Photo / Bruce Ely

Happy to Make Rip City Home, Harkless Hopes to Build on Playoff Breakout

by Cody Sharrett

There's been perhaps no greater steal during Neil Olshey's four years at the helm of the Portland Trail Blazers' basketball operations than the acquisition of restricted free agent forward-to be Maurice Harkless from the Orlando Magic last summer. 

Portland sent a 2020 protected second round pick to Orlando for the then-22-year-old in July 2015, in return the Blazers got one of their most versatile options in Harkless. Able to guard four positions with his 6-9, 215 lb. frame and athleticism, Harkless started the last 10 games of the season before starting every game of Portland's playoff run. 

Averaging 11 points and 5.1 rebounds versus the LA Clippers and Golden State Warriors in the postseason, Harkless earned a new four-year contract as a restricted free agent in August. For the 23-year-old New York native, there was no question of playing anywhere else than Rip City. 

"I love it here; I love the chemistry," Harkless said Thursday following practice. "I wasn’t really paying mind to any other team. I wanted to be here, and I think I made that clear. [The team] knew that. We knew that. This is where I wanted to be, and I’m happy."

"This is a very well-run organization," he added. "I think I fit in very well. When I first got here, guys were welcoming. I think they’ve done a good job keeping me comfortable here, and I’m excited for what’s to come."

The chemistry Harkless speaks of could be evidenced in a team trip to a paintball course earlier this month. Harkless, who picked up the hobby while playing with the Magic, took his teammates to Impact Action Sports in Tualtin for some bonding. 

"I took everyone to go paintball a few weeks ago, and next thing you know, Meyers [Leonard] bought his own gun, his own mask, everything," he said of the activity. "I thought maybe to get everyone involved, we’d have a lot of fun.

"I like to think I'm pretty good [at paintball]."

Harkless may be a sharpshooter on the painball course, but it's his shooting on the court that he's worked to improve all summer. Though there's stability in a new contract, Harkless wasn't content shooting 27.9% (34.1% in playofffs) from behind the three-point arc last season.

At the urging of assistant coach Nate Tibbetts, along with trainers and friends, the St. John's product made it a point to stop following the flight of ball as it leaves his hand this offseason.

"At game speed, it’s a lot easier to knock down shots when you’re locked-in like that instead of having any more moving factors that can affect a shot, especially at game speed," he explained.

"I just stopped looking at the ball, that’s it."

Three days into training camp, head coach Terry Stotts has already noticed the difference in Harkless' efficiency from deep -- something that will make him all the more dangerous in the Blazer offense this season.

"He’s shot the ball really well in September and training camp," Stotts said of Harkless' adjustment. "It’s a tough habit to break. A lot of players look at the ball flight when they shoot, a lot of the great shooters did. It hasn’t been something I’ve been concerned with one way or the other if a guy or didn’t shoot and look at the ball in flight. I think it’s a difficult habit to break, but I think Moe has been conscientious about it. I do think he’s shooting the ball better."

Despite Harkless' improved shooting and playoff performance, Harkless' spot as a starter is far from set in stone. He enters training camp in competition with newcomer Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe at the small forward position. Harkless' versatility to guard anyone from Clippers point guard Chris Paul to Golden State forward Draymond Green will be an important factor for Stotts to consider ahead of the Blazers' season opener versus the Utah Jazz on October 25. 

"A lot of the time, he was playing with Chief [Al-Farouq Aminu]," Stotts said. "The versatility with him and Chief together at 3-4, we have versatility at both ends of the court, certainly. He has such a quick first step, quick bounce to the ball inside the paint. He’s really strong. I don’t know if people — I didn’t know until we started working with him — he’s got some deceptive strength down there. He can guard multiple positions, he can play multiple positions."

Harkless, Turner and Crabbe all bring something different to Stotts' gameplan. All are above average defenders while Harkless is a long, athletic slasher on the offensive end. Turner can act as a third ball handler alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Crabbe, meanwhile, is one of the top three-point threats on the roster. 

How ever the minutes shake out, it will put the Blazers in the position to build on their success from a season ago. 

"We’re all different; we all play most of the positions," Harkless said. "Evan’s playing three different positions, AC’s playing two and I’m playing two different positions than he is. Who knows? I don’t know. It’s up to Coach. At the end of the day, we all bring different things to the table and we all contribute in a different way.

"Whoever Coach decides to put out there in whatever time everyone else gets, we’re going to do the most to help the team win. "

No matter Harkless' role this season, he'll be far more productive in 2016-17 than a 2020 protected second round pick. 

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