Photos by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images
One of the bright spots during a post-Dwight Howard rebuilding season, in which the Orlando Magic have lost 59 of their first 76 games, is the play of rookie small forward Maurice Harkless. He was one of the players brought over from Philadelphia in the three-team mega-trade that sent Dwight to Los Angeles, Andre Iguodala to Denver, Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia, and four different players to Orlando. Combined with the contributions of Nikola Vucevic and Arron Afflalo (before he got injured), that deal doesn’t seem so lopsided these days.
After coming out of St. John’s University as a teenager, Harkless suffered a sports hernia and missed all of training camp. It showed in the season’s first couple months, as Harkless had trouble adjusting to his new role after dominating the Big East in the first part of 2012.
But over the last two and a half months, he’s provided a nice blip of offensive potential for an Orlando Magic team that could feature him as their small forward of the future. The lanky 6-foot-8 Big East alum is shooting 31.4 percent on 3-pointers for the season and 47.4 percent overall. He’s sporting a modest .517 True Shooting percentage.
His opportunities have progressed since a foot injury knocked Glen Davis out of the lineup in late January, J.J. Redick was dealt to Milwaukee at the February deadline, and Afflalo partially tore his hamstring in late March. If you’ve been watching Harkless play lately, you’ll know that he’s been taking advantage of his increased role.
The Orlando Magic are banged up right now and they’re losing, but one of the benefits of a lost season is a chance for fans to see young talent. New Magic coach Jacque Vaughn probably thinks: why not get these youngsters some reps? Orlando GM, Rob Hennigan, would also add — privately, of course — that this strategy might mean an additional number of ping-pong balls in this summer’s draft lottery.
Part of a favorable future for Harkless in Orlando is the all-important rookie deal that has GM’s, like Hennigan, salivating at all the saved cap space. In a post-CBA world where salary cap strictures are even more pronounced with increasing luxury taxes, cheap talent is almost as much of a commodity as a certain all-world center who used to prowl Amway Center. Almost. There’s no better place to find cheap talent than with kids still on their rookie deal.
This is readily apparent with the uptick in minutes for Harkless since the All-Star break.
Before the break, Harkless averaged 19.6 minutes a night and 4.8 field goal attempts while shooting a mediocre 45.7 percent from the field and a dreadful 17.1 percent from beyond the arc. In fact, his minutes were trending down before jumping to over 34.4 minutes a night in February.
In the 23 games he’s played in since the break, Moe’s averaging 35.6 minutes per game and 12 field goal attempts per game while shooting 47.9 percent from the floor and an otherworldly (for him) 38.8 percent from beyond the 3-point line.
Harkless is still over a year removed from legally ordering an alcoholic beverage at his eponymous tavern, but his improved shooting in the season’s second half means he’s going to have to grow up fast.
Despite the seeming offensive turnaround, the Magic are better without Harkless on the floor this season. Orlando is 3.2 points per possessions worse with Harkless off the court and 12.2 points per possessions worse when he’s playing, per NBA.com.
Those numbers are more a referendum on his teammates and his earlier spot on the second unit than anything overt about his performance on the defensive end — especially of late. He’s averaging over one block and one steal per 36 minutes this year, and those numbers are only likely to grow as he becomes more accustomed to playing starter’s minutes.
In late March, Rob Mahoney wrote of Moe at The Point Forward,”I like most of what I’ve seen from Harkless defensively, but he strikes me as a blank slate on offense.”
While he might have been a bit of a tabula rasa earlier in the year, fans are starting to get snapshots of all that he can do with the ball in his hands. Harkless has dropped career-highs in points twice over the last two weeks, and has cracked double figures in every game, save one, since March 10. But while it’s important to note his increased scoring, what’s more important is how he’s getting buckets.
Moe isn’t a great shooter yet. Magic fans have to be patient with his midrange game, where he’s just as liable to shoot an airball short as he is to rip the twine. It’s not just the midrange though. The wing 3 can be difficult for him, and he should probably avoid shooting them unless the shot clock is winding down or he’s completely wide open.
But he’s developed some rhythm from the corners. He’s a passable stationary shooter, though he should still look to improve his outside shot. He has found a sweet spot in the left corner where he’s shooting over 44 percent since February, so defenders can’t just ignore him, and that’s important when you’re trying to open up the court in the hopes of having an easier time scoring.
That corner spot is where a lot of Harkless’ offensive sets start and finish. He’s either in the corner or along the baseline for most of Orlando’s plays, but that court positioning also allows him to dive into the lane as he comes around a screen or when he uses Vucevic’s ambling presence on the block as a mini-screen.
Orlando doesn’t run pin-downs for Harkless (nor should they, until he improves his jumper), so he loses his man with natural cuts you can’t really teach — a intuitive skill for Moe.
He’s also adept at navigating the space around the rim, floating seemingly out of the play along the baseline, then finishing with all sorts of bizarre angles near the basket.
At the beginning of the year, after the hernia kept him out of training camp, he was tentative around the basket. Sometimes his shot would get swatted, even with superior position and athleticism over his defender. He was trying to finesse the ball in, rather than jam it.
But now? He’s gained some confidence. He’s no longer trying to finish with an apprehensive lay-in. He’s at least attempting to stuff the ball or aggressively drive past shot blockers.
His slashing game also incorporates a lot of hard dives towards the rim from his stationary spot in the corners. When a Magic guard drives, Harkless’ man had better pay attention because he’s capable of sneaking by for a quick lay-in. If his man hedges on the driving guard, he can make them pay with a 3 from the corner.
He’s also flashed an ability to get to the rim even when he’s getting played tough. Like this sequence from the elbow where he seals Mike Dunleavy towards the sideline, turns into the key and drives in for the bucket and the foul:
Perhaps the best part of Harkless’ offensive game is his rebounding. He’s not averaging outrageous numbers on the offensive glass because he’s usually set up beyond the arc on that end, but he’s still averaging over 2 a game, per 36 minutes, and 6.5 boards overall. He’s always getting a hand on a rebound or tapping the ball once it comes off the iron. He might not always get the rebound or the tap-in, but he’s constantly around the ball, which speaks volumes about his hustle and preternatural instinct for the ball.
Harkless is a solid rookie defender who is only going to get better as he gets a full off-season to improve and a full training camp before next season. He’s not a great shooter and most teams would be happy to see him pulling up, but he’s developed a nice 3-point stroke from the corners, and his ability to get into the lane and finish strong is growing with each passing week.
His ceiling is still up in the air, but he’s progressed enough it’s not crazy to lock him in at the 3-spot for whatever group Hennigan and company come up with during the rebuild.