Top Stories

Q&A: Tobias Harris on 76ers, father figures and the Tuskegee Airmen

Tobias Harris sits down to discuss the state of the Sixers, his well-traveled career and why family impacts have loomed largest in his rise.

Tobias Harris (left) is enjoying a standout season in Philadelphia under coach Doc Rivers.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s an Eastern Conference takeover in progress here as mid-season approaches, and the Philadelphia 76ers are behaving as though this isn’t a temporary development.

Showing plenty of grit and a renewed sense of confidence, the Sixers are aiming to put distance between themselves and the other contenders. In the … process, that should help further distance themselves from their last year’s disappointing playoff exit. Plenty of changes happened in the aftermath to help the Sixers right now — Doc Rivers became the coach, Daryl Morey the president and Joel Embiid decided to go full beast-mode — but another factor cannot be overlooked.

Tobias Harris is having himself quite a season — the best, actually, of this 10-year career. He’s become a problem for the other bench, more forceful and more comfortable here in his second full season in Philly. Harris is providing an ample source of the outside shooting the Sixers so desperately crave, and doing it with amazing consistency and reliability: 20.3 points per game on 51.5% overall and 43.8% from deep. He’s also one of the better rebounding forwards, pulling down 7.5 per game. Yes, on most nights, Embiid is the heavy for the Sixers. Yet Harris is thriving and willing and able to provide important buckets and moments when needed.

It’s why Harris is, and should be, a candidate for All-Star consideration in 2021. Aside from his current production, he bounced back terrifically from last season’s playoffs in the bubble, where the Sixers were dismissed in a first-round sweep and Harris struggled with the jumper, hitting just 38.3% overall and 13.3% on 3-pointers.

Harris is also one of the league’s most conscientious players, always managing to say and do the right things, an inspiration to his teammates and easy on his coach. In that sense, he’s worry-free and low-maintenance.

After a career launched in Milwaukee before detouring through Orlando, Detroit and L.A. with the Clippers, Harris has found a safe spot in Philly, where the team and player seem comfortable with each other, especially now, as they enjoy the view from the East penthouse.

Can the Sixers maintain their grip on No. 1 in the East?

Here’s a Q-and-A with Harris where he touches upon a variety of topics that are meaningful to him, and the last question is a really big one — 7-foot-4 even:

Q: The strong start by the Sixers is generously caused by your performance. What’s going right for you?

A: Just me getting to my spots on the floor, the system and the structure here has been great for my game and the way I play, the hard work I put in throughout the off-season to be the best player I can be for our team to win. When you win, things are a lot better. And I’m being efficient out there is a result of all of those things adding up.

Speaking of the offseason, it was so short and unusual, given the pandemic. How did you manage to put in a plan, given all that?

After the bubble I took a month off, then got straight back after it. I changed things in my game where I needed to get better at. To be as efficient as possible. The playoffs were disappointing in the way we went out. I really got back to the drawing board with the fundamentals. I wanted to get better in all areas — shooting, 3-point percentage, trying to get to the free-throw line, midrange game and isolation situations. Defensively, I wanted to get better.

Usually, with a normal off-season, you can go 5-on-5, but I wasn’t trying to risk that with the virus. It was strategic in the way I had to train. I was with my strength coach back home in New York, my basketball trainer back home, getting me to be quicker, explosive, faster and more efficient in my movements on the floor and it’s really paid off.

Is it just a coincidence that all of this is falling in place with Doc Rivers as your coach again?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Coach knows my game, he knows things that I do very well. When we were in L.A., he was the coach who put me in those positions, so he’s doing the same thing here. He’s always pushing me to be better and be decisive on the court, be a leader for our team and be my best self night in and night out. He expects a lot of me and that’s what I want as a player.

How Doc Rivers has impacted the 76ers since taking over.

You and Doc shared something in common in the bubble in that both of you finished your seasons disappointingly. Had Doc and the Clippers not gone out that way, he probably wouldn’t be your coach now. Do you think about that weird fate?

I do. But things happen the way they’re supposed to happen. I’m happy he’s here coaching this team and you could see it working for both sides, him being a coach and us as a collective group. After the experience what we both had in the bubble, us with the Sixers and him with the Clippers, we want to be in position to win a championship together.

What would it mean if you’re selected as an All-Star, which would be your first?

