November 11, 2022 

‘There’s a lot more left’: Harvard’s Harmoni Turner is just getting started after Rookie of the Year season

Only a sophomore, past and present Harvard coaches already see uncommon greatness in Turner

At any given Harvard women’s basketball practice, sophomore point guard Harmoni Turner naturally commands attention. One moment, she’s coming off a ball screen, pump-faking, crossing over and blowing by a defender — showing her speed, IQ and skill all in one. In the next moment, she’s slapping the floor and locking in on defense, or she’s jumping up and down celebrating a good play from a teammate. She is seemingly never still, and she never gives less than her best.

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“We’ll go as far as Harmoni will take us, and I mean that in a lot of different ways,” first-year head coach Carrie Moore told The Next, pointing to Turner’s off-court maturation as well as her contributions on the court. “… She’s so special in just what she can do and … really gets us going on both ends of the floor.”

Last season, Turner was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year and Second Team All-Ivy. She was one of the most versatile players in the country, stuffing the stat sheet in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Yet she was playing at less than full strength, dealing with a knee injury that she hid from everyone outside the program, not wanting to excuse any off nights.

Though Turner is still managing her knee this season, the consensus around the program is that she will make a leap as a sophomore.

“I cannot wait to see her play this year because … even superstar freshmen, they’re still freshmen, and I think with them usually goes errors that you have to live with,” Moore’s predecessor, Kathy Delaney-Smith, told The Next. “… I expect Harmoni will be what we waited for and just the whole package.”

Delaney-Smith and Moore agree that Turner could end up being the best player the program has ever had. She is talented beyond her years, as she showed by scoring 31 points in Harvard’s season opener, and she has the work ethic to become anything she wants to be. But her case as the program’s best may hinge on her ability to stay healthy — and to lift the Crimson back to championship heights.

When Turner started playing basketball at age five, she didn’t really understand how the sport worked. But she was athletic and fast, and she loved the feeling of scoring points and getting steals. Over time, she told The Next, she “fell in love with” passing the ball, too. By age 13, she had earned an invitation to try out for the under-16 national team.

Delaney-Smith and her staff first noticed Turner at summer AAU tournaments after what Delaney-Smith figures was Turner’s sophomore year of high school. “She’s a very flashy player. You can’t help but notice her,” Delaney-Smith says. “… I would go by her games even if I didn’t have anyone that I was watching … She was my favorite player of that entire summer.”

The Harvard staff didn’t know whether Turner would be interested in the Ivy League or what her grades were, but they were enamored enough to call her just in case. As it turned out, Turner was receptive, and she was the kind of student who would become a National Honor Society member and graduate magna cum laude from Mansfield Legacy High School in Texas.

“There was a staff party in the office after that phone call,” Delaney-Smith says.

During her junior year, Turner started getting up early to work on her game, inspired by NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his “Mamba mentality.” She initially doubted whether she could sustain the routine, but it became a habit, to the point that she no longer needs an alarm. Still, she doesn’t consider herself a morning person, saying, “I’m more of [a] ‘you got to get it done’ type of person.”

By the time Turner graduated from Mansfield Legacy in 2020, she had scored more than 2,000 points and set 14 school records, including for career points, rebounds and assists. She was an All-State First Team selection and ranked No. 42 in her class by espnW. Harvard, Princeton, Notre Dame, Penn State, Texas and Texas Tech were among the programs that had recruited her.

“I’ve always been known as a basketball player, and I’ve been wanting to be known as something more than that,” Turner says to explain her college choice. “… Don’t get me wrong, I still want to be involved with basketball until my legs fall off, but I just feel like being valued as someone more than a basketball player, I think, is what drove me to Harvard.”

Turner’s commitment in August 2019 reverberated around women’s basketball. She was one of only two espnW top-100 players in her class to commit to the Ivy League and the highest-rated Ivy League prospect since Jeannie Boehm in 2016. “It was a big deal,” says Moore, who had also seen Turner play in AAU. Plenty of people questioned Turner’s decision, saying that she would never get the exposure that a Power 5 program could provide and that it was “the dumbest thing” she had ever done.

“But hey,” Turner says now, “it’s a good thing that they’re not going here and I am.”

