PORTLAND – The pass came from the right wing, a cross-court attempt that Paul Harris anticipated even before it left the hands of the opposing guard.

Harris sprinted from under the basket and grabbed the ball in midair, then raced toward the other end. As a defender moved in, Harris grabbed the ball in his right hand, lifted it high and swooped in from the wing. He then flicked the ball in for a basket.

Maine Red Claws fans should watch Harris closely this year. That play, in a scrimmage late last week, is a trademark of his.

“Paul is one of those guys who other teams might say is undersized, that he can’t do this or can’t do that,” said Jon Jennings, the Red Claws’ president and general manager. “We tend to look at it as, ‘He can do this. He can do that.’

“He can run the floor, he’s a phenomenal and explosive athlete. When he gets the ball on the wing, he can take it to the basket with authority.”

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Harris is looking forward to showing everyone what he can do this year, starting at 7 p.m. tonight with the Red Claws’ opener against the Austin Toros at the Portland Expo.

A year away from the game will do that.

Harris, 24, was the first draft pick of the Red Claws last year, a tough, defensive forward out of Syracuse. But he never played a minute as the team went 27-23, missing the playoffs with a late-season fade in which it lost its final six games.

He had been invited to try out for the Utah Jazz in training camp and was so excited, he said, “that I didn’t even get my ankle taped. I just went out and played.”

Bad move. He came down wrong on his right ankle and was done. While he never had surgery, Harris endured a long, frustrating eight months in which he couldn’t do any basketball activities.

During that time, he also found out a lot about himself.

“It was hard, but I wouldn’t change nothing that happened to me last year, even me getting injured,” Harris said. “It made me stronger and built me up more. I’m more mentally tough. I never knew I was that strong of a person.

“I didn’t give up, kept fighting, and I’m back here now.”

And the Red Claws are ecstatic. He plays the way Jennings and Coach Austin Ainge want. He has the edge that they want all their players to have.

“He gives us toughness,” said Ainge. “Paul’s calling card is defense. He’s working hard to improve his offensive skills and he’s getting better, but Paul is going to make the NBA as a defender.”

Jennings called him “a lockdown defender. And he takes pride in it. He reminds me of the Celtics players. He has that mentality.”

Tiny Gallon, Harris’ roommate and a fellow rookie on the Red Claws, sees another side of Harris.

While Gallon is gregarious and likes to joke around, Harris tends to be much more serious.

“He’s a winner,” said Gallon. “His spirit is great. He doesn’t care about how many points he puts up. He wants to win.”

So far he’s shown leadership skills that, Jennings said, “we didn’t know he had.” He displayed his talents in Monday night’s exhibition at the Augusta Civic Center, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a 102-88 victory against Springfield.

“I was worried about Paul,” said Jennings. “I wasn’t sure where Paul’s head would be after sitting out all of last year But he came in with the absolute best attitude. I’m as excited about him as I am about anyone because I see such a tremendous upside.”

Harris, who admits that his conditioning and timing are still coming, said he had great support while he was unable to play, from friends and family members who kept pushing him, reminding him of what he had to do and what he could be.

‘It was hard,” he said, noting that he had never suffered anything other than a slight ankle sprain before. “I’d always been in control over what I could do. But I had no control. I had to sit down and not go outside and not go to the gym.”

He texted or called Jennings on almost a daily basis, checking in on the team and letting Jennings know how things were going. Two weeks before training camp, he called Jennings and said he had to get to Portland to begin working out.

“I’m ready,” he said. “I’m excited. Let’s do it.”

Harris knows he has to continue improving his offensive game — “And it’s getting better, you can see that,” said Ainge — but he feels he’s in the perfect place.

“I’m in the right situation with Coach Ainge, someone who knows the game,” said Harris. “He’ll get my fundamentals right and let me know what it takes to get to the next level. I’ll just listen, work hard, and I think everything will fall into place.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]