Harvard Basketball Star Noah Kirkwood’s Mid-Season Pivot
In an injury-filled season, Harvard’s best player assumes a new role.
In the first half of the men’s basketball team’s November game against MIT, Noah Kirkwood ’22 leapt into the air and swatted a shot off the backboard. Then his defense turned to offense: sprinting down the center of the court, Kirkwood received an outlet pass, took one dribble, feinted around a pair of defenders, and finessed the ball in off the glass.
The sequence was fluid—the apparent product of a lifetime of forward play. But the six-foot-seven Kirkwood isn’t a forward; he’s a guard. Only not this year. The bulk of the Crimson frontcourt, including every player who is six foot nine and above, has been injured for almost the whole season. Making up for a lack of height, Stemberg coach Tommy Amaker moved Kirkwood, a first-team all-Ivy guard, to a new position.
The differences between Kirkwood’s roles are vast. Being primarily a forward puts him closer to the basket on defense, charged with blocking shots and stifling the opposition’s big men. On fast breaks, instead of swinging outside to the wings, he runs straight to the basket. “It’s still human nature for me to want to run out wide,” he says.
His ability to make these adjustments might determine whether the Crimson surge to the top of the Ivy League or flounder under the pressure of attrition. It’s time for a pivot.
Growing up outside Ottawa, Kirkwood was introduced to the game by his father, Art, a basketball star at the University of Ottawa who suggested that his son join a team with older players. Kirkwood was so little that the coaches switched in a smaller ball for him for shooting in practice. Still, the experience was invaluable. He was tall for his age but played point guard on the older team, which helped him develop above-average dribbling, passing, and lateral quickness for his height. He grew into an exceptionally versatile college guard.
One of Kirkwood’s teammates on those squads was future Crimson sharpshooter Corey Johnson ’19, whose mother was the coach. That connection contributed to Kirkwood’s interest in Harvard as a senior at Ashbury College High School in 2016-2017. He had scholarship offers from basketball powers like Villanova and Virginia and won a gold medal with Canada at the 2017 FIBA U-19 World Championships but decided after a year of college-preparatory school that Harvard provided the best opportunity.
He quickly proved himself, earning Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2019 and a first-team all-conference selection in 2020. That March, days before the Ivy League Tournament, the season was cancelled as the pandemic intensified, and he returned to Canada. Kirkwood’s father has diabetes, so until he was vaccinated, his training consisted of little more than skipping rope and dribbling in his driveway. Kirkwood returned to campus early last summer to get back in playing shape, but by the end of pre-season, nearly every member of the frontcourt was injured. Just as he was shaking off the rust from not playing in a year, Kirkwood had to adapt to a new position.
The shift to the frontcourt alters nearly every facet of his game. On offense, as a guard, he often had the ball and used his teammates’ screens to create space for open shots and drives to the rim. As a forward, he more frequently sets screens, so he has to find new ways to get to his spots. If his defender is bigger, he might fake a screen and quickly pop out to the three-point line. If his defender is smaller, he might set the screen and roll to the block (the outside of the painted area near the basket) and post up.
The new moves require a comfort pivoting with his back to the basket. For instance, in the second half of a matchup with the University of Rhode Island, the Rams were up by 16, and Amaker called a play to get an interior touch. Battling with two defenders, Kirkwood caught the ball facing out toward the perimeter, spun toward the basket, and muscled the ball up and in. Though he sparked a run, it wasn’t enough. A few minutes later, Kirkwood posted up again. This time, he didn’t see the second defender and got stuffed from behind. The Crimson lost 64-57.
The adjustment on defense has been similarly significant. As a guard, Kirkwood defended smaller players on the wing and stayed more upright to make it harder for opponents to pass the ball inside. As a post, he defends taller players near the basket and tries to get lower, using his leverage to prevent the offensive player from establishing position. He also has to provide help when a guard drives by a teammate on the perimeter. This can lead to foul trouble if he fails to slide over immediately and keep his arms completely vertical as he defends a driving offensive player. In a matchup with Holy Cross, Kirkwood played just 20 minutes because he picked up four fouls, three of which came while helping on drives.
Kirkwood followed that outing with a gem, recording 19 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, and five steals in a 77-69 win over Howard. It’s performances like these that have made Kirkwood second on the team in scoring (16.2 points per game) and rebounding (six boards per contest) and the league leader in steals, with 2.6 per game.
Amaker expects this kind of output from Kirkwood, whom he describes as not only the team’s “best player” but also “one of the best all-around players in college basketball.” And even as he adjusts, Amaker is pushing him to up his overall game—getting to the foul line more and remaining composed even as other teams tailor their game plans to stifle the Crimson’s strongest player. For his part, Kirkwood emphasizes his determination to keep improving and remain a dependable fulcrum on a young, inexperienced team. “Coach says, the best way to be reliable is to be available,” Kirkwood explained, “and I’m just going to be available for my team every night.”
Amid all this, Kirkwood continues to make sublime, winning plays. Against Colgate, with 20 seconds left in overtime and Harvard leading by one, he crept toward the three-point line and jabbed with his right foot to get his defender off balance. He then took two dribbles into the lane, spun, and drained a fadeaway jumper off one foot to ice the win. “That’s him,” marveled forward Kale Catchings ’22, who joked that he had been on the receiving end of similar plays in practice. “He got to his spot, very slow, methodical approach…and he hit the shot.”
After this season, Kirkwood will have one year of NCAA eligibility remaining. He hopes to play professional basketball, ideally in the NBA. But his current focus is helping this team win. The Crimson started the year 8-4 before having its final non-conference game cancelled and Ivy opener postponed because of Covid-19. The team resumed action last weekend, losing to Brown before having its matchup with Yale postponed, also because of Covid-19. Amid the delays, a bright spot from the weekend was the season debut of forward Mason Forbes ’22, recently recovered from injury.
While Forbes could provide valuable relief, Kirkwood cautions against making predictions for the team’s performance. “I think that’s where I got caught up in March 2020,” he says, “when I was looking forward to the Ivy League tournament.” Instead, the best approach is going one practice and game at a time—and being ready to pivot when circumstances change.