought-after grad transfers.
Now consider the situation Haarms is walking into.
Under Pope’s direction, seven of BYU’s eight main rotation players (as in players who logged at least 12 percent of the team’s minutes, per KenPom) set career highs in three-point percentage last season. And this wasn’t a matter of being accurate on fewer attempts: Of those seven players, five (Jake Toolson, Dalton Nixon, Alex Barcello, Kolby Lee and Connor Harding) set new career highs in threes attempted.
Even though Haarms, a career 18-64 (28.1%) three-point shooter, poses a new challenge for Pope and his staff, the precedent remains. Consider Nixon, a 6’7 forward who went 9-53 (16.9%!) in three seasons playing for Dave Rose before going a respectable 24-62 in Pope’s offense. Surely Haarms can improve too.
Yet all this promise doesn’t come without caveats.
According to scouts on Twitter, the biggest knock on Haarms is that he’s 7’3 and can’t rebound. Most of this criticism stems from his wiry build and narrow frame — the same traits that make him impressively mobile for his size. Perhaps the peanut gallery does raise a valid point: How does a 7’3 center get out-rebounded by smaller defenders — and even his smaller, less physically gifted teammates — year after year?
That question won’t be completely solved in less than a year in Provo. Given BYU’s roster construction, Haarms won’t need to lead the team in rebounding. The Cougars will have five players 6’9 or taller suit up next season — including Richard Harward, a traditional 6’11 big man who was Utah Valley’s second-highest rebounder before sitting out last season.
So Haarms can play the five or, if Pope wants to roll out a big lineup with Harward at the five, Haarms could be an oversized four, which would pit his quickness and freakish length against the average WCC power forward. That’s a mismatch BYU will take any day.
In fact, BYU’s roster might be far from finished.