Denton: Harkless Earning Trust From Vaughn, Teammates

By John Denton
March 14, 2013

ORLANDO -- Playing in one of the most pressure-packed environments of his young NBA career, Orlando Magic forward Maurice Harkless acquitted himself quite well by filling up the stat sheet while also making All-Star point guard Steve Nash a nonfactor.

But several minutes after Tuesday night’s game at the Amway Center, Harkless was still steaming over fouling out of the game. In particular, one foul call – one where Nash purposely grabbed Harkless’ arm and pulled him into him to draw a fifth foul – stuck with Orlando’s first-year forward.

“Ahhhh, that’s what it’s like being a rookie in the NBA,” Harkless huffed, referring to Nash’s veteran move. “But I’ll definitely learn from it.”

These days, the learning and marked improvements for Harkless are coming with every game. After looking sometimes lost and not engaged early in the season when he was inserted into the starting lineup, Harkless has now become Orlando’s most effective defender and a willing shooter on the offensive end of the floor.

Harkless, who was acquired from Philadelphia by Magic GM Rob Hennigan in the four-team trade last August, got off to a slow start after missing much of the summer and training camp because of surgery to repair a sports hernia. But he has since shown incredible growth, scoring in double digits each game over a 10-game stretch and 11 times in the past 13 games. He takes great pride in that growth because it is a product of much blood and sweat over the past five months.

“We come in every day before practice or shootaround and then we stay after practice or shootarounds and we watch film and get in extra work,’’ said Harkless, a member of the Magic’s ‘Breakfast Club.’ “You work every day and you get better and it’s starting to show out on the court for guys like me. I just have to continue to keep getting better. I still think the sky is the limit for me.”

He has clearly earned the trust of Magic Head Coach Jacque Vaughn by being fed a steady diet of superstars to guard every night. Already this season, Harkless has guarded LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Nash. And dead ahead for him is a showdown with NBA leading scorer Kevin Durant, a player with similarly long arms, dazzling body control and sneaky athleticism around the rim.

Vaughn was testing Harkless’ mental and physical toughness by sticking him on the opposing team’s best player, and it’s a test he’s passed with flying colors for the most part this season.

“It’s a challenge I hope he welcomes. There have been various challenges – guarding Paul George, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and the list grows. For him, the list has been extended to Steve Nash. I want him to get where he accepts that challenge of guarding a top guy every night,” Vaughn said. “(Guarding Nash), that’s a great learning lesson for him. Mo gets a post-up and an and-one and then he draws another foul (on Nash). Then, going down the floor, he has to be smart, know the situation and know that you are going against a veteran. It was a great learning situation and one of our coaches was able to talk to him about it.”

Several people have talked to Harkless, still just a 19-year-old who would have been a sophomore at St. John’s had he not opted for the NBA early. One of his biggest supporters – and motivators – has been Magic shooting guard Arron Afflalo. When Afflalo went down with a calf strain just before the NBA All-Star break he spent his down time serving as somewhat of a personal coach for Harkless, driving him to assert himself into games. All he did during that time was pound the Milwaukee Bucks for 19 points and a career-best 14 rebounds (six offensive) and score 19 points and hit two 3-pointers against the Brooklyn Nets.

Afflalo is a big believer in the future of Harkless, often his partner now during shooting drills and off-day workouts. If Harkless were a stock, Afflalo would be investing heavily into future gains.

“Mo has been great. He’s a listener, he’s smart and really an intellectual kid. He loves the game and he works at it. He gets in the gym with me and he wants to get better,” Afflalo said. “I say it from the years that I have been around, when someone has a hunger and a passion for the game and they have the natural skill set and the gifts athletically – he’s got big hands and he plays the game the right way – I think he’s going to be really, really good.”

Harkless has been good on the floor and off it during this rookie season for the Magic. He’s heavily invested himself in the Orlando community, already making appearances to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving and doing meet-and-greet sessions with kids recently. And later this month he is scheduled to be a part of a fundraising effort for the Children’s Miracle Network. It’s a labor of love for Harkless, who once dreamed of being in the NBA so he could help impact the lives of others.

“Just a couple of years ago I was one of those kids out there wanting to talk to an NBA player,” Harkless said with a laugh. “It’s definitely humbling to be out there and make a kid’s day. It’s a great feeling to have an impact on their lives.”

Harkless said he looks at the guy who was on the floor early this season and the one out there now checking James, Nash and Anthony as two completely different people. He did have a tremendous outing early in the season against the New York Knicks and Anthony, scoring 10 points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking four shots – three of which were by Anthony.

Whereas he didn’t know where shots were going to come from or many of the veteran tricks being used against him – such as the one recently pulled off by Nash – Harkless now comes into games with an aggressive mindset and seeks out opportunities to go at foes. It’s a part of his tremendous growth that figures to only keep coming after a summer spent in Orlando toning his body and working to improve his game.

Harkless vowed that as Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Andrew Nicholson and others continue to improve, the Magic will be on a collision course with becoming a contender again in the very near future.

“I was talking to Coach Vaughn the other day about how different everything was for me early in the season and how much had changed with me over the course of the year,” Harkless said while shaking his head in amazement. “It’s a part of the roller coaster ride for rookies, I guess. You just have to get through the peaks and valleys and stay strong. But you can look out there on the floor and see that we have a really strong group of young guys and I think we’re going to be really good real soon. I’m very excited about our future.”

MORE STORIES: Afflalo Embracing Renovation | Harris Finds Inspiration From Father; Thriving in Orlando | Udrih Relieved to be Out of Milwaukee

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Magic and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.




Follow John Denton on Twitter here