Denton: Harkless Feeling More Relaxed on Court

By John Denton
November 15, 2012

ORLANDO -- For a matter of weeks, Orlando Magic rookie Maurice Harkless was engaged in a high-stakes game of catch-up, and admittedly the transition to the NBA was getting the best of him.

After missing summer league, training camp and all of the exhibition season following surgery to repair a sports hernia, Harkless tried desperately to learn the NBA game on the fly. Further complicating matters was the fact that he is just 19 years old – still a boy among men, really – and he only had one season of college before turning professional.

The results were, well, predictable. Harkless would often play hot potato with the ball, passing it away quickly so not to make a mistake. Rather than just relaxing and allowing his instincts and physical gifts to take over, Harkless obsessed over running the offense correctly and trying to be perfect with the new defensive principles that were clouding his head. Predictably, his play lagged, his body language sagged and his confidence dragged.

Then, after a pep talk from Magic captain Jameer Nelson and some soul searching of his own, it finally clicked for Harkless.

``It’’ was a stirring sequence of basketball that restored Harkless’ swagger and reaffirmed to Magic fans that the small forward’s potential could be off the charts in the coming weeks and months. And regardless of how this season turns out for Orlando, Harkless’ I-won’t-back-down moment on Tuesday night against New York all-star and boyhood idol Carmelo Anthony could go down as one of the best Magic moments of the year.

Seconds after Harkless had swatted an Anthony shot out of bounds, the Knicks’ superstar forward went right back at the Magic rookie. Harkless stuffed the drive again with his left hand and then stripped the ball away from Anthony when he recovered it. Beyond frustrated, Anthony tried to use his 240 pounds to bully Harkless on a fourth attempt only to miss again as the long-armed Magic forward contested with great vigor. The moment not only brought Magic fans already in love with Harkless’ potential to their feet; it also signified to Harkless that his game of catch-up was finally over and he had arrived in the NBA.

``I’m sure he saw me guarding him and he thought it was going to be easy since I’m a rookie and he’s got a few pounds on me, but I was just out there trying to make it hard for him,’’ said Harkless, who could see his playing time and responsibilities grow considerably on Friday night when the Magic face the Pistons in Auburn Hills, Mich. ``He’s one of the guys that I look up to and to be able to stop him that’s a good feeling.’’

It was good feeling for everyone associated for the Magic because they finally got a peek at the massive potential of a player who was one of the centerpieces of Orlando’s four-team, 12-player blockbuster trade last August. Magic GM Rob Hennigan scouted Harkless extensively last year when the teenager played at St. John’s and Hennigan was amazed at the small forward’s ``nose for the ball’’ and ``just having a knack of always being in the right spot.’’

He was in the right spot most of Tuesday night against the Knicks as he scored 10 points on five of seven shooting and grabbed four of his seven rebounds on the offensive glass. And defensively he used his tremendous length and wingspan to block four shots – three of which came against Anthony.

Because the best moment of his young NBA career cane against Anthony and the Knicks, it just made it even more special. Harkless grew up in Queens, rooting for the Knicks as recently as last spring. With the game being televised back in New York, Rosa Harkless – the mother who worked for years as a waitress at Applebee’s to support the family – got to witness her son’s finest professional moment and greeted him with a call after the game. And it was Anthony – Harkless’ favorite NBA player – who called last June the night Harkless was drafted to wish him luck on his NBA career.

``It was just a little weird and I was thinking about it before the game that my whole life I was a Knicks’ fan and even last year I was rooting for them to win a championship,’’ Harkless said while shaking his head in amazement. ``I was telling (fellow Magic rookie) Kyle (O’Quinn) on the bench that there are guys you look up to and then you are running up and down the court and playing against them. It will probably be like that with a couple of more guys that we will play against. It’s just a different feeling, but it’s a good feeling.’’

The best feeling of all from Tuesday for Harkless – besides the roughly 100 text messages that he got from friends and family – was being able to go out onto the court and just play without thinking too much. In the first three games of his NBA career, he at times looked hesitant and paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes. But that all changed when Nelson, a Magic co-captain, gave him the pep talk that allowed him to stand up to New York’s Anthony.

``When I’m out there trying to think too much, it takes away from how hard I can play. When I’m trying not to make mistakes and trying not to do anything wrong, that’s not good. Playing off my instincts is what I usually do,’’ he said. ``I spoke to Jameer a couple of days ago and he told me to just clear my mind and play as hard as I can.

``The coaches say they would rather you make a mistake playing hard than not playing hard. Naturally, I (sometimes) go back to my natural instincts in college and the defensive principles are way different. When I get tired I go back to that because that’s what’s natural to me. But once I get used to playing at this level, everything will come natural to me and I won’t make the same mistakes that I was making early in the season.’’

Whereas Magic rookies Andrew Nicholson, DeQuan Jones and O’Quinn have been working out at the team headquarters since late June, Harkless didn’t join the Magic until the August trade and wasn’t fully released by doctors to compete until the last week of October.

But he worked tirelessly to try and catch up, often staying after practice for hours for extra ball-handling, conditioning and shooting drills. It’s a work ethic he picked up from Rosa Harkless, his mother. Making the NBA finally allowed him to pay his mother and grandmother back by allowing his mom to quit her waitress job and moving the family into a much nicer apartment in Queens.

``My mom was a waitress at Applebee’s and she doesn’t work there anymore,’’ Harkless said with a big smile. ``I’m just doing the best that I can to take care of her because she’s been working hard my whole life. She kept me grounded and she’s real independent. I learned from her to be independent and to work really hard all of the time to get done what I’ve got to get done.’’ Magic coach Jacque Vaughn tried tempering expectations for Harkless’ following Tuesday’s promising performance, knowing full well that there will still be plenty of ups and downs against for the green rookie. But if anything, Harkless proved to his head coach that he can be trusted on the floor and the NBA stage is no longer too big for him as long as he plays with a clear mind and an aggressive mentality.

Someday, Harkless and Magic fans might be able to look back to Tuesday, Nov. 13 as the day when the rookie power forward stopped playing catch-up and started flexing his NBA muscles.

``Before the game I just wanted to go out there, forget about everything else and play hard. And it seemed like I was just playing a lot more free,’’ Harkless said. ``I just want to earn the coaches’ trust and show them that I can handle this.’’

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John Denton writes for John has covered the Magic since 1997. E-mail John at or follow him on Twitter at @JohnDenton555.

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