Evan Conti and Justin Harris are just two of a group of Quinnipiac graduates attempting to break into professional basketball this summer.
While teammates Zaid Hearst and Ousmane Drame have garnered more attention over the last four years and continue to explore domestic options, Conti and Harris have their eyes set on playing overseas.
An electric force off the Bobcats’ bench for much of his career, injuries and other situations had often forced Conti to play a pivotal role in Quinnipiac’s backcourt. As a senior and main contributor in 2014-15, he averaged a career-best 9.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, and 2.6 apg while shooting 78% from the free throw line.
Conti is no stranger to playing overseas. The Bayside, NY native represented the United States at the World Maccabiah Games in 2009 and 2013. The Games, which have been held every four years since 1957, bring together players of Jewish descent from over 60 countries.
It is that national connection which has opened a unique door in Conti’s path to professional basketball. Due to special rules in the Israeli leagues, players with Israeli citizenship are at a premium. Conti officially obtained his Israeli citizenship this spring.
“In Israel you need to have two Israelis on the court at all times,” Conti said. “That really improves my stock because I’m considered one of the citizens. Hopefully that will help me a lot with finding a team.”
If Conti does indeed end up in Israel, there will be plenty of familiar faces to play against. In addition to teammates and opponents from the Maccabiah Games, former Manhattan College standout Rhamel Brown spent his first professional year in Israel as well.
For Harris, the prospect of playing professional basketball didn’t seem plausible at the start of his senior season. The 6’8” Paterson, NJ native had been buried in a talented, competitive Quinnipiac frontcourt for his first three years. In limited action off the bench, Harris never reached 30 points in any of those three seasons.
When his opportunity came to play alongside Drame following early season injuries to frontcourt mates AJ Sumbry and Samuel Dingba, Harris made the most of his moment. He set a new career high with 12 points in the season opener against Yale (which was later eclipsed by a 23-point February outing at Fairfield) and stuck firmly in Tom Moore’s starting lineup.
“It’s everybody’s dream coming into college,” Harris said of playing professional basketball. “Things didn’t work out the way I wanted to the first couple of years, but once I got the opportunity, there was no way anyone was going to stop me taking advantage.”
Harris finished his senior season averaging 8.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, and over a block per game.
Hailing from Paterson, Harris has seen his fair share of violence. Armoni Sexton, a 15 year old high school basketball star from Paterson, was caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting and killed just this Spring.
“There’s a lot of violence that has been going on historically in Paterson,” Harris said of the incident. “It’s tough growing up around stuff where you need to stay out of the streets. It’s really unfortunate that he got caught in the crossfire like that.”
Reflecting on the tragedy in the community, Harris also highlighted the positive effect a professional athlete can have on the area. Recent Rutgers graduate Myles Mack and New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz are both Paterson natives.
“There’s a lot of Paterson athletes who are out there playing professional sports,” Harris said. “It’s always good when you get people who can make it out because they always want to come back and help out the city. That’s really what we need: peers who have overcome the adversity of being in the city to come back and try to help the kids and getting them on the right path moving forward.”
Both Conti and Harris recognize the jump to the professional leagues requires a different attitude than the college game. With basketball as their primary focus, the time that once went toward schoolwork and other activities falls back to their sport.
“You have to go in there saying ‘This is not for fun anymore. We make an actual living off of this now,’” Harris said. “Once you understand that, you understand that you’ve got to work on your craft every day. This is our business now, and we’ve got to keep putting stock into ourselves every time we go on the court.”
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.