ORLANDO — Jerseys with short sleeves. Jason Kidd as a coach. Joe Crawford relaxed and smiling.
All qualify as unusual sights this week at the Orlando Pro Summer League. Only slightly less odd than those is that the player with the most regular-season experience as a starter on the roster of the Orlando Magic is also their youngest participant.
After making 59 starts last season, it can be easy to forget that Maurice Harkless only turned 20 two months ago. But moments like the last three minutes of the Magic’s 90-89 victory Thursday night over the Philadelphia 76ers were a perfect illustration of the benefits to having him present.
Two free throws, an assist on a basket by Andrew Nicholson and two driving layups kept the Magic within striking distance while also showcasing Harkless’ improvement as an all-around player. And seeing Victor Oladipo, in a one-on-one matchup of first-round draft picks, step back and nail a 22-foot jump shot over Michael Carter-Williams with 4.4 seconds to go set off a celebration on the floor and among the handful of season-ticket holders sitting in the upper reaches of the Amway Center practice court.
“That’s Vic,” Harkless said. “He comes in and steps in and goes and takes that shot, and we win. It’s a big-time play.”
Although Oladipo is a rookie, he’s more than a full year older than Harkless. But one thing they have in common is that this is their first summer league. Not only was Harkless still property of the 76ers at this time a year ago, but he couldn’t participate in any activities through training camp and the preseason because of a sports hernia that required surgery.
It’s clear that the two of them have formed a bond in a week together.
“He’s one of the freakiest athletes I’ve ever been around,” Oladipo said following his 24-point performance. “And he’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever been around. He’s kind of like me. I said, ‘Talking to you is kind of like talking to myself in the mirror.’ We’re like one and the same. And I can tell I’m really going to be close with him.”
“We have a lot in common. He’s right,” Harkless added. “When I talk to him, it’s like everything he says is like, ‘Damn, I’m thinking the same thing.’ “
Harkless is one of four players from the Magic team that went 20-62 last season who joined Oladipo in the starting lineup. One difference against the Sixers was that DeQuan Jones opened at a guard spot in place of Doron Lamb, who bruised a knee Tuesday in a loss to the Miami Heat.
Admitting that he’s “a little more confident and comfortable now,” Harkless is demonstrating an ability to take bumps and still control the ball on the dribble. And he’s as adept as ever using either hand.
“In the fourth quarter, he made plays off the bounce that he probably wouldn’t have made last year or the year before,” assistant coach James Borrego said. “We just need to see that growth continue.”
Another area where Harkless appears to have a greater degree of comfort is at the free-throw line. After making only 57 percent of his attempts as a rookie, he has connected on 17 of his 25 tries in four games this week.
But it could be more important for him to complement Oladipo, Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo in running the offense and taking the ball to the rim with authority.
“We need someone else who can handle the ball next to Vic, Jameer, Arron,” Borrego said. “And he’s made some significant strides in that area.”
Oladipo’s game-winning jumper was especially sweet because it was Carter-Williams and Syracuse who eliminated Indiana in the NCAA tournament.
“I knew Michael from a while ago,” he said. “He beat us in the Sweet 16, so I wanted this a little bit. But it’s the beauty of competition. He’s a cool dude and a good friend of mine.”
The victory kept the Magic from having to play in the least significant of the five games scheduled for the final day of competition Friday. They will now face the Boston Celtics at 2 p.m. to determine the seventh-place finisher in the 10-team league. All five games will be televised by NBA TV.