Denton: Harkless Expanding His Game Behind the Scenes

By John Denton
January 21, 2013

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – There are the dazzling flashes from time to time, when Orlando Magic rookie Maurice Harkless will surprise a defender by spring-boarding off the floor and extending his lengthy arms for a thunderous dunk.

It happened twice on Sunday not far away from boyhood idol, Vince Carter, when Harkless took passes on the baseline and dunked even as his rail-thin body absorbed contact. And when Harkless flushed the ball on the heads of two Clippers recently, even the normally hush-hush crowd in Los Angeles offered up oooohs and ahhhhhs. But those moments usually elicit little more than a yawn from the 19-year-old Harkless. Instead, what the blossoming small forward is most proud of are the little details of his game, which are improving on a daily basis.

There is the new post-up game that he is working on before practice to add to his offensive arsenal. And in shooting drills he usually shadows guard J.J. Redick in an attempt to better his stroke from afar. Then, there are those moments when he uses those seemingly elastic arms to swat more and more shots as he better learns NBA personnel.

Harkless feels there is so much more to his game that he’s eager to show, but he’s forced to be patient because he is still in the infancy of his career and there are more advanced veteran players ahead of him. For now, he knows he has to bide his time.

``I think my (skills) have grown a lot, but you don’t really see it out there on the court yet,’’ said Harkless, whose Magic (14-26) face the Pistons (14-25) in suburban Detroit on Tuesday night. ``I really haven’t been doing much out there, but I’m constantly in the gym and working to improve every day.’’

In some ways, Harkless is the typical teenager, wanting it all and wanting it right away. But there is also a unique maturity to his persona and his game. He knows deep down that he is too talented and too physically gifted to miss as a future standout player with the Magic. But that doesn’t make waiting for his time easier – especially when he is currently in a bit role where plays are seldom run for him, if ever.

``That’s the toughest part for me and I’m still trying to get comfortable because sometimes I don’t know what to do,’’ Harkless said of having little involvement in the Magic offense. ``In college, I was always the first option and I always had the ball. Here, I’m just trying to find ways to make something happen without the ball. It’s just something that I’m not used to.’’

Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn has been diligent about only putting rookies Andrew Nicholson, DeQuan Jones, Kyle O’Quinn and Harkless in positions where they can succeed. For example, Vaughn withheld Nicholson from Sunday’s game because he didn’t want the rising rookie on an island with Dallas all-star forward Dirk Nowitzki. Vaughn has taken a similar tact with Harkless, starting him for a 20-game stretch earlier in the year, but putting him back into a reserve role when he felt that the rookie was being overwhelmed physically and mentally by older, more advanced players. Still, Harkless hopes that in time there will come a time during this season when he will be unleashed somewhat and allowed to show off some of the things that he’s been working hard to improve.

``I’m just going to keep working and when the time comes for (more playing time) I want to be ready,’’ said Harkless, who is averaging 3.9 points and 3.3 rebounds in 15.9 minutes a game. ``As a player I want (more opportunities), but I’m just a piece to the puzzle and it’s up to the coach to put it all together.’’

The highlight of the season for Harkless came on Nov. 13 when the rookie – in just his fourth professional game following a long recovery from sports hernia surgery – registered 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots against a New York Knicks team that he grew up rooting for while hailing from Queens, N.Y. Three of those blocks came against Carmelo Anthony, another of his heroes who gave him advice last June on the night when he was a first-round draft pick.

It was Anthony who warned him that there would be struggles as he got used to the daily grind of the NBA, but Harkless said he mostly shrugged off the talk. Now, he’s finding out that making it in the NBA takes time and lots of mental and physical strength.

``A couple of guys around the league told me it was going to be like this, but you can’t really prepare for it until you go through it. You don’t expect it to this bad, but it’s crazy sometimes,’’ he said. ``I’d say the mental aspect (is more difficult) because you can always keep your body in great shape and take care of your body. But this league is definitely tough mentally because it’s an up-and-down season and with the losing, playing and not playing. It’s tough to stay mentally strong and focused every day.’’

There have been several ups and downs along the way, but another high for Harkless was the moment in early December when he found himself switched to Lakers’ superstar guard Kobe Bryant. It was the first time all season that Harkless was in awe of his surroundings, and thought about how far he had come after sitting in a St. John’s dorm room months ago watching Bryant and other NBA stars on television.

``At Staples Center when we played against the Lakers and I guarded Kobe – he was my favorite player growing up – and that was the first time that it happened to me,’’ Harkless said of him being awestruck. ``And watching guys like Carmelo the second time that (the Knicks) came here. I didn’t play, but it was just amazing seeing how those guys make the game look so easy.’’

Harkless is working hard in pre- and post-practice sessions to make the game come a little easier to him. He was admittedly lost in the offense early on in the season and struggled with a role where he was simply asked to defend, rebound and run the floor.

Now, he is a charter member of the Magic’s ``Breakfast Club,’’ meaning he is among the team’s first players to arrive at the practice facility to get in individual work with players. Even though it might not be translating on the court right now, Harkless says he is seeing steady growth in every aspect of his game. In time, he stressed, he will be able to show off all of the skills that he has been working to improve.

``(The Breakfast Club) is just all of us young guys who they make come in so early, stay late and do the extra things to try and speed up the learning curve,’’ Harkless explained. ``I’m just working on everything and trying to become a better all-around player. I recently started working on posting up, so that’s something I’m trying to put into my game as well. … With all of the work I’m putting in every day, I see I’m making a lot of progress.’’

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