ORLANDO, Fla. — Al Harrington was the youngest player in the NBA when he broke in with the Indiana Pacers on a team that included Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Jalen Rose and Chris Mullin.
Fifteen years later, he’s not only the oldest player on the Orlando Magic but older than their general manager.
And after a season in which he spent more time in street clothes than in uniform, he’s smart enough to figure out what Rob Hennigan and the rest of their braintrust has in mind.
“They’re building for the future,” Harrington said. “They needed those young guys to get experience. I’ve actually been on a team like that where I was one of those young guys who probably played over a veteran and probably didn’t deserve to.”
So as much as he would like to see Maurice Harkless, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic continue to mature and have a hand in that development, it’s a good bet Harrington’s future lies elsewhere.
“The thing about the NBA now is it’s all a numbers game,” he said. “We’re not players anymore. We’re contracts. We’re numbers. So we’ll just see if I fit in here, and obviously they want to play young guys, and I’m far from being a young guy.”
Harrington turned 33 on Feb. 17. One of the best presents he could have gotten came about a week later, when he was finally cleared to practice with the team which acquired him and guard Arron Afflalo six months earlier from the Denver Nuggets.
After the Nuggets were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, Harrington underwent surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right knee. But medical complications resulting from that procedure limited him to only 10 games, the last of which came March 15 at Oklahoma City.
Since the season ended, Harrington has reportedly stopped wearing a bulky knee brace and will begin working out for other teams early next month with the Magic’s permission. He got to the Eastern Conference finals with the Pacers in 2004 but has advanced beyond the first round just once since then.
“That’s what it’s all about to me at this point,” he said. “God’s been good to me, and I’ve made enough money so I’m not playing for the money anymore. I’m playing for trying to be a champion and winning a ring.”
Harrington broke into the NBA before it prohibited players from declaring for the draft straight out of high school. Harkless played only a year at St. John’s before turning pro, and even Andrew Nicholson, DeQuan Jones and Kyle O’Quinn — all of whom spent four years in college — had moments where they looked very much like rookies.
A year from now, those hard lessons could begin paying off handsomely.
“You learn so much your first year,” Harrington said. “At that point, you really should be able to apply it to your game and how you should move forward. So I expect all those guys to come back better than they were last year.”
As in the case of Harrington, the Magic will be shopping around the even more burdensome contract of another veteran forward, Hedo Turkoglu. The end of Turkoglu’s second go-around with the Magic was sealed when the NBA suspended him for 20 games in mid-Feburary after he tested positive for steroids. Even after the suspension ended, he was never used by coach Jacque Vaughn.
Turkoglu, 34, played in a total of only 11 games and is owed $12 million in the last year of his contract. The native of Turkey could help another team in need of a better-than-average 3-point shooter and passer off the bench, although that would be contingent on him getting back in shape over the summer.
What He Did Right
Harrington was a consummate professional on one of the NBA’s youngest teams. He was determined to get back on the court, even when it became painfully clear the Magic were headed to the draft lottery for the first time since 2006. For what it’s worth, their record was 3-5 in his first eight games back, and he averaged nine points and four rebounds in less than 16 minutes in those victories.
Where He Needs to Improve
Although his best years are behind him, Harrington can still be a valuable asset in a reserve role if he can get his right knee back closer to what it was before the four surgical procedures. He’s a career 35.2-percent shooter from 3-point range but was nowhere near that accurate because of his knee and all the time off he needed to take.
Feb. 26 at Philadelphia. There weren’t many moments during the Magic’s season that went beyond what happened on the court, but this was one of them. Harrington finally got the chance to play after nearly a 10-month absence from game competition and scored all nine of his points in the fourth quarter in a 98-84 victory over the 76ers.
He realizes a team in a rebuilding mode isn’t the place for a 33-year-old veteran who is due more than $7 million for each of the next two seasons. The Magic are likely to try trading Harrington and his non-guaranteed contract to a championship contender. Should they waive him, half of his salary would count against the cap.