Denton: Harkless Had Big Defensive Responsibility This Season

By John Denton
April 14, 2013

ORLANDO – The list reads like some sort of NBA Who’s Who, an All-Star Game starting lineup or a roster for an Olympic basketball squad.

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony …

Steve Nash, James Harden, Luol Deng …

Joe Johnson, Paul George and Paul Pierce …

It’s a seemingly never-ending list of former MVPs, scoring champions, NBA champs, all-stars and superstars who Orlando Magic rookie Maurice Harkless has guarded over the final 2 ½ months of this season. At just 19 years old, Harkless should still be picking out college courses at St. John’s; instead, he’s defensively picking up some of the toughest basketball players on the planet with all to see.

It’s certainly been a challenge for Harkless, one filled with lots of highs and lows, but it is one that he accepts on a nightly basis. He knows now when he arrives at the Amway Center or a road venue that his assignment will most likely be checking the most talented player on the other team.

It’s a job usually reserved for some of the toughest and most grizzled of NBA veterans, but in this case it’s been bestowed on the teen-aged Harkless. Just a year ago, he was in a dorm room watching James win his first title and idolizing Anthony – his favorite player – from afar and now he’s bodying up against those players. It’s enough to overwhelm most, but not Harkless, who has grown fond of being the Magic’s defensive ace.

``At first it was mind-blowing to me,’’ Harkless admitted while shaking his head. ``But I guess I’m kind of used to doing it now.’’

Two nights after checking the crafty Pierce, Harkless will be up against Chicago’s Deng when the Magic (20-60) host the Bulls in the final home game of the regular season. The Magic close their first season out of the playoffs in seven years on Wednesday in Miami against James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. Harkless said it’s important that the Magic continue to use these final games as learning experiences and measuring sticks to show the progress made.

``We owe it to our fans to come in here and get a win because the fans have been great to us all year. They deserve it,’’ Harkless said of playing the final game at the Amway Center on Monday. ``We still have to learn how to close games out and play all 48 minutes. It’s now about coming together and getting a couple of more wins to prove to ourselves that we can be successful.’’

Harkless’ rookie season would have to be considered a success what with the immense growth that he’s shown offensively and the all-star challenges he’s had to take on each night on the defensive end. His scoring average has risen each of the past three months – 11.4 ppg. in February, 13 ppg. in March and 13.1 ppg. in April – while also checking some of the game’s greatest players. He scored a career-best 28 points earlier this month in Houston, coming within two points of becoming the youngest player in Magic history to hit the 30-point plateau. Overall, he’s scored in double figures 27 times, had four 20-point games and he’s led the team in scoring four times.

This is where it bears repeating that Harkless is still just 19 years old and could have been a sophomore in college had he not opted for the NBA early. The grind of the season has challenged him mentally as well as physically, but he’s learned ways to battle through the NBA’s marathon season.

Because of his lateral quickness combined with his 6-foot-8 lanky frame and long arms, Harkless has the ability to guard shooting guard, small forwards and even some perimeter-based power forwards on occasion. He’s checked everybody from Nash (point guard), to Johnson (shooting guard) to James, Durant and Anthony (small forwards and occasional power forwards).

Blocking three of Anthony’s shot early in the season was a high point, especially since he looked up to the Knicks star while growing up in New York City and getting advice from Anthony on the night that he was drafted last June. But he also held Nash to 11 points and two assists earlier this season and he played a big role in Durant shooting just eight of 15 back in March. He also kept James in check for much of the game in early March, before fouling out as James closed the night with a game-winning layup.

He is second among all NBA rookies in steals per game (1.2 spg.) and eighth among the first-year players in blocks (0.8 bpg.). He’s had one steal in 48 games and two steals in 21 games this season.

``I’d say Carmelo Anthony is the toughest,’’ Harkless said. ``There are a lot of tough guys I’ve had to guard, but Carmelo Anthony and Joe Johnson were two of the toughest ones.’’

Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said giving Harkless such difficult defensive assignments will speed up his learning curve and make him better in the future. On Saturday, Vaughn didn’t hesitate putting Harkless on Pierce and the rookie held the Boston star to a four of 12 shooting night. The way Vaughn saw it was that if Harkless could figure out Pierce’s crafty head fakes and use of screens, he could probably check any player in the league.

``Paul’s game is extremely savvy with pump fakes, being efficient with movement and drawing fouls and getting to the foul line,’’ Vaughn said. ``So it takes great discipline to guard a guy like that and we think Mo is up to the challenge.’’

The season is coming to an end, but Harkless can hardly wait until next season when he will have a full summer and training camp to prepare and also all of the experiences that he has learned this season. He hopes to use the summer to not only grow his offensive game with ball-handling and shooting drills, but also put on some much-needed weight and strength to become a better defender. Facing an all-star player every night has taught him the rigors of a tough season, and he knows he’ll be better suited for the challenge in the years to come.

``It’s been a tough season with a lot of ups and downs,’’ he admitted. ``It’s a very long season and you’ve got to take care of your body and be ready mentally and physically every day.’’

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