Sixth grader may be next hoops phenom
CREEDMOOR, N.C. -- Damon Harge Jr. doesn't have the full grasp of why he's sitting here, and perhaps he shouldn't be.
Not yet anyway.
He seems lost and mildly disinterested as he shifts his slight 120-pound frame around in the padded seat and surveys the layout of the cozy coffee shop inside of Christian Faith Center Academy (Creedmoor, N.C.).
Harge is innocent and unassuming and he exudes a pureness that's refreshing.
THE YOUNG AND THE PHENOMENAL
Truth is, Harge wouldn't really care if he did know. Not because he's above that, it's because he's, well, 12. He just happens to be widely regarded as the No. 1 sixth grader in the country.
"It's pretty cool, I guess," Harge said of the distinction. "I don't really pay attention to those things. I just play ball. I don't worry about being the best. I just want to play."
Still, with Harge's level of clout, simply playing ball is unrealistic in today's "find the next big thing" climate.
Not when you're the understudy of a recent No. 1 NBA draft pick, not when you're already being courted by some of the country's most elite college programs and definitely not when you're one of the only sixth graders in history to suit up for a varsity squad. (Harge is allowed to play varsity for Christian Faith Center as a sixth grader because it is a private school.)
"We know what's in store," Damon Harge Sr. said. "The attention and everything. We're prepared."
The Ultimate Referral
Sure he was going to miss his friends and teammates in Mountain House, Calif., but all he could think about was the fact that he'd be playing in the city where his idol, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, was a schoolboy legend. Harge raced to the computer to inform Wall via Twitter.
Wall had watched Harge play during the Star Vision tournament in Las Vegas last summer and was "an instant fan."
"The kid was unguardable," recalled Wall, who went No. 1 to the Wizards in the 2010 NBA draft. "I knew right away he was a star. I just wanted him to continue to work hard."
It makes sense that when Harge asked Wall to recommend a school for him in Raleigh, Wall immediately pointed him toward Williams, who was an assistant at Word of God (Raleigh, N.C.) when Wall played for the Holy Rams.
"It was a no-brainer to tell him to play for Coach K," Wall said. "K taught me so much when I was coming up and he kept me in line with everything from my attitude to not taking any shortcuts. He's the ultimate motivator and I knew he'd be perfect for Dame. That's the only coach I'd trust with him."
Williams was naturally intrigued.
"When I got the call, I knew I'd heard the name before," said Williams, who is in his second year at CFCA. "I looked him up and it's hard not to be impressed watching his videos. I wasn't sure about how that would translate on the varsity level, but I was excited to find out. I just kept thinking 'he's only 12?'"
Wall leans back on the cement wall at Upper Room Christian Academy (Raleigh, N.C.), folds his arms and begins to nod his head even before the question is finished being asked.
Does he think it's too soon to call Harge, or anyone for that matter, the top player in the sixth grade?
"To be honest, I actually do," Wall said. "All of this is too serious for a 12-year-old kid. He should be concentrating on having fun, but, at the same time, I understand why it's happening. What's he gonna say, 'No thanks, I don't want to be ranked right now?' Plus, I'd be shocked if there's a player that's more skilled than him at his age. It's not wrong and it's not his fault. Basketball isn't the only sport that ranks kids early."
Wall is right about that.
Both the United States Chess Federation rankings and the world swimming rankings include kids under the age of 10.
"It's just the day and age we live in," Wall said.
North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall agreed, and he would know.
When he was just 11, Marshall graced the front page of The Washington Post and was featured in Sports Illustrated after being ranked the No. 1 fifth grader in the nation.
"It was pretty crazy when I look back on it," Marshall said. "It was fun and all, but when you're that young and you're getting all of that attention you're going to get a lot of haters and you'll probably lose some friends. The good part was I had parents that could shield me from most of it to the point where I didn't even know what was going on."
Damon Sr. and Camisha run the same type of interference; they man Harge's social media pages and preach grades over basketball. Harge gets all A's.
They're not the overbearing, self-promoting "Hollywood" parents you'd expect a kid like Harge to have. Camisha, an associate director for clinical operations, is laid-back and Damon Sr., who owns a furniture delivery company, is more animated, but not to the point of being too much.
"We've created an environment where he never has to worry about anything but doing his work and playing basketball," Damon Sr. said. "He's truly a remarkable kid, but not everyone appreciates that so we have to be in place."
