MILWAUKEE — Tobias Harris kept hearing folks around him telling him to be patient. Keep working and your time will eventually come.
He’d just have to be ready.
Opportunity presented itself last month when Harris was traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Orlando Magic along with Beno Udrih and Doron Lamb in exchange for J.J. Redick, Ish Smith and Gustavo Ayon.
Harris has thrived in Orlando, playing 30.9 minutes per game and averaging 15.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks as the Magic’s power forward.
“I’m in a good situation here with the Orlando Magic,” Harris said Saturday, a day before his first game against his old team. “I’m really happy to be here, and I’m just taking advantage of the opportunity that’s in front of me and just showcasing my game and getting chemistry with the unit we have now.”
Though he was playing just 11.6 minutes per game with the Bucks, Harris had no inkling that he’d be moving at the trade deadline. The 20-year-old wasn’t creating any waves within the organization despite going from the starting small forward to essentially not playing at all.
He was frustrated, no doubt. But wasn’t thinking his time in Milwaukee was over.
“I was surprised just because (I was) hearing you were a key asset to the team and you are part of the team’s future, so yeah I was surprised,” Harris said. “But I know this is a business, it’s part of the game, and you can’t hold your head too long. I knew the situation in Orlando was a good one for me.”
Harris started Milwaukee’s first 14 games of the season. He scored in double figures six times but was struggling to consistently guard quicker small forwards and stronger power forwards. Former Bucks coach Scott Skiles eventually decided Harris’ spotty defense and lack of rebounding in Milwaukee’s system was hurting a team trying to win now.
Harris started just one more game after Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony torched him in a game in Milwaukee. Harris went from starting to out of the rotation almost overnight.
“Those where his coaching decisions, and that’s sometimes how the ball drops,” Harris said. “At the same time, Coach Skiles taught me a lot about being a player. Instilling a system in me to where I am now. I definitely learned a lot as a player, a lot on the defensive end from him.”
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn had seen Harris only from afar. He knew of his potential as a scorer and that he would probably thrive in a situation where he could play for a team more focused on the future. What he didn’t know was how Harris approached the game on a day-to-day basis.
“A lot of guys that face adversity in not playing their first year, two, I’ve seen in Year 3, how do you respond to that?” Vaughn said. “He was a guy that kept himself ready mentally. The mental grind, you are at home, you aren’t playing, your team is winning, your team is losing, how do you handle that?
“Until you are around a guy every day, you don’t know. I saw whether or not he was doing warm-ups before the game and I saw that part of it, but until he’s in the locker room, until he’s next to you, until he’s in the front row watching film, until I see him engaged in scouting reports, until I see him highly competitive in one-on-ones in practice, then I don’t know about him. He’s been extremely good in those areas.”
Watching a talented player as young as Harris succeed with a different organization has caused many Bucks fans to become unhappy with the trade. Redick, the centerpiece of the trade, is in the final year of his contract and could leave Milwaukee at the end of the season. Bucks coach Jim Boylan isn’t surprised to see the numbers Harris is putting up but also isn’t rushing to judgment on the trade just yet.
“Tobias is a good player,” Boylan said. “It was just a numbers thing here, and we had a lot of guys in front of him. We were playing him at the three, and he’s down there playing at the four spot.
“You always have to look down the road with trades. If you look a week after, two weeks after or a month after, you aren’t getting a real perspective on it. Those things take time. Tobias is a good player, J.J. is a good player. Our intention here is to keep J.J. for a real long time.”
As Harris returns to Milwaukee this weekend, he isn’t looking to show the Bucks they made a mistake Sunday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. He is excited to see former teammates he still keeps in contact with – many have sent him text messages or called him to congratulate him on his strong play in Orlando – but doesn’t want to fall into the trap of pressing to show the Bucks what they are missing.
“They did what they did,” Harris said of the organization. “That was the trade that they wanted to make. Obviously, they didn’t think it was a mistake, so as a player I’m just going to go out and play my game, play with my teammates and have fun on the basketball court.
“I always go into every game with the mindset of playing to the best of my ability and playing as hard as I can. That’s my mindset going into (Sunday).”
The outpouring support from Milwaukee fans who are still following his progress hasn’t gone unnoticed by Harris. He appreciates the notion many Bucks fans wanted him to be a piece of their team’s future.
“The fan support in Milwaukee has always been top of the line,” Harris said. “I respect all the fans here and the trust they have in me as a player. Even through Twitter and Facebook, I still talk to them. That’s a good feeling to know you impacted some fans even in the situation where I wasn’t playing that much. That’s just a good feeling. I love the fans here in Milwaukee.”