Harvard guard Harmoni Turner tries to attack off the dribble from near the top of the key as a Boston College defender tries to cut off her driving lane.
Harvard’s Harmoni Turner (14) dribbles in a game against Boston College at Conte Forum in Boston, Mass., on Nov. 9, 2021. (Photo credit: Dylan Goodman/Gil Talbot)

Seemingly from the moment Turner arrived at Harvard, she dazzled. She was an immediate starter, scoring 13 points in 24 minutes in her debut against Boston College and 24 against Boston University three weeks later. Despite standing just 5’10, she had three double-doubles with points and rebounds, including against eventual Ivy League champion Princeton on Jan. 2.

For the season, Turner averaged 15.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.4 steals per game, each of which ranked in the top eight in the Ivy League. She was just the second freshman in the past 10 seasons to average better than 15 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals — the other being 2022 WNBA No. 1 overall pick Rhyne Howard. Turner also shot 34.5% from behind the arc and helped Harvard lead the league in points and 3-pointers made per game.

“Every opponent had to contend with her in every game,” Delaney-Smith says. “… There isn’t a player that can stop Harmoni, I don’t feel. … For the most part, there needed to be a wall to stop Harmoni. She’s that good at getting to the basket, and she’s almost unstoppable in the open court.”

Turner’s play also impressed her future coach, who watched a few Harvard games last season with the knowledge that Delaney-Smith would retire at season’s end. “It was so easy for me to get excited about being here because of Harmoni,” Moore says.

But what Moore and others watching from afar didn’t see was how Turner’s obvious joy at playing basketball contrasted with the pain in her knee — and the turbulence she sometimes felt off the court.

A month before Turner committed to Harvard, she was playing for DFW Elite at a national AAU tournament when she lost her footing and landed on her knee. She tried to go back in the game, afraid of what a severe injury would mean for her future, but she couldn’t walk; her knee was unsteady underneath her.

The diagnoses: Torn ACL. Torn meniscuses. Sprained MCL. Internal bruising.

Turner missed her entire senior season at Mansfield Legacy in 2019-20 as she rehabbed her injury and, with the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardizing the 2020-21 season, delayed her college enrollment by a year to preserve her eligibility. She spent much of her gap year strengthening her leg, working with her trainer on her game, and watching film.

Turner felt fully healthy when she finally got to Harvard, two years removed from the injury. But in the preseason, she says, “I tweaked it again … So I was playing on a torn meniscus. And a lot of people didn’t know that, but I didn’t want that to be an excuse.”

Lucas Seehafer, a reporter for The Next who is also a physical therapist, says that playing with meniscus injuries is often a matter of pain tolerance. The injury can affect the stability of the knee, but it often won’t get worse from playing on it if the player’s hip and thigh muscles are strong enough to keep the leg stable. (Seehafer has not treated Turner and is speaking generally about such injuries.)

Turner’s knee started to feel better late in the season, so she decided not to get it scoped last spring. That procedure has a relatively quick recovery time — typically four to six weeks — but Seehafer says that, because it removes the damaged portion of the meniscus and reduces cushioning in the knee, it can contribute to other injuries and early-onset arthritis.

As Turner navigated her injury, she was also learning a lot about being in a college program. Delaney-Smith says that Turner’s biggest adjustment basketball-wise was learning Harvard’s system and when to use each of her elite skills within the offense. But more than that, she had to learn how to fuel her body and when to rest, even as her passion for the game and work ethic nudged her toward another workout. Delaney-Smith and her staff resorted to locking the gym doors to try to get Turner to sleep more, but in Delaney-Smith’s estimation, Turner was sleep-deprived all season.

Away from the gym, as excited as Turner was to attend Harvard, she initially wasn’t sure how she would fit in. “At first, I was scared because I’m like, ‘Oh my God, there’s gonna be a lot of brainiacs up here. This is not me,’” she says. She quickly found people with whom she could be herself, but she battled depression and homesickness throughout her freshman year.

Despite all those challenges and the statistics she put up, Turner was less than satisfied with her play as a freshman. “I learned so much from last year and I honestly wouldn’t have redone it if I had the chance to, just because it helped me grow as a person, as an individual, as well,” she says. “But I do know there’s a lot more left in that tank, and that just wasn’t released last year like it should have been.”

This summer, Turner worked on all parts of her game, starting with her shooting efficiency. She ranked in the 99th percentile nationally last season in field goal attempts per game, but her effective field goal percentage of 43.4% only ranked in the 45th percentile. So she honed her pull-up jump shot and worked on finishing through contact.

