Harris blends special talent, work ethic

ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — When searching for a place to live after being acquired by the Milwaukee Bucks on draft night in 2011, Tobias Harris knew exactly what his top criterion was.

He wouldn’t be looking for a downtown Milwaukee condo as most people his age might – his new digs had to be closer to work.

He ended up settling in right by the Bucks’ practice facility and training center in St. Francis, Wis.

“That’s where most of my days are spent,” Harris said.

For the time being, that decision – and the frequent trips to the Cousins Center it allows — seems to have paid off.

Nothing is official yet, but there’s a good chance Harris will be in the starting lineup when the Bucks open their season Friday night in Boston.

That would be quite the feat considering the 6-foot-8, 226-pound small forward played only 11.4 minutes per game last season and never got in coach Scott Skiles’ rotation.

“Tobias had a great summer, great offseason,” Bucks general manager John Hammond said. “I think I can say this honestly: I don’t know if anyone outworked Tobias Harris this summer.

“The one thing about that kid is he’s a tremendous worker. Guys that have his kind of size and his ability, when you work that hard, good things are going to happen. I think the summer was just a little example of that. We’re hoping for good things from him this coming season and beyond.”

It’s easy to forget that Harris just turned 20 years old in July.

He played only one season at the University of Tennessee and entered the league under difficult circumstances for any rookie. Last year’s lockout put all first-year players behind due to the loss of summer league play and a shortened training camp, but Harris missed the majority of the Bucks’ truncated camp with dehydration issues and a blood disorder.

This summer, he made up for lost time.

“I wouldn’t even know,” Harris said of how much time he spent in the gym this offseason. “It would be a lot of time. I just look at it, as much time as you put into this game, you know, it’ll all pay off in the long run. That’s been my motive since high school. As many hours as I put in here, it’ll all pay off.”

And it has.

Harris opened eyes at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 20.8 points on the way to being named a Summer League All-Star.

“This is his first summer league, his first training camp,” Hammond said. “With a young guy like that, some people in summer league came up and said some nice things to me about Tobias. … I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player. Time will tell how good.”

Opportunity knocked in training camp when fellow small forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had to sit out while recovering from offseason knee surgery. And with Skiles wanting to keep Mike Dunleavy in his sixth man role, the door was open for Harris to compete for a starting spot.

In his limited time on the floor last season, Harris showed an ability to score, but his defense wasn’t near where Skiles wanted it to be.

“I have to show that I can defend at the three spot,” Harris said. “That’s probably the biggest thing right now. I need to show that I can bring energy, and that shouldn’t be too hard for me.

“My offense is going to be there, it’s going to come.  I feel like my defense has gotten a lot better. I feel like I’ve really made a lot of strides in that area of my game.”

Defense is one of the few issues that have kept him from grabbing the starting spot. It’s still a work in progress.

“It’s been a little difficult for him,” Skiles said of Harris’ preseason. “He’s had his ups and downs. There’s no question he’s better than he was last year at the beginning of camp. There’s a lot going on out there that you need to be aware of, and like most young guys they have to work on their awareness. He’s working on it. He’s better at it.”

The challenge with young players is they often don’t understand what kind of work it takes to repair a flaw.

Their arrogance holds them back, but that’s not Harris. Skiles sees defense is important to the second-year pro and he’s never seen someone work this hard to become a better defender and not improve.

“He’s trying to go from a poor defender to a mediocre defender to a good defender, and those things take time,” Skiles said. “The three-men at this level, they’re moving all the time, they’re coming off of screens, they’re on the board, they’re doing all kinds of things.”

Combining a tremendous amount of natural ability with his willingness to work could make Harris the X-factor for a Bucks team in need of a frontcourt playmaker. As Harris works to be that player, he’s simply grateful his effort has at least put him in this position.

“It just showed the sky’s the limit,” Harris said. “It basically showed the time that I put it definitely did pay off, and it was a confidence booster going into the season.”

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