Noie: Notre Dame SF D.J. Harvey encouraged by injury return

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Rising to reel in a rebound, he surveyed the situation, kept alive his dribble and hurried the basketball to the other end before banging down a 3-pointer.

Later in a halfcourt set, he cut hard across the baseline before fading to the corner. When the ball rotated his way, he refused to reverse it, something he likely would have done last season. Instead, with a defender closing quickly on an open look, he rose, fired and swished another 3.

A few possessions later, with his confidence in his shot soaring, he utilized an escape dribble, found some free space in the middle of the floor and offered a soft mid-range jumper that caught the back iron and nestled into the net.

Those were a trio of scrimmage snapshots earlier this month from Notre Dame sophomore small forward D.J. Harvey, whose college career sits at a trio of crossroads of the past, the present and the future. As Harvey learned last season, nothing beyond today is guaranteed. Not the next game, the next practice, the next shot or the next opportunity.

Coming off February microfracture surgery to repair cartilage in his left knee, Harvey is counted on to be a key guy this season. He’s expected to eventually start, to play major minutes, to handle a big role. Expected to do so much more than last season.

To understand how Harvey fits this season and how he handles the future knowing that his left knee again could crumble, we revisit last season. It was a long and lost one for the prized recruit from DeMatha Catholic (Md.) High School.

The past

Harvey stepped into a sticky situation as the lone freshman on an experienced team ready to win more now. He was so talented, but his game was so green. There wasn’t much time or patience offered by the old guys to wait on a kid who was ranked as high as the nation’s No. 21 college prospect. On a team that already had power forward Bonzie Colson and point guard Matt Farrell, Harvey took it slowly before getting his turn, something that wasn’t going to come anytime soon on a veteran Irish outfit.

“With Bonzie and Matt around, I had to take that year as kind of a learning year,” Harvey said. “Take a backseat and watch those guys.”

Rather than plant his playing-time flag, Harvey admitted that he eased up. Sometimes coasted. Allowed the old guys to be old guys; allowed himself to be the newbie. He wanted to play more, but didn’t want to cause conflict. He figured his time would come.

“I was taking a lot of things for granted last year,” Harvey said.

Like the game, and how it always would be there. Everything about that changed Jan. 16 when Harvey grabbed a defensive rebound against Louisville. Nobody bumped him on his way down. He didn’t land at an awkward angle. Still, his left leg locked and he felt something strange. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew it wasn’t good.

Originally diagnosed with a bone bruise to his knee, Harvey missed seven games before insisting all was well heading into the Feb. 17 game at Boston College. On the surface, yeah, everything seemed fine. Deep down, Harvey knew it wasn’t. The knee bothered him more than he let anyone know. As much as Harvey tried to convince himself that he was good, it was bad.

But he felt he had to push through it. Colson already was out with a broken foot. Farrell had missed five games. To get back to the NCAA tournament a fourth straight year, the Irish needed Harvey. They knew it. He knew it. So he masked the pain to play.

“I felt like I let the guys down,” he said. “I felt bad not being out there. I had to get back.”

Harvey was ruled out for Boston College, then for the rest of the season. It was an opportunity forever lost. For him. For the Irish. He averaged 5.8 points and 2.8 rebounds in 19 games. But the 17 games he lost to injury were critical for his present and his future.

“I thought I was invincible, but I’m not,” Harvey said. “It made me realize that you can’t take things for granted.”

The present

Rehab of the February microfracture surgery shelved Harvey all summer. Outside of light shooting and skill work, the best he could offer was serving as sideline DJ (no pun intended) for the pre-practice/scrimmage tunes. He also didn’t play in the team’s three-game exhibition tour of the Bahamas. Harvey was cleared to return in early October.

When it was time to cut it loose, he cut it loose. He played confidently. Played with an edge. Played with purpose. Played with a confidence that he’d never carried at any time last season. He was locked in. He was good. So was his game.

On his third day of practice, Harvey was the best player on the floor. It wasn’t close. He was that good.

“He’s done a fabulous job working to get himself back,” said Brey. “There’s certainly a lot to work with there.”

Having gone nearly eight months without the game, Harvey has to proceed with caution. He’s not going to get it all back in one day, or even one week. He’s got to play with as much patience as he does purpose. The day he looked so good in the scrimmage situations early, he faded late. He was tired. It showed.

“I feel good,” Harvey said. “Coach Brey has emphasized making sure the game comes to me, get back with the feel of the game. That’s the most important thing.”

When that feel returns, watch out. Harvey is lethal from all three levels — around the bucket, mid-range and beyond the 3-point line. He has an NBA-type build at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds. He got a little too large during rehab, something strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski solved. That’s another sign that Harvey’s serious about this season.

“He’s done everything we’ve asked,” Brey said. “I’m really proud of his attitude.”

The future

Harvey doesn’t wear a protective brace or a sleeve on his left leg. Watching him move and cut and play, it’s hard to believe that he underwent such a serious procedure, one in which the long-term ramifications still rattle around in Harvey’s head.

For everything the surgery did to help the knee, there’s no guarantee that it will hold. He could play his final three seasons with no additional issues. He said that there’s a 70 percent chance of that. That’s good. That’s the number Harvey prefers to focus on. Doing so keeps him from dwelling on the other one, the one that says there’s a 30 percent chance that a future issue could occur.

If that happens, his college career again might be sidetracked. Only this time, for good.

“I want to stay optimistic,” Harvey said. “There’s a possibility that it’s not going to be the same and the pain is always going to be there. There’s a chance for re-injury. I don’t know.”

Nobody does. Not Harvey. Not the coaches. Not the medical staff. The cartilage in the knee may grow and strengthen and hold. It may not. Regardless, Harvey knows he has to do something moving forward that he didn’t do in the past — be honest with himself and with the coaching staff. Something he wasn’t last season.

Will Brey get a true answer from Harvey when he needs one?

“Probably not,” he said with a smile. “Eventually, he’s got to play and feel good. He’s just going to have to play on it.”

This week is a big step for Harvey as the Irish return to work following four days off for fall break. Next week is another with two exhibition games. The following week — the regular season — is another.

Many steps remain along Harvey’s recovery road, but the first one the weekend of Oct. 12 was a big one. A needed one. An encouraging one. For him. For the Irish.

“He’s moving great,” Brey said. “I hope we’re trending the right way. We sure look like we are.”

Notre Dame sophomore D.J. Harvey dribbles the ball while being guarded by freshman Prentiss Hubb (3) during a recent scrimmage at Rolfs Athletics Hall.
Notre Dame’s D.J. Harvey (3) shoots over North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson (13) during the Jan. 13, 2018 game at Notre Dame.