ORLANDO, Fla. – When it’s over, many NBA rookies will admit the best thing about their first season is they’ll never have to go through anything quite like that again.
Maurice Harkless understands the feeling. First came the stressful process of having to work out for prospective teams after playing only one season in college. Then he was drafted with the 15th pick of the first round by the Philadelphia 76ers but traded less than two months later to the Orlando Magic.
And after missing training camp and preseason while recovering from surgery to repair a sports hernia, he was thrust into being matched up against a cavalcade of all-stars including LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce.
It all can be overwhelming to a rail-thin 19-year-old fresh out of St. John’s. But the progress he made since November is something both Harkless and the Magic can point to with pride.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “It’s like night and day. I think it was just a level of confidence (and) being out there. I was coming straight off an injury, no training camp, no preseason. I was just learning on the fly.”
That career trajectory wasn’t a perfectly straight line. Harkless joined Glen Davis and Nikola Vucevic along the Magic’s starting front line in late November, but by the time the new year rolled around, his minutes had dwindled and were sometimes non-existent.
Before the start of a five-game road trip in late January, coach Jacque Vaughn decided to go with Harkless as the permanent starter at small forward. The results were good enough for him to finish the season ranked among the top 10 rookies based on a formula the league’s statistics department uses to measure efficiency.
Harkless, Vucevic, Aaron Afflalo and Al Harrington all ended up in Orlando as part of the blockbuster trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers. Based on the versatility he showed in 59 starts, his place in the team’s long-range plans seems secure.
“I’m just a piece of the puzzle they’re trying to put together,” he said.
During the season, Afflalo spoke highly of his young teammate’s willingness to learn.
“Mo has been great,” he said. “He’s a listener, he’s smart and really an intellectual kid. He loves the game and he works at it. He gets in the gym with me and he wants to get better.”
Vaughn tried to speed up Harkless’ maturation by often assigning him to the opposing team’s top offensive player. While that usually meant another small forward like James, the winner of four MVP trophies in the last five years, Harkless found himself guarding point guard Steve Nash against the Lakers and sometimes power forwards.
On offense, he resisted the urge to rely too much on his length and athleticism and became more of a spot-up jump-shooter than a finisher around the basket. Although his scoring averages increased with each month, he knows he needs to work over the summer on being a better free-throw shooter after hitting only 57 percent of his attempts.
“I’m leaving a lot of points out there,” he said.
Given the Magic’s 6-21 record in games decided by six points or less, such squandered scoring opportunities loom large. Harkless awaits the chance to take the lessons he learned as a rookie and have it pay off in the form of a more successful second season.
“We learned a lot,” he said. “We got a lot better. And next year, there’s nowhere to go but up. We’ll be a better team.”
What He Did Right
After scoring in double figures just once during the Magic’s first 43 games, Harkless averaged 11.4 points a game in February and 13 points in March and April. Despite his slender build, he held up well under the rigors of an 82-game season; by playing 51 minutes in an overtime victory over Milwaukee, he became the first teenager to have at least 50 minutes in an NBA game since 2008.
Where He Needs to Improve
It’s no secret that he needs to get heavier and stronger. He’ll never have a body like LeBron James, but compare what James looked like at 19 or 20 to where he is now. Harkless also has to get better at ball-handling so he can regularly create his own shot. Lastly, there’s the issue of his free-throw shooting, which was by far the worst of any regular on the team.
April 1 at Houston. He scored a career-high 28 points in a 111-103 loss to the playoff-bound Rockets, narrowly missing becoming the youngest player in franchise history to reach the 30-point plateau.
The Magic intend to have Harkless be part of their summer league team. When training camp rolls around, it’s expected that he’ll play around 30 minutes a game at small forward. The Magic have until Oct. 31 to pick up the third-year option on his contract, and nothing suggests they won’t do so.