Most people don't even buy that Harge is really 12 once they've seen him play. Nothing a quick peek at his birth certificate can't fix. Camisha keeps it in her purse.
That includes attention from colleges.
Harge has already visited North Carolina State and Duke while Kentucky, Washington State, Stanford, Florida, Washington, North Carolina Central and Santa Barbara have all expressed interest.
Even if you don't mind the overexposure of a preteen, the whole recruiting dynamic starts to pull the screen away from the giant elephant in the room.
What if Harge doesn't pan out?
It's a legitimate concern, and as Wall put it, "If you ranked me when I was 12, I'd probably be like No. 200 or something, but I made it. So it's not crazy to think the opposite could happen."
When Wall began to express concern about people placing unrealistic expectations on Harge, you could sense that the name was coming. The name that's always used in stories of young basketball "phenoms." The name that has become the universal example of how not to handle early overexposure.
"I'm just saying, I don't want Dame to end up like Demetrius Walker," Wall said.
Like Harge, Walker was dubbed the top 12-year-old in the country and he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 14. He was the subject of the book "Play Their Hearts Out" and was touted by some to be the next LeBron James.
But the lofty forecasts were way off.
Walker never lived up to the unfair hype. Today, King James' onetime heir apparent is putting up 8.9 points a game for New Mexico.
"You hear all the time about kids being great when they're young, but fizzling out when they get older," Marshall said. "When you have the spotlight for a long time, and it sounds like Damon will, you're gonna get criticized a lot more than the next kid."
Added Wall: "I just try to be there for him. He's so young and he's gonna make mistakes, but he's so talented that he's also capable of having big games. We're going to do everything we can to see him succeed."
Up until now basketball has always been very black and white for Harge.
Need 40 points to beat this team? Harge scores them.
Need 15 assists to pick the defense apart? Harge is dropping dimes.
Need someone locked up defensively? Harge is not letting him score anymore.
But now, playing with older, more experienced players, things are more gray mentally for Harge.
His mind still knows he can dominate competition, but he's working on delivering consistent, tangible on-court evidence to back it up.
"That part is hard," Harge said. "I'm used to doing better."
That's an understatement.
Here's a kid who quit his middle school team last year because he averaged 35 points a game while taking it easy on the other teams. At the Adidas Junior Phenom Camp he dominated the best players in his class and the class above him to the tune of 36 points a game and broke the camp's scoring record with 50 points.
That's why it's hard for Harge to make the connection that the 15 minutes and 8.5 points he's averaging a game this season are, all things considered, pretty remarkable.
"I can do better," Harge said.
He got his first taste of elite high school competition at the ScoutsFocus Elite 80 in October and more than held his own, averaging 11 points per game in a showcase that featured Division I talent.
"That was fun," Harge said. "I just went out there and played my game. I wasn't thinking about anything but having fun."
Added Harge's CFCA teammate Eric Crawford, a sophomore: "I wasn't sold on him before I played against him. He's real. I even pick up moves from him sometime. He's like a little brother so I try and keep the haters away from him. He doesn't get nervous though."
Not even when yet another No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, came out to Harge's game earlier this week to watch him play. Harge scored 11 points and had five assists in a win.
"I was very, very impressed with Damon," Irving said. "He really reminds me of me back in the day, but he's just more skilled than I was back then. The talent and potential is undeniably there. He was crossing up varsity guys like they were the young guys. He's the real deal and he seems really focused."
That same focus forces Harge to wake up seven days a week at 4:30 a.m. and put in an hour workout with Damon Sr. before heading off to school. Harge takes 6,500 shots a week.
"That's the thing that sets him apart from players his age and even older," said Williams, who will also coach Harge during the AAU season with the North Carolina Rising Prospects. "With that high volume of shots the muscle memory is ridiculous. That's how he'll help us this year. He's my best shooter. His time is coming now."
Harge is wildly intelligent and seems groomed for the circus that's inevitably waiting for him three years from now.
He knows there are questions. Doubters. Haters.
People who "know" he'll fizzle to the point of being obsolete and irrelevant.
He's wise enough to know he can't concern himself with that.
Harge is busy searching for simplicity, pondering all of this deep inside the gray matter of his brain, grasping for the black and white.
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