Justin Harmon gives Illini tough, experienced guard

Oct. 26—CHAMPAIGN — Justin Harmon spent the first two seasons of his college basketball career nearly 800 miles from his Chicago home. Then two more a mere 1,400 miles west of the Windy City.

Those stops at Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kan., and Utah Valley in Orem, Utah, helped shape Harmon as a basketball player. They also informed his decision once he entered the transfer portal during the offseason. Playing closer to home wasn't necessarily a requirement, but it would be nice for his final season of eligibility.

That Illinois was looking for an experienced guard that could knock down shots made it a match.

"I didn't know exactly what I was going to get when I got in the portal, but I just wanted a good opportunity for me," Harmon said. "I had a lot of old friends that went here. (Terrence Shannon Jr.) goes here now. I came on my visit, and it was just mind-blowing. I just loved it from the moment I stepped on (campus). The coaches were very welcoming.

"It just seemed like a good situation closer to home. I've been playing far from home. It was a good opportunity for me to play in front of my family my last year."

Illinois doesn't mind capitalizing on its "closer-to-home" appeal for former Chicago Public League standouts. It paid off in a big way last season with Shannon joining the Illini after three seasons at Texas Tech.

But pursuing Harmon wasn't a geography-based maneuver. The 6-foot-4, 180-pound guard checked numerous boxes for the Illinois coaching staff in their offseason pursuits.

Experienced. Tough. Shooter.

All three mattered for Illinois, but perhaps none more than the first. Harmon's addition — in addition to fellow graduate transfers Marcus Domask and Quincy Guerrier — was part of a concerted effort by the Illini to build an older roster.

"There's no better teacher than experience, and he has a ton of it," Illinois assistant coach Chester Frazier said of the 22-year-old Harmon. "He's played in a lot of games — a lot more than the guys we had last year. He brings that versatility. A guy that can make shots, a downhill driver, a tough, physical defender. He's going to help us win a lot of games."

Harmon finished his prep career at Curie on a fairly high note. He helped the Condors finish 35-2, claim a top 25 national ranking during the 2018-19 season and place third at the Class 4A state tournament after running into eventual champs Belleville West in the semifinals.

Then came two seasons at Barton CC. Harmon started 46 of 54 games in two seasons for the Panthers and averaged 11.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He was a role player in his first season at Utah Valley but turned into one of the Wolverines' best in the 2022-23 season by putting up 14 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game while making 34 percent of his three-pointers.

"It just helped open my eyes about basketball and made me realize basketball is not a very complicated sport," Harmon said about his time in Great Bend and Orem. "It's as hard as you make it. If you work at it, everything will come to you. The work is going to pay off."

Harmon's teammates have seen him put in that work since his arrival in Champaign this summer. The depth of his experience shines through.

"You can't buy experience," Illini sophomore guard Ty Rodgers said. "He's a dog. Close to one of the best defenders I've seen, and he just plays hard. He has energy. He can shoot it and get a bucket at any time he wants to. He communicates. He's been great."

Harmon has seen growth in his game even in his still short time at Illinois. The way the Illini staff has developed guards was also a key factor in his decision to transfer, and working with Frazier and assistant coach Tim Anderson has started to pay off already.

"I feel like my handle is getting a lot stronger and my shooting is getting very strong," Harmon said. "I'm getting very confident in what I'm doing defending and shooting the three-ball. Everything is really progressing in the right way."