By John Denton of OrlandoMagic.com – Whereas there was surprise from some last season when Tobias Harris came to Orlando and blossomed into a standout scorer, the sweet-shooting Magic forward simply saw it as part of the master plan.
Harris grew up around professional sports with a father who was the agent to Hall of Famer George Gervin, and his singular focus from the time that he was old enough to dribble a ball was to play in the NBA.
As a youngster, he wrote class papers about playing in the NBA. Most kids his age learn the game from rec league coaches, but Harris was getting advice from longtime NBA player Mel Daniels and the legendary Gervin. And his when his cousin, Channing Frye, reached the NBA in 2005, it only strengthened Harris’ motivation to play basketball professionally.
Even today, it’s as if Harris is wearing blinders and basketball greatness is the only thing in his vision. His offseason included 6 a.m. shooting sessions with his younger brother, weight-room workouts that made him the second-strongest person on the Magic and thousands of shots in an attempt to become a more efficient player. His idea of a summer vacation: A trip to San Antonio for a mini-camp with Gervin, who analyzed his workouts and gave him pointers on an elite player’s mindset.
So while some might have been surprised that he went from riding the bench in Milwaukee last season to averaging 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.37 blocks for the Magic, Harris wasn’t the least bit shocked. It is a product, he said, of a life dedicated to basketball. And the success has come from a daily dedication of wanting to be great at the game.
“Each and every day I think about being great,’’ Harris said Wednesday before the Magic’s second practice of training camp. “When I wake up in the morning, I always ask myself, `How will I be great today? What will I do to be great?’ And when the day is over, `What did I do to be great?’ Each and every day I have a goal for myself because I want to expand my game. If you have the right mindset, you work hard and you keep doing the right things, only success can come from that.’’
Heading into his third NBA season and his second with the Magic, Harris is expanding his goals. He truly believes that he has the skill set and the supporting cast around him to make a run at getting picked to play in the NBA All-Star Game. If he can build off his 27 games with the Magic – when he scored 20 points nine times and 30 points twice – he thinks he can help the Magic make great strides and put himself in the running for an All-Star bid.
“Going into the season, being an all-star is definitely one of my top individual goals,’’ he stressed. “I think I have the ability, and with the team that is around me and the coaching staff embracing me as a player, I think I have that ability. It’s important to go into a season with those type of goals to push myself as a player and push our team to be the best that it can be.’’
It is important to point out that Harris is only 21 years old. That makes him younger than prized Magic rookie Victor Oladipo and he’s only 10 months older than Orlando’s Maurice Harkless, who was the second-youngest player in the NBA last season. But Harris, nicknamed “All Business’’ because of his focused and serious persona, isn’t your usual 20-year-old. That’s one of the first things that Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn learned about Harris last February following the trade that brought him to the Magic from Milwaukee.
“The way he carries himself, the drive and determination that he has at this age has gotten him to this point and it’s going to continue to carry him,’’ Vaughn said. “He’s the young man where you go to a basketball clinic and you pull him up and ask him what he wants to be and he says, `Professional basketball player.’ That’s where his focus was at an early age, and it’s gotten him to this point.’’
Harris not only grew up with posters of NBA players on his bedroom wall, but he also had a hand-written list of goals that he wanted to accomplish. He’s never been shy about setting lofty goals for himself, and he uses them to push him through drills as he works to improve. And he said even if sometimes he doesn’t reach his goals, he knows that it made him better by striving for greatness instead of simply settling for average.
“First off, my goal was to be in the NBA, and to be the first pick in the draft,’’ said Harris, who was the 19th pick of the 2011 NBA Draft and got a taste of professional basketball right off the bat when his draft rights were traded from Charlotte to Milwaukee. “Some goals you might not reach, but if you expand them and reach for them only good things will happen. My rookie year, I wanted to be the Rookie of the Year. It didn’t happen, but at the same time it gave me the pressure on myself to work as hard as I can.’’
