Xavier Harris has become the "X" factor on the Howard boys' basketball team. And it has less to do with his name than with the room for growth in his game.
The Hustlin' Tigers are 15-3 and 9-1 in District 6-AA. Coach Walter McGary believes they could be better. He believes Harris could be better.
"He's a super person," McGary said. "He's an excellent student. He's very intelligent. But he's not very aggressive. If he actually finds his niche on this team, we're really going to be something."
Harris suffered a broken ankle last year. McGary believes he's still trying to gain trust playing on it.
Also, at 6-foot-2, Harris plays on a frontline that features 6-8 center Brandon Walters, who garners much more attention from the media and opponents alike. The players used to be rivals in middle school when Harris was at East Lake and Walters was at Howard.
"It's a privilege to be on a team with him," Harris said. "There's no jealousy or anything. He inspires me. If my game is down he'll get on me, and I do the same thing for him. We're partners, basically."
But while Walters is registering double-figure averages in scoring and rebounding, Harris checks in at eight points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
"As a power forward you've got to be a beast," McGary said. "You can't take prisoners. The sky's the limit for him. He can shoot the ball, but his confidence is shaky. He could be a much better rebounder. I think he relies on Brandon to get all the rebounds when there's plenty for both of them."
Harris sees himself more as a team player than a passive one.
"I'll do what it takes to win," he said. "I'd rather score two points and win than score 17 points and lose."
But he's also aware his game isn't fully developed.
"I feel I can be a better player," Harris said. "Some stuff I try to do to my ability. Sometimes it seems like good ain't good enough. But I know I've got to work hard to get where I want to go."
Where Harris wants to go is college. He also played football for the Tigers, but he likes basketball better and hopes to continue it.
Al Cantrell is facilities manager at the East Lake Recreation Center and a mentor to Harris. He said St. Augustine University in Raleigh, N.C., Clark Atlanta University and Motlow College are schools that have shown interest in Harris as a basketball player.
Harris realizes playing in college would mean making the switch to the backcourt. He works on elements like ball-handling and perimeter shooting when he's at the center and not counseling the youths who hang out there.
When at Howard, Harris has classes to attend and at practice a game much closer to the basket to work on. He also has a month-old child.
"I make my way," Harris said. "I do what I can when I can."
In the coming weeks he wants to help Howard advance to the state tournament and win its first title. He thinks the Tigers have what it takes.
McGary said he suspects Harris may think he rides him, or criticizes him, because he's there for him to ride. The coach insists he'd rather ride him to the top, and believes it can be done.
"I try to tell him all the time I see his potential when he doesn't see it," McGary said. "He's the key to this ballclub."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.