It would mean a lot. When I was in L.A., I thought for sure I was playing at an All-Star level. The team was playing for first in the West, and then about a month before All-Star, the team slipped down to about seventh and I missed the game. I felt I didn’t make the game because we weren’t a top team in the West. But here we are this year sitting at No. 1, I’m playing the best basketball of my career. So it would mean a whole lot, that the work I put in, the time and due diligence I put toward the game and my body and a good teammate and a player, is paying off. I’m playing at that level consistently. It would be great to be rewarded for that.

Do the Sixers have a ‘Big Three’?

Oh, 100 percent. But we’re also one of those teams where we really don’t care about what people have to say. I think we came under the radar this season … we’re fine with that. You can see we have a Big Three for sure.

Tobias Harris’ grandfather served as one of the Tuskegee Airmen.

I noticed you’re a scorer who’s comfortable at various spots on the floor, not just at the 3-point line and the rim. Why has the mid-range shot become a lost art?

Just the way the game is shaped now, where the 3-ball is king. That’s not to say it’s not right; if you’re an efficient shooter from 3, why not let it go? It’s simple math. But I also know myself, how I grew up playing, guys I watched, I modeled my game after: Carmelo Anthony, that’s where he made his living, on the low block. That’s something that’s always been part of my game and something I’m always going to have.

You’ve been traded five times, and what’s weird is those teams really liked you and wanted to keep you. Which trade caught you off-guard the most?

The Detroit trade surprised me a bit. But at the same time, I understood it, just because of the way the team was. Some teams like to shake things up. I look at all the trades as successful because I learned a lot from all of them. Moving from one team to another is part of the game now. It’s rare for one guy to be on one team his whole career.

Your father has meant so much to you and your brothers and also your sister, grooming you as athletes and stressing the importance of education. He was so hands-on, and still is, as your agent. How would you describe his impact on your life?

I would be doing a disservice to measure it. From being my coach as a kid, and starting his own AAU team for myself and my brothers to play … my father was a father figure for a lot of people I grew up with. We’ve done amazing things together. It’s the type of father-son bond that nothing will separate us. He’s a person that has been in my corner since Day One and saw my potential when a lot of people didn’t. I admire him not only for being an amazing parent who would do anything for his kids, but I could not ask for a greater father.

You come from good bloodlines because your grandfather was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. How old were you when you realized the significance of that?

Probably about 19, when I really knew the impact. You study Black history as a kid, but when I got older and we started having those conversations, you start to think like, wow. He was a Tuskegee Airman but he was also somebody that looked at generational wealth. He had a bunch of companies, real estate, he was in the realm of a businessman. For a Black man, you don’t really see a lot of figures like that. One of the greatest things I take from his life is how he looked at generational wealth for his children and for his grandchildren.

You executed one of the all-time business moves by declining a $80 million extension with the Clippers, only to make an extra $100 million with the Sixers just five months later. That was quite a bet on yourself, right?

My father said before the (Clippers offer) that “You’re a max player. Be ready to put the work in being a max player.” We had a plan and that’s how we went by it. My father is a hell of an agent and hell of a businessman. It just goes to show, like I always tell guys, we have to put our people in position to be successful. That’s why my father is my agent. He put the hours in to know the game. It’s not like he’s someone who came into the game as an amateur. He came with experience. I’d rather give my percentage to somebody in-house rather than somebody who doesn’t know.

You’re watching Joel Embiid from a close distance these days. How would you describe what we’re all seeing from him?

An MVP. He’s playing at awesome level every night. Best shape of his career. He’s dominating and being a force. We’re seeing a beast out there and we’re letting him roll. I’m happy with the success he’s having. We talked after the bubble about how we can have success as a team, and he said, “I got to get back to being dominant.” I said, “You know you can do it.” And he’s doing it.

Joel Embiid continues to dominate for the Sixers this season.

The Sixers made a lot of changes in the structure of the team, aside from hiring Doc. They brought in Daryl Morey to run the basketball operations and made other adjustments. What did you expect from this shuffle?

I knew it would be a good group who knew what it took to win and would put the right pieces in place. I knew it would be a great year. That’s how I looked at it. We made some moves and we’re in a great position with a great roster and great upper management.

It’s been a while since you were teammates with 7-foot-4 center Boban Marjanovic, now on the Mavericks, and the two of you formed a tight if unusual friendship. Who’s your Boban on these Sixers?

(laughs) I just bond with all these guys. A lot of young guys, I‘m just trying to show them the way, make sure they have successful careers and I’m having fun doing it. To be clear, though, nobody can take Bobi’s place.

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.