The start to Harris’ career was anything but a dream come true as he was mostly buried on the bench and out of favor with former Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles. After playing just 42 games as a rookie and 28 last season with the Bucks, he viewed his trade to Orlando as a fresh start. And he was ready to take full advantage of his opportunity in Orlando because he had continued to work hard on his while playing very little in Orlando.
Revived by his chance to play for a supportive coach in Orlando and a cast of players close to him in age, Harris pumped in 23 and 27 points in his first two games in a Magic uniform. He showed off the ease with which he can pile up the points and score from almost anywhere on the court by making an eye-popping 20 of 27 shots in those first two games.
He followed those performances up with 17 points and 15 rebounds against the Lakers, 29-, 30- and 26-point efforts against Charlotte, Washington and Cleveland. But his finest moment came against the Bucks when he finally got a chance to show his former team what it was missing out on. Playing 45 minutes of the overtime victory, Harris unleashed a 30-point, 19-rebound, five-assist barrage. And that “All Business’’ nickname was shown at the end of the game when he grabbed a rebound, raced the length of the court and dunked for a final exclamation point. Harris apologized later and said he wasn’t trying to show up the Bucks, but it did give some insight into his focused and determined nature.
“He’s a great teammate and a great example,’’ Magic center Kyle O’Quinn said. “It’s his third year in the league and he’s younger than me, but he’s been around three years and you look up to him. … (His maturity) is why I look to him a little bit. You disregard the age factor and you respect him because he takes this game very seriously. He treats it like a real job.’’
In addition to toning his body to a ripped 240 pounds to better go against the likes of Indiana’s David West and Chicago’s Carlos Boozer, Harris worked this offseason on becoming a more efficient shooter. His shooting averages – 45.5 percent overall, 31.5 3-point percentage and 75.2 free throw percentages – were just that – average – and he wants to be better this season.
According to NBA.com, Harris made 52.4 percent of his shots in the lane last season, but he shot just 30.3 percent and 38.6 percent from just outside the blocks on the left and right sides. Conversely, Harris’ midrange jumper was nearly automatic as he drilled 59.2 percent of his shots from the right wing and 55.5 percent from the left wing. But he knows there are still plenty areas to improve upon, namely the corner 3 where he made just 28.5 percent of his tries.
Once again showing his dedication to his craft, Harris picked the brain of Gervin this summer for tips. The two watched game film together and Gervin watched Harris’ on-court work to analyze his shooting stroke. It just further showed Harris’ willingness to go to extra lengths to improve.
“I have to shoot a higher percentage and then be able to get the ball at any time in the game and get a bucket for our team,’’ Harris said. “That’s the key to being efficient. It’s hard to do, but it’s a goal for me.
“Going to San Antonio and speaking to George Gervin, he preached to me that just because I have the green light doesn’t mean I have to shoot it all of the time,’’ he continued. “It means I have to take the shots that I can make and will make. That’s what I look to do. He shot over 50 percent in his career and that’s what I want to do. So I can watch film and learn and grow from there.’’
So if Harris becomes an elite scorer, if he becomes an all-star and the team leader that the young Magic need, it shouldn’t be a surprise. It is part of his plan. After all, he’s dedicated his life to this and now he wants to become a player that the Magic can count on nightly to do great things.
“I embrace (being a leader) a lot, especially with this team. Leading doesn’t always have to be vocal and it can be by example,’’ he said. “Whatever I do, whether it’s communicating with teammates, helping guys out or coming in first in sprints, all of that is ways I can be a leader for this team.’’
QUOTE: “I’m the same weight I played at last year but I am more toned and less body fat. It just makes you a more explosive player being able to guard threes and fours and still be as fast.”
JOSH COHEN’S ANALYSIS: It’s apparent Jacque Vaughn is planning to explore his guys at different positions and it’s a big reason for the change in body types across the roster. Harris’ improved strength will permit him to compete effectively against some of the more conventional power forwards in the league such as David West, Carlos Boozer and Kevin Garnett. But because his body fat is significantly lower, Harris, if necessary, can still fit into his more natural small forward spot.