Trade to Orlando helped ignite Tobias Harris’ season

ORLANDO, Fla. – The NBA doesn’t hand out awards based on what transpired during the final third of its regular season.

If it did, Tobias Harris would have been a prime candidate for Most Improved Player.

When
the Orlando Magic acquired him and guards Beno Udrih and Doron Lamb in
February from the Milwaukee Bucks, Harris wasn’t even averaging five
points a game in his second season as a pro. With rookies Maurice
Harkless and Andrew Nicholson having become the Magic’s starting
forwards, the thought of another young player competing with them for
minutes was likely not very high on their fans’ wish list.

But
all that dormant potential surfaced in a hurry. After Harris had 27
points and 10 rebounds off the bench against the Houston Rockets in only
his fourth game with the Magic, it became clear he belonged.

Harris
made his first start March 8 and ended up averaging more than 17 points
and nine rebounds during the next 20 games. Those are the sort of
numbers NBA followers might associate more with an all-star like Blake
Griffin or a former lottery pick like DeMarcus Cousins, not somebody who
lasted until the 19th selection of the first round in 2011.

Being the center of attention is new territory for the 6-foot-9, 226-pound Harris.

“I’m
not too big on individual spotlights and stuff like that,” he said.
“I’m bigger on us as a unit, as a team, and the direction that we’re
going in.”

Harris’ competitiveness made an immediate impression
on Magic coach Jacque Vaughn. That desire to put in the necessary hard
work was instilled in him at an early age by his father, Torrel Harris,
who played college basketball at Duquesne and later became the agent for
Hall of Famer George Gervin.

Despite the drawbacks inherent with
coming to a new team so late in a season, especially a team as
inexperienced as the Magic, Harris fit in well.

“We practice
hard. We play hard,” he said. “But we’re a young team, so we’re going to
make mistakes. Going into next year, our approach going into every game
has to be, ‘We’re going to win this game.'”

Although victories
were scarce, Harris played a huge role when the Magic defeated the Bucks
in overtime with a week to go in the season. While all three players
obtained from Milwaukee were in the game for the entire fourth quarter
and overtime, it was Harris who scored 13 of his 30 points during that
stretch.

More than just a scorer, he pulled down 10 or more
rebounds nine times, raising the prospect of the Magic having the type
of well-rounded power forward they’ve lacked.

“My goals are to
just be the best player I can be,” he said. “And hopefully one night I
can be an all-star. But more importantly, (it’s) just being a winner,
being somebody who can lead his team to the playoffs and even a
championship one day. My play will speak for itself.”

When Glen
Davis returns from a fractured left foot, Vaughn might have to decide
whether to keep Harris primarily at power forward or have him compete
with Harkless for the starting job at small forward. So while the Magic
are counting on a full season from Harris, they might not need him to
again average around 36 minutes a night, which is just fine with him.

“I haven’t played this much in my whole life,” he said.

What He Did Right

Harris’
play more than justified the trading of longtime fan favorite J.J.
Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks. Harris averaged 17.3 points and 8.5
rebounds in the last 27 games, numbers that can’t simply be disregarded
because the Magic went 5-22 during that stretch. He doesn’t turn 21
until July 15, so there is still plenty of time for Harris to use his
combination of size and quickness to expand his game.

Where He Needs to Improve

Becoming
a more consistent 3-point shooter is a top priority — Harris made only
31 percent of his attempts with the Magic. It also remains to be seen
how he’ll co-exist with Davis, who had been starting at power forward
until fracturing his left foot three weeks before they acquired Harris.
Is Harris better suited for small or power forward?

Best Game

April
10 vs. Milwaukee. Harris’ 3-pointer with 1.9 seconds to go in
regulation tied the score, and his dunk in the waning moments of
overtime put the exclamation point on a 30-point, 19-rebound performance
in what turned out to be the Magic’s last win of the season.

Looking Ahead

As
far as the Magic are concerned, Harris and center Nikola Vucevic are
the first-round picks they never got in the 2011 NBA draft. The team has
until Oct. 31 to pick up the fourth-year option on Harris’ rookie scale
contract, which seems like a sure thing.

You can email Ken Hornack at khornack32176@gmail.com.