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Chris Dortch

Tennessee's Tobias Harris is one of the hardest-working players in the 2011 NBA Draft class.

Tireless work ethic helping Harris climb Draft charts

Posted May 28 2011 10:42AM

Tobias Harris is a little different than most of the players vying for a spot in the first round of next month's NBA Draft.

Harris, who played one season at Tennessee before declaring for the draft, doesn't have that one standout skill that, by itself, would earn him a spot in the league. What Harris does have, though, is an entire package of skills -- he can do a little bit of everything. Before anyone dismisses him as a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, there's one more thing about Harris that, I can only surmise, is the reason some draft prognosticators are beginning to believe he can barge into the lottery.

I've covered college basketball all my adult life, and I've never come across an 18-year-old -- not one -- who has a better work ethic, or is more driven and focused than Tobias Harris. NBA teams will quickly figure that out in the interview process, and then it's a matter of projection: Given his work ethic, can Harris develop into a star?

Those who know him well think he can.

"Tobias had a plan when he came to Tennessee," said former Vol assistant Steve Forbes, now the head coach at Northwest Florida State College, "and he executed it."

Harris' plan wasn't always easy to execute. Tennessee's season was a disaster of epic proportions, starting last September when it was revealed former coach Bruce Pearl had misled NCAA investigators who had been checking into a relatively minor rules violation. The subsequent media firestorm -- exacerbated by Pearl's suspension for the Vols' first eight Southeastern Conference games and culminating with the coach's dismissal days after Tennessee was sent packing from the NCAA Tournament via a 30-point thrashing by Michigan -- couldn't have made it easy for Harris to stay on course. But stay on course he did.

That speaks volumes about his character and his beliefs. As a five-star prospect and McDonald's All-American, Harris could have gone to any school in the country. Though his only year at Tennessee turned out to be a nuclear meltdown, he derived every ounce of benefit from it he could. And he has no regrets.

"It was an up and down year," Harris said. "But at the same time, I believe everything happens for a reason. The reason was for me to continue to grow and do the things I do on and off the court. No matter what's going on around you. That's what I learned and took from it."

Talk about a Zen Master. Phil Jackson and this guy ought to go bowling together.

How does an 18-year-old acquire such maturity?

"I think it comes from my family, the way they raised me," Harris said. "I was taught to be a humble person. To respect people. And to take everything serious and try to better myself, each and every day."

It didn't hurt Harris' future NBA aspirations one bit that his father Torrell used to be a player agent.

A few months back, I wrote in this space about what I like to call the Bill Russell Test. If a college player has heard of the former Celtic champion, or another pertinent player from a bygone era, it's almost certain he's a student of the game and takes it seriously. Harris doesn't just know about NBA stars from back in the day. He's hung out with them.

How many college players today even know who George Gervin is, let alone been able to learn the finer points of the pro game from the Iceman?

"I learned a tremendous amount from him," Harris said. "A lot of little stuff that accumulates into big stuff. We did a lot of shooting. And I learned a lot about the history of the game, and how to have the right mindset for it."

In short, Harris learned that if he wanted to be a pro, he had to prepare like one. So every day at Tennessee, save for Sunday, Harris did basically double or triple the amount of work that was required of him. Remember that the NCAA limits student-athletes to 20 hours per week of activity pertaining to their sport. Any additional work has to be done on a player's own time.

Harris seemed to improve every game he played. He finished second on his team in scoring and rebounding and racked up eight double-doubles, the most of any player in Pearl's largely successful six seasons. Typical of his play was a mid-January game against Georgia in which he contributed 15 points, five rebounds, four assists, five blocked shots and three steals.

"He's an all-around player," Forbes said. "I don't know if he has one certain skill that you say is NBA, like, 'wow.' But his all-around game, and his basketball IQ ... put it this way: He'll be able to pick things up pretty quickly in the NBA. And as he matures and gets older, his game will catch up."

New Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin had held out the briefest bit of hope Harris would hang around another year and play for him. That won't happen, but Martin, who as a Purdue assistant recruited the likes of Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, was able to coach Harris in individual workouts this spring. He saw enough to know that Harris is special.

"Very intelligent, very mature," Martin said, echoing what everyone says about Harris. "His approach to workouts is unbelievable. I try to get into the office early in the morning and get in a workout. Tobias would always be in the gym before me -- and we're talking 6:30 -- and then be back in at 3 p.m. to work out with the team. He also finished strong in the classroom.

"He's very impressive for a young guy as far as his mental approach."

If just one NBA team agrees with that assessment, perhaps Harris will get to shake hands with league commissioner David Stern on draft night.

"I've heard about [being a possible lottery pick]," Harris said. "But I'm not really thinking about that right now. My whole thing is to continue to grow and work hard. To me, the big thing is going to a team where I'm the right fit, where I'll have an opportunity to get better and to contribute."

Harris, who was measured at the Chicago combine at just a shade under 6-foot-8 in shoes and weighs 228 pounds, knows his future in the NBA is at the three spot. He'll have to prove he can defend the position and that he can knock down NBA-range 3-point shots.

Martin can attest to Harris' ability to understand what he has to do and develop a plan to get it done.

"This guy's ready," said Martin, who played briefly in the NBA for the Bucks and Grizzlies. "In just the short amount of time I was around him, I know that. He's the type of kid that, if he'd have said, at 6-8 I'm going to come back to college and be a two guard, he could have been a two guard. I think NBA teams will realize right away what he's all about."

Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.

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