ORLANDO, Fla. — Maurice Harkless was unable to do anything but take set shots at the end of practice when the Orlando Magic opened training camp a year ago.
Twelve months and 59 regular-season starts later, it’s easy to forget that one of the Magic’s key acquisitions in the Dwight Howard trade had a delayed beginning to his rookie season while recovering from surgery for a sports hernia. So Harkless’ participation Tuesday on the Amway Center practice courts, while not quite the hot topic of conversation that Victor Oladipo’s first workout with the full team was, qualified as newsworthy nonetheless.
Playing in full-court scrimmages, to say the least, beats playing catch-up after the 82-game grind has already commenced.
“Training camp is important,” said Harkless, who is an inch taller at 6-foot-9 and 10 pounds heavier at 220 since the 2012-13 season ended. “It gives you a little taste of how intense it’s going to be during the season. It’s not on the same level, of course, but it gives Victor and Romero (Osby, the Magic’s second-round pick) a little taste of how they have to go during games.”
Both Harkless and forward Tobias Harris, who averaged more than 17 points in 27 games with the Magic after being obtained from the Milwaukee Bucks in February, are younger than the 21-year-old Oladipo, who left Indiana after his junior year and was taken with the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.
Coach Jacque Vaughn has noticed several changes in a player who didn’t even average 10 points or five rebounds in the games he started. Not only does Vaughn believe Harkless has grown physically, but his confidence has been fortified as well.
“This game is extremely humbling,” he said. “There are so many guys that are so good. You go from being a first-round pick to playing someone pretty good every single night. So it humbles you. I think he has accepted that and worked extremely hard. Now he’s humble and hungry, which is good.”
It wasn’t unusual for Harkless, a year removed from his only season at St. John’s, to be matched up against the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and James Harden. There’s only so much one individual can do defensively against that sort of talent, but Harkless maintains that his goal every night is to shut down whoever he’s guarding.
“These guys are pros and they’re great at what they do,” he said. “But I look forward to the challenge, and I accept it.”
Spending close to two hours a day in the Magic’s weight room over the summer should make him well-equipped for that daunting task. Harkless couldn’t bench press 225 pounds a year ago but is now able to lift 275 pounds multiple times.
“It’s definitely helped,” he said. “I can take hits a lot better, and I’m more explosive. I can feel it out there. I feel stronger.”
Already known for his quick hands on defense, Harkless wants to improve his ball-handling, shooting and post game during his second season. If what he demonstrated in July with the Magic’s summer league team is any indication, he is making significant strides toward becoming a better free-throw shooter.
Now it’s Oladipo who finds himself playing through the rookie jitters.
“I was very nervous last year the first time I practiced. It’s just natural,” Harkless said. “I could tell he was a little nervous today as well. But once he calmed down, he was fine.”
“I made some mistakes here and there,” Oladipo said. “I was going a little too fast. But it was fun.”
If Oladipo is able to crack the starting lineup in the next four weeks, the Magic could begin the season with four starters who are 22 or younger. But there’s not the sense of general unfamiliarity that existed before Vaughn’s first season as coach. Harris said he couldn’t recall spending more than three weeks part from his teammates the past several months.
“These guys, for the most part, have been around this summer,” Vaughn said. “So I’ve seen the work they’ve put in. It was good to see it on the floor together as a unit.”
“It’s a fresh new start for us as a team,” Harris said. “It’s a different team from last year. A lot of similar faces, but it’s a different season. And building that chemistry is so key.”