Denton: Harkless Making Most of Limited Minutes

By John Denton
Jan. 9, 2014

SACRAMENTO – Sometimes teams and coaches learn the most about a player’s true makeup and mental fortitude during adverse and downright ugly times.

Monday night in Los Angeles certainly qualified under both categories for the Orlando Magic. They were not only being beaten by the surging Los Angeles Clippers, but also broken on a lot of levels. Standout center Nikola Vucevic had just hit head-first on the floor in a scary fall and the reeling Magic’s deficit to the Clippers had embarrassingly swelled to 35 points.

But that’s when forward Maurice Harkless, a player who had been on the fringes of coach Jacque Vaughn’s rotation for most of the past month, breathed some much-needed life into the game. And in the process, Harkless showed that he is worthy of playing important minutes for the Magic.

Leading an inspired second unit along with rookie guard Victor Oladipo, Harkless poured in 14 of his season-high 22 points in the second half. The performance not only allowed the Magic to avoid a historically bad night, but it also got them back into contention. When Harkless incredibly helped the Magic cut a 35-point deficit to 16 midway through the fourth period, it forced the Clippers into a timeout and the sleepy Staples Center crowd had to care once again.

Orlando would go on to lose 101-81, but the overwhelming thing to emerge from the game was the way that Harkless played with a fire, did so many little things right and almost single-handedly willed his team back into the game.

``It was us just wanting us to play hard to the end of the game,’’ Harkless said. ``Obviously you want that respect and trust from your teammates and coaches to know that when they put me in I’m going to play hard and do what I can to try and win the game. That’s important and that’s what gets you playing time.’’

Harkless contributed to a solid effort in Portland on Wednesday night and he could get extensive playing time on Friday night in Sacramento when the Magic (10-25) face the host Kings (11-22). Harkless’ skill set matches up well with Rudy Gay, a high-scoring small forward whom the Kings acquired in a trade last month.

Harkless, the Magic’s youngest player a second straight season at 20 years old, has had to grapple with the struggles of wildly fluctuating minutes this season. He was a starter, then a reserve, then was held out of a game, and then a key piece used to guard superstar small forwards Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

Harkless scored a career-best 28 points late last season and he proved himself to be a cornerstone building block for the franchise during a promising rookie season. But that success hasn’t always translated to this season, and learning to be patient with the process has been difficult at times.

``It’s the kind of thing where it doesn’t always happen right away just because you want it to,’’ Harkless said with a chuckle. ``You just have to keep working and eventually it will pay off in the end. I just have to continue to have faith in God and stick to the plan.’’

Vaughn opened the season by telling his players that just because they started or played big minutes last season that it would have little bearing on this season. Harkless never figured his playing time would be cut back, but he’s had to deal with just that reality. Vaughn said he has talked with the second-year player daily to preach to him the importance of consistency of effort, intensity and focus.

``He’s young and young guys, especially, want to play. But there’s a reality. Especially when they had an opportunity to play last year, that puta a different layer on top of it,’’ Vaughn said. ``But overall Mo’s handled the situation relatively well.’’

Harkless handled playing in a blowout on Monday with great professionalism. Rather than just going through the motions, Harkless was in attack mode on both ends of the floor. He had a couple of steals, two of his six rebounds led to tip-in baskets and he got to the free throw line six times by sprinting on the break and charging into the lane.

Harkless was so do-everything good on Monday night that in his 31 minutes on the floor Orlando was a plus-12 in scoring. And when Harkless used every inch of his lithe, 6-foo-9 frame to converted a running hook in the lane, Orlando had incredibly trimmed 19 points of L.A.’s lead.

Harkless’ high motor and aggressive nature caught the eye of his teammates and his head coach. ``For guys like Mo, in particular, the score shouldn’t really even factor in the intensity and effort that he plays with,’’ said Arron Afflalo, a mentor of Harkless’ the past two seasons. ``It’s got to be about his opportunity to showcase his skill set and how much he really wants to be on the court. I commend Mo and that entire group for wanting to compete and even making it interesting for a hot second. He’s doing a great job of handling his fluctuation of minutes and he’s learning that it’s a part of being professional.’’

Added Vaughn: ``That’s how you gain the respect of your teammates and that’s sometimes the most important thing. They went out not giving in and trying to get us back into the game. That’s how you earn the respect of your teammates and the trust of your coaches.’’

Harkless, who is averaging 6.7 points and 3.1 rebounds in 20.8 minutes a game, said that he doesn’t want his age used as an excuse for his highs and lows this season. He’s still almost a year younger than Oladipo and even significantly younger than some of the rookies in the NBA this season. He said he holds himself to a high standard and that his age shouldn’t hold him back from making a difference on this Magic team on a nightly basis.

``I don’t use that as an excuse at all. I’m 20, but there are a lot of other guys in the league who are close to my age,’’ he stressed. ``At the end of the day, I’m a basketball player. And I just want to be the best I can be at this stage of my career.’’