As her knee felt better, Turner also focused on her conditioning, which she says contributed to some of those missed shots. Last season, she read defenses better as games progressed, with a higher assist rate and lower turnover rate in the fourth quarters than overall. But her 3-point and free-throw accuracy dropped in fourth quarters, suggesting some fatigue.

“The shots that I was missing, it wasn’t necessarily because I couldn’t do it,” she says. “It was just because I wasn’t prepared for it. I was just not in shape for that.”

Turner is eager to help Harvard take the next step this season after finishing 7-7 in conference play in 2021-22. She and her teammates are fueled by their near-upset of Princeton in last year’s Ivy League Tournament, and they know that the standard is the 11 regular-season titles that Harvard won between 1986 and 2008.

Much like last season, Turner will have the ball in her hands often this season and will set the tone offensively and defensively with her relentlessness and pace. But Moore doesn’t want Turner to have to do it all. She expects the other returning guards to share the scoring load and space the court to create driving lanes for Turner. That vision was realized in Monday’s season opener, as Turner shot 11-for-19 from the field but also contributed five assists and guards McKenzie Forbes and Lola Mullaney each scored 20 points.

Three days later, Turner carried the Crimson to a win over Boston College, contributing 25 points on 8-for-16 shooting, nine assists, six rebounds and six steals.

Turner plays with a confidence that matches the vision that Moore has for the program, which she sums up with the tagline “Believe it.” In September, Moore told fans on a virtual town hall, “[Turner is] so quick to tell you, ‘I think we can do these things and we can be this good and we can go this far.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, I believe it. Everything you’re saying, I agree with you.’ And I want her to feel like she is supported in those beliefs.”

Turner didn’t always have that confidence, but she developed it in long hours at the gym, even when she perhaps should’ve been sleeping. “When you prepare so much behind closed doors, when it comes game time, you’re just doing it one more time,” Turner says. That’s why she continues her routine even now, after all the success she’s had. This season, the joke within the program is that, when Turner can’t sleep, she goes to Lavietes Pavilion and plays in her pajamas against ghosts.

Harvard's Harmoni Turner dribbles up the court and looks ahead. No defenders are in sight, and an official trails Turner.
Harvard’s Harmoni Turner dribbles up the court during a game against Merrimack College at Lavietes Pavilion in Allston, Mass., on Nov. 30, 2021. (Photo credit: Dylan Goodman/Gil Talbot)

By the end of Turner’s career, Moore and Delaney-Smith expect her to challenge the program’s best, including Allison Feaster and Reka Cserny, who rank first and third, respectively, in career points and combined for four Ivy League Player of the Year awards.

“She’ll be on the all-time best list for sure,” Delaney-Smith says of Turner. “She’s a very different player than some of the other greats … And so she’s gonna write her own ticket.”

“To think that we really have her for three more years, it’s actually crazy, just because of the plays that she’s making already as a sophomore,” Moore says. “I know she’s going to put in the work. I know she wants it. And she’s driven. … So it’s exciting to think about what she can really do and the legacy that she can leave.”

For Delaney-Smith, who coached Feaster, Cserny and nearly every other player in program history, Turner’s case for the greatest of all time hinges on how well she elevates her teammates. Feaster, who went on to play 10 seasons in the WNBA, led Harvard to three Ivy League championships, three NCAA Tournament berths and an immortal upset of No. 1 seed Stanford in the 1998 NCAA Tournament. Over the next three seasons, can Turner similarly lift the program to its first league title since 2008 and first NCAA Tournament since 2007?

“I look at Allison Feaster, who had a similar freshman year [to Harmoni], and what Allison’s greatest strength was [was] her ability to make her teammates better,” Delaney-Smith says. “… She could stay a prolific scorer, she could stay a prolific rebounder, but yet she had this intangible selflessness of making the team better. Harmoni has that. She just needs to keep growing it.”

Turner, too, will have to keep growing in all the ways she did as a freshman, from staying healthy to taking care of her body with nutrition and rest. Those lessons will only further unlock Turner’s one-of-a-kind presence on the court and let her continue to dazzle.

“[I’m] just going out there and being myself,” Turner says as she thinks about the season in front of her. “And I can live with those odds right there.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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