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Aaron Harrison welcomes new role, higher expectations from Charlotte Hornets

Aaron Harrison had a rough start to summer league, but that may have to do with his growth as a player.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Harrison is trapped on the baseline for the third time today. He desperately searches for someone to dump the ball off to. Trying to avoid a travel, he jumps in the air to make a pass — just as he's done three times before in this game alone — but the ball is picked off and taken to the other end of the floor for a breakaway dunk. This is the second time this has happened this quarter. Harrison is frustrated. He knows he can play better than this.

"My frustration is that it's not anybody else's fault but mine," Harrison told At The Hive. "I'm not supposed to show this much frustration. I've been working on that a lot. I think I'm more upset with myself than my teammates."

At Orlando Summer League, Harrison finds himself in a situation that he has not been in since he began his career as a pro. As the only player on the Charlotte Hornets summer league roster with any NBA experience whatsoever, it's up to Harrison to be their leader in this short week of basketball.

In an environment full of players trying to showcase themselves to coaches and scouts, it's not always easy to find someone willing to lead or sacrifice. Many of them will never make it to the NBA. Some won't even get a chance in Europe. These aren't teammates that you fought and bled with. It's guys that you just met and barely even know the names of. That's why someone like Harrison is necessary, and he's embracing his new role.

"I just knew I had to play better as the week goes on," Harrison said. "I just wanted to be a leader out there on the court and help my teammates out."

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After a miserable first game, it was a bit surprising to hear Harrison speaking of leadership, but that was his focus and he was committed to it. He readily acknowledged that he didn't play well, but to him, his job was to be the guy on the court directing the action and making sure the game is being played the way it should be.

"It was a rough game," Harrison conceded. "We'll get better as the week goes on. We didn't knock down open shots that we usually knock down, and we have to communicate better on defense."

"And I've gotta be a better leader. I'll play better."

Harrison backed up his words in the second game of the week. Throughout the game, you could see him being the coach on the floor: directing players on where they need to go, screaming out assignments, and leading a rag-tag bunch of guys all working for a contract.

However, Harrison knows he himself needs to improve as a basketball player, too. Leading his teammates just isn't enough. Last year, Harrison spent the season either in the D-League or at the end of the Hornets' bench, where he only played in blowouts. There are areas of his game that needs work to get on the court, and Harrison is getting reps with some of the improvements he's made off the court in summer league.

"In a regular season game, you can't get to the hole as easy as it is here," he said. "I've been working on finishing, and I think I'll finish better as the week goes on. And I'll shoot it better as the week goes on. It just comes from keeping a rhythm, really."

Harrison's game was built on drives to the basket, creating contact, and getting to the rim as much as possible in college. However, without a jump shot to backup that style of play, getting to the rim won't come easy. Opponents often back off of him, daring him to shoot.

He needs those shots to fall to make himself a legitimate threat to the defense. After spending most of summer league last year barrelling down the lane, his game is noticeably different this year. According to Patrick Ewing, this is by design.

"Last summer, he was playing at the point," Ewing told At The Hive. "This year, we're playing him at the three. He's gonna be playing the two and the three."

This has had mixed results. The jump shot that he's worked so tirelessly on is still streaky. In the second game of summer league, he started off 1-of-8 from the field. However, in the second half, he immediately made his first four shots. One of those shots was a 3-pointer, and another was a pull-up jumper from the free throw line.

But a lot of that came with the ball in his hands. When trying to play as a wing — which features a lot of off ball action — he struggles to make the impact he wants. Harrison knows he can do better.

"They definitely want to play me more off the ball. It's kinda tough. (I'm used) to creating plays for other guys and myself. I obviously want the ball in my hands. It can be difficult to strike that balance."- Aaron Harrison

"They definitely want to play me more off the ball," he said. "It's kinda tough. (I'm used) to creating plays for other guys and myself. I obviously want the ball in my hands. It can be difficult to strike that balance."

While Harrison sees the challenge of what's in front of him, he is taking it up with confidence. There's a year of experience under his belt now, and he's no longer the undrafted free agent just trying to earn himself a training camp invite.

However, he now has a contract to protect. While Harrison is under contract for next season, his deal is not guaranteed. This stays on his mind.

"I still have a lot to prove," Harrison said. I'm still fighting for my job just like everyone else. I wouldn't say it's easier, but I'm definitely more comfortable."

There's no need to dominate the ball and play to his strengths this summer. Harrison now has some comfort in his pro experience. He can afford to step back, hand the ball off to Gabe York or DeShaun Thompson, and be ready to cut from the corner.

And it's that comfort that allows Harrison to grow as a leader.