Trade to Orlando helped ignite Tobias Harris' season

Tobias Harris cemented his spot with the Orlando Magic with a breakout 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.