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Evaluating Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, and Aaron Gordon

Harris had a quietly excellent season, but his fellow utility forwards didn't fare nearly as well.

Aaron Gordon
Aaron Gordon
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando Pintriped Post continues its series of player evaluations with a look at the Orlando Magic's gadget forwards. Previously: point guards and wings.

With one notable exception, the Magic's crop of gadget forwards--those players who don't fit neatly into the "wings" or "bigs" categories--didn't quite meet expectation in the team's 2014/15 campaign.

That exception is Tobias Harris. Shifted from power forward to small forward due to the free-agent signing of Channing Frye, Harris proved he can score from the perimeter just as effectively. Maintaining similar usage from the season prior, Harris made modest gains in True Shooting (54.2 to 55.1 percent) and per-minute scoring (17.2 points per 36 to 17.5). And while playing more perimeter-oriented ball caused his rebounding numbers to dip, he improved his assist, steal, and block rates as well.

The Magic are so bereft of offensive creators that Harris' shot-making ability stands out to an impressive degree. That roster shortcoming also raises questions about his true ability. Even some of Harris' supporters within the Magic fan community wonder if his numbers are hollow, a consequence of getting lots of opportunities on a bad team. Would he be as effective in a lesser role? Can a winning team really rely on Tobias Harris?

Those questions are valid, and we won't know the answers to them or to others like them until the Magic add more talent to their core.

But I have to say I'm a Harris apologist. Even if the ball tends to stick in his hands at times, he's arguably the Magic's most talented player; 6-foot-8 guys who can score and rebound as well as he does at his age--when he starts his fifth season, he'll do so only three months removed from his 23rd birthday--don't come around too often. Orlando would be wise to retain him in restricted free agency.

His fellow Magic gadgets didn't fare as well in 2014/15, albeit for wildly different reasons. Moe Harkless simply couldn't get on the floor; worryingly, his minutes per game average has dipped in each of his three pro seasons.

Yes, signing Frye moved Harris to small forward, but the addition of Frye can't account for Harkless' almost complete disappearance. Before his February ouster, coach Jacque Vaughn said several times that he wanted Harkless to play more energetic and focused defensively. Fair enough, as it seems every coach expects better defensive effort from all of his players, but it struck Magic fans and NBA analysts as odd that a rebuilding squad would bench a 21-year-old with Harkless' potential.

And yet, bench him Orlando did. Even after James Borrego replaced Vaughn as Magic coach, Harkless remained an afterthought, logging only 15.6 minutes per game to go with eight Did Not Play-Coach's Decisions and two games on the inactive list.

As one might expect from a young player grappling with losing his role, Harkless cratered. He shot 39.9 percent from the floor and 17.9 percent on threes, both of which figures represent career-worsts. And while offense may never be Harkless' calling card, he simply has to improve as a shooter if he's to stick as a rotation player in this league. A more creative coach than Vaughn and Borrego might have found ways to make better use of Harkless' speed and athleticism, perhaps by looking to fast-break more. But even just giving him the ball would be a start: late in his second season, the St. John's product showed better facility and confidence with his handle, leading to some inspired drives to the rim. Pairing that off-the-dribble friskiness with even a league-average corner three-pointer would make Harkless someone defenses can't completely ignore.

Throughout his third season, Harkless at least remained professional and willing to work through his struggles; if he was upset about his lack of playing time and diminishing role, he never let it show in public view. That much, and the fact that he is, by all accounts, a tireless worker, has to count for something. But his uninspiring season on the court, one which marked as a clear regression from his second season, is certainly cause for concern.

And then there's Aaron Gordon, who, through no fault of his own, had a quiet rookie season. Owing to injury, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft made only 47 appearances, offering only fleeting glimpses into his potential.

We know he can defend, at least. Though by no means a perfect defender, Gordon's size, frame, athleticism, and willingness to engage on that end make him a plus even at age 19. I'm not certain he'll ever be able to defend speedier small forwards on a full-time basis, but he can cover certain threes for a handful of possessions each game, making him valuable in isolation or switching situations.

As with seemingly every other youngster on Orlando's roster, however, the real question with Gordon is his shooting and scoring. He's not a threat as a shooter off the catch, so stashing him in the corner as a spacer doesn't quite make sense. His iffy midrange shot and work-in-progress handles mean he's not yet equipped to handle hard closeouts. At this (admittedly early) juncture it's hard to tell precisely what role Gordon will play in an NBA offense. And while I understand the inclination to play him as a sort free safety defensively, I do think more clearly defining his offensive position would help certain of his skills develop more quickly.

I'd prefer to see Gordon as a power forward, hanging around the elbows as a facilitator and screener. But I can also see, if I squint hard enough, the Magic going an entirely different direction and having him play a perimeter-based, jack-of-all-trades role not unlike Andre Iguodala.

Given his age, skill set, and how infrequently he played as a rookie, it's really tough to assess Gordon. But it's fun to think of the possibilities.

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