Is this guy the NBA's biggest bargain?
By Andrew Sharp
That smell lingering in the air isn't a backyard BBQ or the new Essence of Shark Axe Body Spray scent. That, my friends, is the unmistakable scent of burning money, coupled with just a hint charred khaki from where the pockets of NBA front officers used to be.
Since the NBA's free agency period began on July 1, most of the focus has centered around the usual big-money suspects: LeBron and D-Wade, the Lakers and Knicks, as well as a strong group of restricted free agents headlined by the Bulls' Jimmy Butler and the Spurs' Kahwi Leonard.
Then there's Tobias Harris.
He might not have received the same attention as some of his more polished peers, but the Orlando Magic forward seemed eminently available, particularly after his team took a flier on Croatian gunner Mario Hezonja with the No. 5 overall pick in last month's draft. After all, Harris and Hezonja occupy the same small-forward niche, so it wouldn't have been a shock if another team had somehow managed to pry the former away from central Florida.
But in an offseason not exactly lacking in surprising moves, Harris and the Magic quietly settled on a new deal that will pay the soon-to-be 23 year old $60 million over the next four seasons.
Considering the magnitude of the salaries that have already been doled out — to say nothing of Harris' NBA production thus far — the deal was by no means jaw-dropping.
Harris has shown improvement in each of his first four NBA seasons, charting career highs in points, steals, assists, and three-point shooting a season ago. Indeed, perimeter shooting is where he has shown arguably the most dramatic progress — from a putrid 28 percent over his first three professional seasons to a more-than-respectable 36.4 percent in 2014–15 (and with a career high in attempts, no less).
In addition to these standard stats, Harris also posted a career high player efficiency rating (PER) of 16.7 last season. And while PER doesn't do much to measure a player's ability as a defensive stopper, it remains a valuable baseline metric for gauging a player's on-court contributions. At 16.7, Harris' PER puts him in good company, with players like Serge Ibaka (16.6), Draymond Green (16.4), and Chandler Parsons (16.3) all occupying the same real estate.
Additionally, the aforementioned three-point shooting landed Harris in quite the statistical group, when he joined James, Kevin Love, Paul Milsap, Ibaka, Kevin Durant, and Chris Bosh as the only players to tally 35 percent or better from distance on a minimum of 150 attempts while also pulling down six rebounds or more per game.
A majority of Harris' long-range damage came from the corners, where he shot an impressive 44.2 percent. And while he will likely never boast the pull-up-from-any-where wizardry of a Durant or Stephen Curry, he did shoot a very respectable 38 percent from distance in catch-and-shoot situations for Orlando last year.
Still, Harris's offensive repertoire consists of more that just his improved jump shooting. A versatile offensive player, he is capable of attacking defenses in a variety of ways depending on his matchup. At 6'8, 226 pounds with above-average athletic ability, the former 19th-overall pick can bully smaller forwards down on the block or beat slower-footed 4s off the dribble.
In the play shown above, Harris is initially being guarded by Paul Pierce. But after a switch pits him against the bigger, burlier Nene, Harris displays cool decisiveness in blowing by the Brazilian big for an easy reverse layup. Later in the same game, it's Wizards point guard John Wall who finds himself checking Harris. Recognizing the mismatch, Harris takes Wall into the paint, backs him down and scores an easy basket. Ironically, Wall actually waves offthe more sizable Otto Porter so he can take a shot at defending Harris, who'd logged 17 points prior to that possession.
According to NBA.com, of the 71 players with at least 100 post-up possessions during the 2014–15 season, Harris — along with former King Carl Landry — led the league in points per possession (1.04). To be sure, Harris' sample size is rather small, having registered only 104 post-ups. Still, at just 23 years old, it's clear he has the potential to develop into a certifiable force down low.
Harris is also uncommonly active on the offensive end, routinely helping the Magic maintain some semblance of spacing in their half-court sets. Watch enough of Harris' games, and you'll see he also does an excellent job of making his defender pay if they aren't vigilant in monitoring his movement.
The play above, showing Harris trafficking in the rare currency of making LeBron look silly, isn't an isolated incident. Here's Harris doing it again, this time to Jimmy Butler, he of the 2nd Team All-NBA Defense selection. Once again, the advanced stats back up what the video shows: Harris' points per possession on cuts (110) registered at 1.49, second behind only (presumptive) future MVP Anthony Davis.
As talented and diverse as Harris is on the offensive end, however, he certainly isn't without his flaws. There are times when Harris' sticky-handed shot selection and lapses in defensive concentration are enough to make J.R. Smith blush. For him to continue to improve, he'll need to make a more concerted effort to keep the ball moving within the offense when his shot isn't there.
Like many other scorers, Harris would also be wise to drive to the basket more, rather than settling for mid-range jumpers. In 2014–15, he shot a forgettable 37.3 percent from mid-range, but that didn't stop him from taking over 200 shots from that quadrant, invariably dragging down his shooting percentage from where it should've been.
Defensively, Harris has all the tools to effectively guard three positions — and perhaps as many as four. As things stand, however, Harris has a number of bad habits new Magic head coach Scott Skiles will have to exorcise.
The good news is most of Harris' shortcomings are relatively minor: keeping his hands up on defense, closing out on shooters with more urgency, and fighting through picks being chief among them. Last season, the Orlando's defensive rating with Harris on the court was a woeful 106.7. That number dropped to a much more respectable 102.9 with him on the bench. Skiles may not be the most player-friendly coach in the world, but he should be able to do wonders in making Harris a better all-around player.
With league executives continuing to trend in the direction of the Golden State Warriors' style of pace-and-space offense, you'd figure a player as versatile as Harris would've garnered more offseason attention — especially when some have gone so far as to describe the Islip, New York native as a poor man's Carmelo Anthony. Harris certainly isn't as gifted a scorer as 'Melo, but his price tag at least made him a viable option for teams in search of scoring punch.
At his age, Harris still has plenty of time to take his game to the next level — at both ends of the floor. Sure, there's always the possibility that Harris' marked improvement from the perimeter last season was an aberration — which, if coupled with continued neglect at the defensive end, could make him nothing more than an inefficient ball-stopper.
At the same time, there's merit in teams attacking free agency with the idea of paying players for future output, not past accomplishments. And with the salary cap set to rise even more over the next few seasons — the product of a new multi-billion dollar television partnership — the Magic will likely be able to look back at their $60 million gamble as a worthwhile one. (Harris' projected $14.4 million salary will eat up 21 percent of the Magic's cap space next year, assuming the league-mandated cap holds at the projected $67.1 million, but with that figure expected to rise to $81.6 million for the 2016–17 season, his salary will occupy considerably less of Orlando's largesse.)
Considering Harris' versatility and potential — which could fall anywhere from second banana on a contender to an outright star — he might end up being this summer's biggest bargain.
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