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The Curious Case of Tobias Harris

Drafted to a Milwaukee Bucks team in constant upheaval at just 19, Tobias Harris hasn’t yet had a chance to develop like a normal prospect. He was traded to Orlando as part of the J.J. Redick trade as the Magic themselves have struggled mightily to find a long-term plan. As Harris finishes up his fourth season on a terrible Magic team, he approaches what should be a very interesting restricted free agency.

The market for Harris should be pretty ripe, as he’s just 23. He made headlines earlier this year when it was suggested that his goal is to win a championship with his hometown team: the Knicks. In that same post, Marc Berman notes that Harris rejected a four-year, $36 million extension from Orlando. If the Magic choose to match an offer, Harris doesn’t have a choice on where he plays.

However, the development of Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic means that the transitioning Magic will have some tough decisions to make. Vucevic is locked up for four years and $53 million, which could make building a good defense a difficult proposition. Payton, Oladipo and rookie Aaron Gordon are all on their first contracts and good value for the Magic. Given Harris’s desire to play elsewhere and skillset that prioritizes offense like their center, Orlando will probably decline to match a big offer.

A pretty big offer, possibly from Phil Jackson in New York, seems likely because of Harris’s scoring and rebounding abilities. Harris has raised his scoring per 36 minutes every year in the league, up to 17.6 points this year, per Basketball-Reference. Since entering the league, Harris has been great at scoring in the paint and around the rim. This season, he’s shooting 68.2 percent from within three feet after converting 70.5 percent last season. Russell Westbrook makes about 59.3 percent from that area and LeBron James is at 71.6 percent this season.

Harris has been efficient on two-point shots since entering the league. He has shot between 49.3 and 50.8 percent inside the arc each year of his career. Where his game looks to be evolving this season is from distance. Harris is taking a career high 24.3 percent of his shots from behind the line after only attempting them on 17.6 percent last season. Encouragingly, he’s making a career high 36.9 percent of them, an above-average mark. His previous career-high was just 31.5 percent, indicating real improvement even if his efficiency decreases some.

By now, most basketball nuts know that the corner three is the most efficient shot in the game that isn’t an uncontested dunk or layup. Not one to fall behind the times, Harris has taken an impressive 44 percent of his threes from the corners in his career and 41 percent in 2014-15, per Basketball-Reference. While he struggled from there in the past (28 percent the past two seasons), Harris has made a red-hot 44.6 percent of his corner threes this season. The addition of the pass-happy Payton has undoubtedly allowed Harris to get much cleaner looks, as he’s being assisted on over 97 percent of his threes.

Harris also provides a rare rebounding prowess from the small forward position: only Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kawhi Leonard, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and P.J. Tucker average more rebounds. Tobias is actually having a down-year on the boards, as he hadn’t averaged below 7.6 rebounds per 36 minutes until this year, where he’s at 6.4. Interestingly, the Magic have actually rebounded slightly better with Harris on the bench this season and last. In fact, Orlando has been a better team with Harris on the bench both years as well.

With Harris on the floor this season, the Magic have a net rating of -6.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. When he’s on the bench, that drops to -4.3, the second-highest off-court total of any Orlando player. (the Magic are truly abysmal) Given Harris’s negative impact on the Magic, especially defensively, it seems unlikely the team will match a larger contract than their previous $36 million offer. Harris has struggled with ankle sprains once again this season, making his health a legitimate long-term concern at this point.

The Knicks don’t leap off the page as a good fit for Harris, but no one really knows how Phil will attack his first critical offseason. Harris’s game checks out pretty similarly to Carmelo Anthony’s, so putting the two together would be awkward. They both like to have the ball and prefer to take twos, even though they are competent distance shooters. Furthermore, both Carmelo and Tobias are score-first players who have poor defensive reputations. Why would the Knicks want a B-version of Anthony when they already have over $100 million committed to the real one?

Other teams will surely have interest in Harris, and the Magic and Knicks have given no indications that they won’t pursue him. As Orlando’s nightmare season sputters to a finish, Harris’s free agency will be an intriguing story to track. Only one thing is certain: Harris will be making almost exactly 50 percent of his twos somewhere next season.


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