By Ricky O’Donnell at SBNation – Tobias Harris could always play, but the trick was convincing his teams of that fact. But after a midseason trade sent him to Orlando, life changed for Harris. Now, he’s one of the league’s rising stars.
It takes a degree of bad luck for a basketball player with the pedigree and talent of Tobias Harris to remain as anonymous as he’s been through two NBA seasons.
National top 10 recruits with Harris’ build and skill level are more likely to draw bidding wars from shoe companies as teenagers than get hopelessly buried at the end of the bench in the pros. They tend to get drafted in the lottery and claim a certain amount of bought-in playing time to help accelerate their development. Yet factors outside of Harris’ control are always seeming to conspire against him and keep him a relative unknown.
But this doesn’t appear like it will be the case for long. If you aren’t familiar with Tobias Harris yet, you will be soon. After a strong close to last season after a deadline deal that sent him from Milwaukee to Orlando in exchange for J.J. Redick, Harris finally got the first real playing time of his career. He now looks like a rock solid starter, if not future All-Star, for the Magic.
With maximized spacing becoming the league’s hottest trend over the last few seasons, Harris profiles as the ideal stretch power forward for the next generation. He’s reportedly entered training camp at 240 pounds and proved he has to be defended out to the three-point line when Orlando has the ball. In just 27 games as a 20-year-old with the Magic last season, Harris made the Bucks and their fans immensely regret the decision to trade him.
It’s about time Harris earned a long leash. For most of his career, Harris has been overshadowed by something, well, pretty stupid.
Harris was ranked as high as No. 4 in his high school class before starting his college career at Tennessee. He had terrible timing. His lone year with the Volunteers was marred by a scandal surrounding Bruce Pearl, which ended with the coach getting fired with what was essentially a three-year ban by the NCAA mostly because he invited current Ohio State star Aaron Craft to a barbecue on an unofficial recruiting visit and later lied about it.
Harris ditched school for the draft after his freshman year and was scooped up by the Bucks at No. 19. Milwaukee desperately needed a young star, but never allowed Harris the chance to turn into one. Instead, the Bucks locked Harris to the bench while vigorously chasing the No. 8 seed in the East. When Harris was dealt for Redick, few blinked because he remained such an unknown quantity.
All it took to change that was playing time. Harris went from regularly getting DNP’s in Milwaukee to averaging 36 minutes per game as a starter in Orlando. His scoring average would jump from 4.9 to 17.3 in the process.
The Magic had no such delusions about chasing a sure first round exit, letting Harris do his thing. He had the look of a player burning with motivation to prove something. Harris never hesitated to fire with in Orlando, averaging more than 17 shots per game in the closing month of the season. He was able to score and rebound with solid efficiency given his age and lack of experience — 45.3 percent from the field, 31 percent from three — while also pulling down 8.5 rebounds per game.
The Magic were better because of it. Orlando was nearly four points better per 100 possessions offensively with Harris on the floor, and their defense was five points per 100 stingier, according to the NBA’s media-only stats page. It’s hard to ask for much more out of a 20-year old with such limited experience in his first season and a half as a pro.
The Magic still aren’t expected to compete for a playoff spot this season, but the emergence of Harris is another boon for a foundation that suddenly looks very encouraging. The Magic were thought to be left in ruins after Dwight Howard forced his way out of town, but GM Rob Hennigan has done a stellar job to replenish the talent supply. Nikola Vucevic was a coop for Hennigan in the Howard trade and profiles as legit starting-caliber two-way center. Arron Afflalo’s efficiency dipped some last season, but he’s still dependable at the wing. Andrew Nicholson and Marurice Harkless are nice looking young pieces on the bench. The team thinks the world of Victor Oladipo, the hyper-athletic Indiana guard it selected No. 2 overall in this summer’s draft.
Throw in what’s likely another high draft in a loaded 2014 class a year from now and it would seem that Harris won’t be lacking for co-stars. It’s his versatility to work as a stretch four that could make things really fun.
The time for paying dues is over. What comes next for Tobias Harris will be determined by nothing but what he does with the opportunity.