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Citing a desire to win, Harkless picks UConn

When he was younger, Maurice Harkless was an avid football player. He was a talented wide receiver, but eventually turned his attention to basketball in the seventh grade.

“It was more fun,” he said.

Best decision he ever made.

Harkless, a 6-foot-8 forward from Forest Hills, quickly developed on the hardwood and Dec. 9 he verbally committed to Connecticut and its Hall of Fame coach, Jim Calhoun. He picked the Huskies over St. John’s, Kentucky, Fordham and Seton Hall.

A versatile inside-out threat with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Harkless attended UConn’s First Night event recently and has spoken extensively with Calhoun.

“He’s a very straight-forward guy,” the 16-year-old Harkless said. “I felt he was very honest.

He added: “I felt like UConn was the best situation for me. Coach told me I would be able to come in and win a lot of games, win a championship and that’s what I wanted to do.”

Harkless returned from a broken bone in his left foot Sunday in Forest Hills’ 60-57 loss to Wings Academy. He had 16 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocked shots in a 74-54 victory over Campus Magnet Dec. 8.

“He is a legitimately skilled three-man for the next level,” recruiting guru Tom Konchalski said of the 185-pound Harkless. “He doesn’t have a Big East body yet, but he certainly has a Big East skill set.”

After narrowing his list down to five, Harkless sat down with his family, adviser Nate Blue and Forest Hills Coach Ben Chobhaphand to make a decision Tuesday night. They weighed the plusses and minuses of all five schools. The Huskies won in a landslide.

“When you have Connecticut on your plate, it’s hard to turn down,” said Blue, who is an assistant coach at Forest Hills. “There was no second school. When we broke down all the factors, it was just Connecticut.”

Said Harkless: “It’s very exciting. I never thought I’d be able to play there.”

Chobhaphand liked Connecticut from the start. It was one of five Division I schools to attend the Rangers’ open gym in 2008 and he was friendly growing up with Taliek Brown and Charlie Villanueva, who both attended UConn and won national titles for Calhoun. Blue was also Villanueva’s adviser.

“What I like the most is it’s a mixture of guys who are All-Americans and guys who go there with talent and become great,” Chobhaphand said. “It just felt right, to me.”

Harkless does have areas of his game that could use fine-tuning. Over the summer, Harkless worked on expanding his repertoire into more of a wing-type player. At 6-foot-8 and 185 pounds, he is thin for the Big East and needs to improve under the boards.

“He has to develop the toughness UConn requires and he has to improve his body,” Konchalski said.

That Harkless is en route to such an opportunity speaks volumes. He was raw when he arrived at Forest Hills, with little experience to speak of. He shined on the JV team as a freshman and as a sophomore led the Rangers to the Queens crown by averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds per game.

Blue said his improved basketball IQ in tandem with sacrificing the time other teenagers are unwilling to has enabled him to progress so fast. Chobhaphand labeled Harkless, the first Division I player in Chobhaphand’s five years, a “throwback,” for his relentless work ethic and humble demeanor. He also has an A-average and should have no trouble qualifying.

“He can play at the highest level, and it’s been shown he can play at the highest level at an early stage,” Blue said. “There aren’t any questions about his ability.”

Reach Zach Braziller at zbraziller@nypost.com.

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