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Harthun lends Panthers a hand

Freshman point guard has matured both on and off the court for South

Scoring 30 points or so as a youth basketball star never really was a problem for Michael Harthun.

Keeping on top of his schoolwork, well, that was a different story.

But that's all changed for the South Medford High freshman, and he couldn't be happier.

The 6-foot-2, 165-pound point guard has learned sometimes it's better to give than receive on the basketball court, and has also realized the importance of schoolwork as he strives toward an ultimate goal of a Division I basketball scholarship.

— Both aspects have been a shining testimony toward the maturation of Harthun, and have helped pave the way to Eugene for a South Medford basketball team that was only going to go as far as the 15 year old could guide them.

There's no question his learning curve this year has been huge, Panthers coach Dennis Murphy says of Harthun. He's very coachable and wants to be an even better player and person, and really works hard at it.

Harthun created enormous buzz in the Rogue Valley with his exploits on the court while at Hedrick Middle School. Hearing about his 30-point outbursts and undeniable skill with the basketball were commonplace among the hoops circuit.

Shunning his schoolwork was also commonplace, Harthun sheepishly admits.

Instead of doing my homework, he says, I used to just play basketball. It's not something I'm proud of, it's just something I did.

Emphasis on the did.

These days, Harthun boasts a 3.2 grade point average in his seven classes at South High.

Now I make sure I get my homework done before the night's over, he says. Getting a college scholarship is my dream, and I can't do that without good grades.

That dedication to improve has also shown up on the basketball court, where Harthun has been the floor leader all season for the fourth-ranked Panthers. He's averaging 11.6 points and 4.3 assists entering tonight's 6:30 state quarterfinals tilt against Lake Oswego at McArthur Court in Eugene.

And in many ways, Harthun has surpassed the expectations Murphy had for him entering the season.

He's probably more talented than I thought he was, Murphy says of only the third freshman to start at South in his 17 years at the helm. Skill-wise as far as being able to shoot the ball and handle the ball and distribute it, he does all those things better than I thought he could.

And as good as he is, he's very unselfish, the coach adds. If somebody's open, he'll get them the ball.

That's not to say Murphy hasn't been in the youngster's ear all season.

Murph still finds stuff to get on me about, adds Harthun, noting it has been a season-long quest to improve his defense. There's always so much to learn, especially with how young I am. I have tons to learn.

But sometimes getting critiques and handling them are two different things. Once again, however, Harthun has come through with flying colors for his coach.

There's no question I'm hard on him and he's handled that very well, says Murphy. Some kids, especially at that young age, when they'd get things said to them or the manner in which they were said, would probably get mad and say they don't want to have anything to do with this and quit. Michael doesn't take that on, he really doesn't.

Part of that is because Harthun is able to see the big picture.

I just know that coach wants the best for us, he says. He's getting mad at us because he cares about us, and cares that we get better.

And whether one is related to the other, it's obvious to anyone following Harthun's career that he is on his way to becoming a more complete basketball player.

I'm a little bit surprised at how much I've improved, says Harthun, who began playing basketball when he was 1. A lot of credit goes to coach Murphy because he's taught me how to play basketball: how to run an offense and play as a team.

I'm actually starting to like passing the ball more to my teammates, he adds with a chuckle. I almost get more joy now when I watch them scoring than when I'm scoring.

This season he's already posted the kind of alley-oop assists to sophomore sensation Kyle Singler that typically get singled out as highlights on ESPN's SportsCenter.

Harthun still scores, mind you, it's just not necessarily the first option anymore. He's converted 50 percent of his 3-point attempts (48-for-96) and shoots 53 percent from the field overall.

Scoring 40 points and all was fun, but now it's almost more fun, he says. Everybody's happy instead of one guy scoring. It makes it a better team game and makes everyone happy because they're involved.

It's a role Murphy says doesn't get nearly enough attention.

People have no idea how tough it is to be the point guard, says the coach. You've got to handle all the (defensive) pressure as well as make all the right decisions and get the ball to all the right people at the right time. And in Michael's case, because of his ability to score, we expect him to step up and score, too.

And when the Panthers have needed a basket this season, Harthun has been more than capable to oblige.

It's what led him to become a point guard in the first place.

I like having the pressure on you because you have the ball and everyone's watching to see what you'll do, he says. You're the man who can make a big pass or a big shot. It doesn't get any better than that.