Nobody expects the Orlando Magic to win many games this season, but that doesn't mean that there aren't expectations. The crew of young players is expected to develop and coach Jacque Vaughn is expected to max out the team's basketball limits. You could argue that, individually, expectations are highest for a number of players--Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vučević, and Victor Oladipo--but I'd argue that the weight of development and expectation is heaviest on the shoulders of Tobias Harris.
That's because Harris, with fresh legs and a chip on his shoulder after a year and a half buried on the Milwaukee Bucks' bench, showed flashes of brilliance in his first 27 games in a Magic uniform. Here's a list of players who last year averaged, as Harris did in Orlando, over 17 points, eight rebounds, two assists and one block: Al Horford, Tim Duncan, Al Jefferson, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Josh Smith, per Basketball-Reference. The players on that list have combined for 18 All-Star appearances. Okay, fine, Duncan has 14 of those but, still, Jefferson and J-Smoove have both been All-Star snubs multiple times. Either way, that's good company. That Harris turned 21 in July only adds to the excitement that his first season in pinstripes generated.
But deep in the back of my brain, where only my most desolate, pessimistic thoughts live, I keep asking the question: is Harris a legitimate future All-Star or is he an above-average player thriving on a team that isn't very good? Harris won't answer that question this season, but it'd be nice to see some steps toward the former.
It's no secret that some players thrive on bad teams because, well, it's basketball and stats are there for the taking in a 48-minute game. And I'm not the only one who questions this about Harris. There's plenty of conversation among NBA talking heads regarding whether Harris is best suited as a sixth man-type, a player who works best as a volume scorer off the bench and keeps the team running against the opponent's second squad.
It's clear--to me, at least--that Harris isn't a full-time small forward. He doesn't have the footspeed to guard small forwards on the perimeter for 30-plus minutes a game. That isn't to say that he can't spell the three-spot for small stretches--he certainly has the offensive skills, particularly the handles, to play the position--but he is much more effective defensively against power forwards. To put things in perspective, Harris gave up .94 points per possession in isolation situations, placing him 277th overall, according to MySynergySports. He did, however, show promise defending the post--what he gave up in height he earned back by using his seven-foot wingspan and being, for the most part, active--as his 1.4 blocks suggests.
But will he better learn Vaughn's defensive scheme, finding himself in the right place on backside rotations? Will he continue to improve his post defense enough so he overcomes his lack of elite height with positioning and strength? Can he refrain from over-pursuing a spot-up shooter? Will he move his feet quickly enough laterally so that he isn't continuously beat off the dribble in isolation situations? These are real concerns for Harris defensively and should be things to watch in his development this season. But he's only 21 and young guys usually struggle transitioning to defense in the NBA. It only makes sense that he should continue to get better on that end of the floor. The thing is that he doesn't need to be a plus defender because he's good enough offensively to get away with just being average.
Speaking of offense, that's really where Harris thrives, particularly in off-ball cuts, putbacks, and his ability to create efficient shots for himself with the ball in his hands. Harris' problem on offense lies in his tendency to rely on inefficient jumpers rather than attacking the cup where he's much more effective. He shot just 4.1 free throws per game but his size and skill set would suggest that he could easily get to the free throw line 6-to-7 times a contest. A Harris who uses his unique set of skills to the best of his advantage is a nightmare match up for both slow footed power forwards and small(ish) small forwards.
It'd also be nice to see Harris develop a more consistent three-point shot, particularly from the corners. Part of Orlando's offensive anemia comes from its inability to knock down long-range shots. Defenses are apt to pack the paint against the Magic, effectively clogging the lane and essentially forcing the team into tough shots inside the arc. The catch-22 here is that since Harris is such a unique talent, you don't want him to fall in love with shooting from deep. Striking a balance here is the toughest part: knowing when to drive, when to pull up, and when to shoot from deep. There's an art to rounding out one's game and most of that develops more with experience and playing time.
Harris will get that playing time, with Glen Davis sidelined, to prove that he's a two-way, starting-caliber power forward, rather than a high-volume scorer best suited to come off the bench. General manager Rob Hennigan is all about "the process." Rebuilding is a process. Player development is a process. Harris is just starting that process. This is first full year in Orlando with a full training camp. He won't correct all of the defensive issues he had in his first 27 games with the Magic. He won't max out his unlimited offensive potential in his third year as an NBA player. But he should start making strides in the right direction.