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Moe Harkless visits St. John’s

Gerald Wallace #45 of the Brooklyn Nets defends

Gerald Wallace #45 of the Brooklyn Nets defends against Moe Harkless #21 of the Orlando Magic on Monday, January 28 2013 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

Steve Lavin’s dream of having Moe Harkless and JaKarr Sampson together on the floor at Carnesecca Arena finally came true Tuesday afternoon. The only problem is that, while freshman Sampson was practicing, Harkless was just dropping in for a visit while in the area with the Orlando Magic.

St. John’s first “one-and-done” player was drafted 15th by Philadelphia last spring and then traded in August to Orlando. Harkless started Monday night against the Nets and scored 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and he’ll be back at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night to play against the Knicks while the Red Storm faces DePaul in a Big East game on campus at Carnesecca Arena.

Speaking to the media on Tuesday about the DePaul game, Lavin said he couldn’t help but think of what might have been had Harkless stayed instead of entering the draft after his stellar freshman season. He arrived at St. John’s as part of the same recruiting class that included Sampson, but academic problems caused Sampson to return to Brewster Academy for another year.

“It would have been interesting to watch,” Lavin said of the prospect of having two high-scoring 6-8 forwards. “It’s really the first time I’ve thought about it for awhile that a Harkless-Sampson front line would have been pretty intriguing.”

As Lavin recalled, Harkless caught national attention immediately when he set a freshman scoring record for a player making his Big East debut with 32 points plus 13 rebounds and four steals. Then, he had 30 points and 13 rebounds in a tough February loss at Duke, and Harkless finished his Big East rookie of the year season with 25 points and nine rebounds in a conference tournament loss to Pitt.

“He picked a perfect beginning, middle and end like the narrative of a good story,” Lavin said. “He had the three great games, and the numbers in between were solid, too. I felt from the Duke game forward he was going to have an opportunity to be a top-10, top-15 [pick].”

Now that he’s earning an NBA salary and getting his share of playing time, the Queens native has no regrets about leaving school early. “You always look back and think, ‘What if I had come back or waited another year?’” Harkless said. “But I think I made the right decision. I’m in a good position right now. With hard work, I can keep getting better and definitely have a good career.”

Harkless said getting consistent playing time has been the most difficult adjustment he’s faced so far with a struggling Orlando team. “You go from being THE guy on the team to just another guy on the team trying to find a role and identity,” Harkless said. “You have to do the little things because that’s what’s going to get you on the floor…I’ve been through games where I haven’t played at all, some where I’ve played 10 minutes. Last night, I started and played 34 minutes.”

Although he’s in the NBA, Harkless said he’s watched most of St. John’s games and can see the Red Storm improving. He expressed pride in how D’Angelo Harrison, who was last season’s leading scorer even with Harkless, has stepped up into the leadership role.

Some might wonder if Sampson could become St. John’s next one-and-done player, but while he has played well with a 14.3 scoring average and 6.5 rebounds per game, he hasn’t been as dominant as Harkless was at times last season.

“He definitely has the tools to play on the next level,” Harkless said of Sampson. “He just needs to keep working and developing. He’s still a little raw, but I definitely think he’ll be able to play at the next level. I don’t know how soon.”