One of the biggest challenges that NBA rookies face is the so-called Rookie Wall. College seasons last roughly 30 games or so and don't involve too much travel, meaning first-year pros must adjust to the rigors of a schedule which features at least 82 games, as well as long flights and extended roadtrips. Perhaps the most impressive part of Maurice Harkless' rookie campaign with the Orlando Magic, then, is that Harkless didn't crash into the wall; he sprinted directly through it. And then he kept sprinting.
|Points Per Game||Rebounds Per Game||Assists Per Game|
|Points Per 36||Rebounds Per 36||Assists Per 36|
|PER||Rebound Rate||Assist Rate|
All statistics in this table from Harkless' player page at basketball-reference. Career-best statistics highlighted in gold; career-worst statistics highlighted in silver.
Harkless' rookie season was especially trying because he didn't have the benefit of playing in Summer League or taking part in training camp; a sports-hernia injury meant he didn't make his NBA début until November 7th, a little more than a week into the season.
The St. John's product didn't make an immediate impact at either end of the floor, leaving some Magic fans to question what coach Jacque Vaughn had in mind, exactly, stationing the 19-year-old in the corner on offense, where he had precious little to do while sharing the floor with high-usage veterans like Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis, and Jameer Nelson. Vaughn's plan became more clear as the season wore on and Harkless took on more responsibility.
In addition to his cuts to the basket and his offensive put-back opportunities, Harkless started taking threes from the corners, albeit at a low percentage. And then he started making them, shooting 33.9 percent on corner triples after the All-Star Break. His growth as a three-point shooter opened driving lanes for him, particularly along the baseline. And almost overnight, Harkless became a solid, low-usage offensive player who tended to take only layups and corner threes, the two highest-value shots in the game.
And he did all of that while assuming great defensive responsibility: Vaughn tasked the 6-foot-8 swingman with checking the opposition's best perimeter scorer on a nightly basis. Given how stacked the NBA's wings are, that's a chore for any player, particularly one as young and inexperienced as Harkless is. But his length and, more importantly, his eagerness to defend made him more than qualified for the challenge.
Harkless could simply maintain his post-All-Star averages--13.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals, and strong on-ball defense--and stay in the league for more than a decade. But he's not going to maintain those numbers: he's going to continue building on them, and he may emerge as one of the best players from the 2012 Draft class. Magic basketball may be hard to watch for the next few years, but Harkless will be a bright spot, if his growth throughout his rookie season is any indication.