Paul Suellentrop

WSU notes: Defensive desire lifts Alex Harden into Mercury playing rotation

Minnesota Lynx guard Seimone Augustus (33) shoots against Phoenix Mercury guard Alex Harden (12) during the first half of a WNBA basketball game on June 27 in Minneapolis.
Minnesota Lynx guard Seimone Augustus (33) shoots against Phoenix Mercury guard Alex Harden (12) during the first half of a WNBA basketball game on June 27 in Minneapolis. AP

The early moments of Alex Harden’s life in the WNBA caused her some confusion. As Phoenix Mercury coach Sandy Brondello tells it, Harden wasn’t sure where to go, how to get there and where to stay when she reported to Phoenix.

Brondello told her not to worry, the Mercury would take care of it all after drafting her with the No. 18 pick in April out of Wichita State.

Since that time, Harden, a 6-foot guard, is acting like she belongs at an impressive rate.

Entering Saturday’s game against New York, Harden worked her way into a role as a defensive specialist, playing in all 14 games and averaging 15.7 minutes. Brondello said she recognized Harden’s defensive potential from the start of training camp. Her refusal to allow screens to knock her off assignments made an early impression.

“We think she’s a very good defender and can defend multiple positions,” Brondello said. “She’s come in and been a really good fit for our team. She’s very strong. Very quick — I was really surprised at how well she keeps players in front of her.”

Defense is a significant part of Harden’s resume at WSU after earning Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors twice. She came to camp willing to take that role. In her fourth game, she guarded Minnesota stars Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus and that experience showed she could play.

“I make sure I’m not the weakest one on the floor,” she said. “I know I can’t get scored on every possession or I know I’m not going to get back in the game. It’s understanding what the player wants to do, and taking that away, like in college. And it’s understanding they’re going to make some tough shots.”

Harden is working to make her offense catch up with her defensive skills. In 14 games, she is averaging 2.8 points and is shooting 26 percent from the floor. Brondello encourages Harden to stay aggressive on offense and is confident she can help the team on that end of the court with more polish.

“Until I get my offensive game to the caliber that some of these women have been playing at, I will be defense first,” Harden said. “She wants me to stay aggressive, because when I drive hard I can create offense, make defenses guard me or get open looks for my teammates.”

Harden scored a season-high 10 points in the June win over Minnesota and followed with eight points against Connecticut. In the first 14 games, Harden went 13 of 50 from the field and 4 of 13 from three-point range, while making all nine of her foul shots.

“You’re going to make shots and you’re going to miss shots, but you can’t get too high or too low,” Brondello said. “She’s struggled with her shot a little bit lately. But she’s being aggressive and good things will happen if she’s aggressive.”

The Mercury won six straight games entering Saturday. The return of All-Star center Brittney Griner from a seven-game suspension coincided with the hot streak.

“She can do a lot of things and she alters so many shots,” Harden said. “It’s crazy playing with her and understanding what she does for the game. She clears almost every board and makes it a lot easier because now they’ve focused their attention on her.”

Staying on him — Wichita State men’s basketball will lose two top-level guards when seniors Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker complete this season. It makes sense for the Shockers to look at replacements.

One strong candidate is Iowa Western Community College point guard Donovan Jackson, a sophomore from Milwaukee. Iowa Western coach Jim Morris said WSU started recruiting Jackson last spring. While Jackson hasn’t set his list of visits, Morris expects him to check out WSU this fall.

“They’ve recruited him the longest and the hardest,” Morris said.

Jackson (6-foot-1) averaged 13.6 points and 2.3 assists as a freshman, making 40.2 percent of his three-pointers (66 of 164).

“He can really shoot,” Morris said. “He played some (shooting guard) for us; Wichita State is recruiting him as a point guard.”

Jackson put on a show at the Mullen JC Top 100 camp in St. Louis earlier this month, averaging 15 points and 3.3 assists in three games. He made, according to Mullen’s statistics crew, all 11 of his three-point shots and 5 of 7 inside the arc, plus both his free throws. Jackson came into the camp with the reputation as a strong scorer and impressed scouts with his passing and playmaking skills.

“He’s an extremely hard worker,” Morris said. “He’ll dive on the floor for loose balls. He does all the little things.”

Jerry Mullen, owner of Mullen’s Roundball Review, describes Jackson as Rajon Rondo with a jump shot. He backs up the 11-for-11 stat. Mullen’s Cameron Belden acknowledges that Jackson shot with great accuracy, although he won’t swear he made 11 straight.

“Unbelievable,” Mullen said. “He played great. He’s long and he can handle the ball and make plays with the ball.”

Baseball on the move — Jeb Bargfeldt, a pitcher who made 12 starts for WSU as a freshman, is transferring to Cisco (Texas) College, where he wants to pitch and play a position.

Bargfeldt will join former Shockers Michael Burns, an outfielder, and Matt Whalen, a pitcher. Burns hit .179 in 41 games for WSU as a redshirt freshman. Whalen redshirted as a freshman at WSU last season.

The connection is Cisco assistant coach Jon Coyne, who worked as a volunteer assistant at WSU in 2013 and 2014.

Shortstop Wes Phillips, who played at WSU in 2014, transferred to Cisco and hit .344 with four home runs as a sophomore. Phillips, from Maize South, signed with East Carolina.

▪  Taylor Goshen, who started his freshman season as a key member of WSU’s bullpen before struggling, transferred to Iowa Western. Goshen, from Fort Wayne, Ind., went 4-3 with a 7.89 ERA in 23 appearances.

▪  Infielder Lenni Kunert, from Denham Springs, La., signed with Northwestern (La.) State to accept a partial scholarship instead of walking on at WSU this fall, a move made with WSU coach Todd Butler’s approval. Kunert also said that proximity to home was a factor in his decision.

Kunert signed with WSU in November after committing to LSU as a sophomore. He hit .485 with five home runs as a senior.

Track in Toronto — Two former Shockers will compete in the track and field events at the Pan Am Games in Toronto this week.

Kellyn Taylor runs the 5,000 meters on Tuesday. Last month, she finished seventh in the USA Track and Field Senior Outdoor Championships with a time of 15 minutes, 32.04 seconds.

Austin Bahner will compete in the decathlon beginning Wednesday. Bahner holds WSU’s record with 7,847 points.

Worth noting — WSU’s women’s tennis team earned All-Academic honors for the third straight year from the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. The team recorded a 3.52 grade-point average and Guilia Guidetti, Luca Pump, Rebecca Pedrazzi, Gabriela Porubin and Lucia Kovalova earned Scholar Athlete honors.… Former WSU outfielder and graduate assistant coach Tim Tolin will be inducted into the Bartlesville (Okla.) Athletic Hall of Fame in November. He was a three-sport standout at Sooner High and played for the Shockers from 1978-81.… Evansville center Egidijus Mockevicius averaged 9.5 points and 5.3 rebounds for Lithuania in the World University Games in South Korea. Lithuania went 5-3 and finished sixth. He scored two points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked five shots in a 70-48 loss to the United States.… Former Southern Illinois guard Bryan Mullins, the Valley’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 and 2009, was promoted to assistant coach at Loyola from director of operations. Loyola also hired former Arkansas-Little Rock coach Steve Shields as an assistant earlier this month.

Reach Paul Suellentrop at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @paulsuellentrop.

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