Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
As the Magic’s impressive start to the season is left further in the past, this year becomes more and more of a trial run. There are a lot of different pieces on Orlando’s roster, many not a part of any reasonable long-term plan, but the only way to find out which ones are part of the future is baptism by fire. By letting the youngsters feel their way out, the braintrust atop the organization can figure out how they compute into the team’s long-term plans.
No one represents this philosophy as much as Moe Harkless. As fellow youngsters such as Nikola Vucevic and Andrew Nicholson show sustainable skills (rebounding and midrange shooting, respectively) that will, at the very least, make them viable NBA players for years to come, Harkless is like basketball Play-Doh. Stretchy, bouncy, and inherently fun, he’s completely lacking in shape and definition.
But while Play-Doh isn’t very effective in its initial, lumpy form, it can be molded into a variety of different shapes. The same can be said about Harkless — the Magic have been getting blown out with him on the court, mostly because the offense tanks when he’s playing. Though it’s worth noting that Orlando has been 3.8 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor, per NBA.com.
But all of that is basically irrelevant in comparison to what he can be a few years down the road. What is that exactly? Here are a few ideas.
Stay the course – Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Harkless has a lot in common with Mbah a Moute. Both men are a slender, lengthy 6-foot-8 and are quick enough to guard much smaller players. Mbah a Moute has solidified his standing as a four-position defender in this league and the hope is that Harkless can be the same — already, his steals percentage of 2 percent ranks just a sliver under Mbah a Moute’s career-best 2.1 percent mark and he’s blocking more than twice as many shots per 36 minutes as Mbah a Moute ever had.
But though this version of Harkless would make his bread on the defensive end, I like the Mbah a Moute comparison the most offensively. This is where Harkless has shown his youth the most, making only six shots more than 5 feet away from the basket all season. Harkless’ main offensive value is his jaw-dropping athleticism, which leads to plays like this or this.
Harkless can do well to study Mbah a Moute here. The Cameroonian forward has similarly never developed a trustworthy outside shot, but he’s made a living from cutting off the ball and finishing at the rim. Mbah a Moute has averaged more than 1.2 points per possession off cuts since 2009-10, per Synergy. That makes him, if not an offensive asset, workable enough to keep him on the floor for his defense. If Harkless can be as effective as a one man, off-the-ball wrecking crew, he could have a long career.
Everything goes perfectly – Gerald Wallace
Young combo forward that can’t make shots but has crazy highlights, and posts really high blocks and steals numbers? Ask a mid-2000s Sacramento Kings fan who we’re talking about and he’ll tell you “Crash.” The two also share similar rebounding numbers (Harkless offensive rebound rate of 7.4 percent and defensive rebound rate of 16 percent pretty much mirrors Wallace’s second year of 7.5 and 16 percent, though his first and third years were oddly very different) amidst the high flying and constant brickery.
Wallace eventually got picked by Charlotte in their expansion draft, got 30-plus minutes per game on a horrible squad, and improved his offense to the tune of a career-high True Shooting percentage of 58.6 percent and an All-Star selection in 2009-10. Magic fans would obviously accept the same scenario with Harkless, especially if he grows out his hair.
The one point where the comparison falls apart, though, is facilitating — even in his early days, Wallace was much better than Harkless at finding his teammates, with an assist percentage that never dropped below 8.2 percent and peaked in 2007-08 at 15.9 percent. Harkless comes up short at 3.9 percent.
Nothing goes right – Dominic McGuire
Though he isn’t a household name, McGuire has been good enough defensively throughout his career to consistently get chances by teams searching the waiver’s wire. Unfortunately, he’s also consistently been bad enough on offense to find his way back. McGuire has shot 41.9 percent from the floor for his career, doesn’t get to the line to compensate for it, and has attempted 16 threes in 342 career games (making three). Things peaked during Golden State’s 2011-12 Tankapalooza, which heavily featured McGuire doing things like attempting one shot in 36 minutes of play.
Wasted potential – Anthony Randolph
There has been no indication whatsoever that Harkless is a bad apple. Mostly, he’s just young. With Randolph, what occurs between the ears was a concern from day one.
However, there are similarities between Harkless’ play this year and Randolph’s memorably disturbing rookie year. Randolph would come off the bench in a whirlwind of unpredictability, capable of mass destruction or athletic catharsis at all times. It wasn’t meant to be, however, as Randolph never put together what should have been a devastating package. “It’s Don Nelson’s fault” became “it’s Mike D’Antoni’s fault” became “it’s Kurt Rambis’ fault” became silence. Again, there is no reason to believe Harkless should go down this route, but if he fails to work at his craft, he could wind up just another wasted athlete.
Aim high – why not?
According to basketball reference, among qualifying players, there have been 16 non-centers to average more than 1.5 blocks and 1.0 steals per 36 minutes in their rookie seasons. Among those players, you can find names such as Kevin Garnett, Josh Smith, Paul Millsap, Andrei Kirilenko, Vince Carter, and Kenyon Martin. Of course, there are also Tyrus Thomas and Stromile Swift. If Harkless plays enough this year, he has a chance to be No. 17. It could obviously mean very little, but at the very least, it’s fun to think of.
Harkless doesn’t know a lot about playing actual NBA basketball, but as an athlete, he ranks off the charts. For a team trying to figure out what it has in its hands, that’s an asset.