Tobias Harris was the key piece to the Blake Griffin deal that shook the NBA world this past February. While Boban is a unique weapon, and Avery Bradley is a solid rotation player, and the Pistons pick was a nice asset (that has seemingly paid off very well with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), how that deal looks largely depends on what happens with Tobias. A seven-year veteran despite his youthful age of 25, Tobias’ ability to improve every season boded well for his Clippers’ tenure.
But even the Clippers were surprised with how good Tobias was when he came over from Detroit. His ability to play without the ball and stretch the floor was nice for a franchise that had relied so long on ball-dominant players, and his versatility on the offensive end was a nice bonus. Still, in order for the trade to be worthwhile, Tobias had to take further steps forward in future seasons. The Clippers were confident he would do so, referring to him as a “star” and “the face of the franchise” leading into this season. So far, they haven’t been disappointed.
One thing that stars need to provide in the NBA is consistency. The whole point of a star is that they show up every game to carry their team. So far, Tobias has been a model of consistency, particularly as a scorer. Through 10 games, he’s scored 15 or more points in every one. Even more impressively, he’s scored over 20 points in 7 of those games, with one of those misses being a 19 point game on opening night. Pure scoring numbers by themselves aren’t everything, but sheer production is still important, especially considering the Clippers’ lack of other consistent scoring options in their starting lineup.
What’s better about Tobias’ season so far is that his efficiency has actually taken a large step forward this season even with his increased responsibilities. His True Shooting of 62.8% is a career high by a large margin, and an exceptional number for someone who takes as many shots as Tobias. Part of the reason for the leap in field goal percentage is that he’s playing more within himself than he has in seasons past, forcing less difficult shots, and settling for fewer jumpers. The result has been a streamlined offensive game that looks smoother and more effortless than ever before. Check out this play right here: Tobias has the mismatch on Taj Gibson out on the perimeter, and rather than settling for the contested three or a tough midrange, Tobias drove to the hoop for the floater. http://3ball.io/plays?evtt=1&p1id=202699&playId=0021800148_70
This persistence on going to the rim has led to another important development: an increase in free-throw attempts. This has been a huge reason for his jump in efficiency, even with a decrease in three-pointers attempted. Tobias’ free throw rate (percentage of free throws taken per field goals taken) is higher than it has been since the 2013-2014 season, when he began shifting his game further outside. For a free throw shooter as good as Tobias (81.2% for his career), free throws are easy points, and the more of them, the better. This play is another good example of Tobias being aggressive, and not settling. http://3ball.io/plays?evtt=6&p2id=202699&playId=0021800148_293
Tobias has a three here, and it wouldn’t even be that bad a look. But he sees Karl-Anthony Towns leaning towards him on his front foot and takes advantage, driving past him and drawing contact as Towns scrambled to recover. The result? An easy and-one, and a foul drawn on the Wolves’ most important player. These are the types of plays that Tobias has been making this year, and needs to keep making to keep his scoring consistent and his efficiency high.
Scoring, however, isn’t the only area that Tobias has made strides in this season. One of the things that I targeted as a necessary spot for Tobias to advance this season was as a rebounder. At 6’9” and weighing in at 235 pounds, Tobias is a large, physical presence on the basketball court. There’s no reason he couldn’t be a well above-average rebounder for the Clippers, especially with DeAndre Jordan and his 15 rebounds per game now on the Mavericks. It was a topic that Tobias himself said he worked on, and wanted to progress in. And indeed, he has done so. Tobias is averaging 8.5 rebounds per game, by far a career high, behind a similarly strong 13.5% defensive rebounding rate. Incredibly, Tobias has four games with double-digit rebounds thus far through 10 games after he had just three all season, a sign of how marked his improvement has been.
There’s also the element of intangibles. This Clippers’ team prides itself on its toughness, its grittiness, its lack of media attention. Nobody embodies that better than Tobias Harris (outside of maybe Pat Beverley). Harris has been traded three times as an NBA player, and that’s not even counting that he was traded by the Hornets on draft day. Despite improving every year, he was never talked about as one of the more promising young forwards in the NBA. As a rookie, Tobias took 0.5 threes per game (in 11 minutes) and made only 26.1% of them. From there, he’s become one of the deadliest outside shooters in the NBA. When Tobias is talked about, it’s usually because of his incredible friendship with Boban Marjanovic (more on this soon). He’s never been given the broader respect that he’s been due as a basketball player, and that sums up the 2018-2019 Clippers as a whole.
All this doesn’t mean Tobias is perfect. He’s still not quite a go-to scorer on the level of the best players in the league. In 4th quarters, the Clippers (whether on purpose or just because of game flow) have gone away from Tobias, and that shouldn’t happen considering he’s the team’s best player. Tobias could still improve as a passer, too. After averaging 3.1 assists in his Clippers’ stretch last year, Tobias is down to 1.9 this year, when the Clippers need more playmaking than ever. That’s not to say Tobias isn’t a willing passer: he is. He just needs to improve a bit at not just making functional passes, but at manipulating the defense and finding teammates off his own gravity as a scorer.
Tobias Harris is averaging 21.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game, is playing solid defense, and is scoring the ball with incredible efficiency. He has been the best, most consistent player on the 6-4 Clippers, a team which ranks in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating so far this season. If they continue to play at this level, and Harris’ play remains similarly strong, he will have a legitimate candidacy for the All-Star Game. Tobias is having a phenomenal season, and aged 26, appears to have made the leap to true stardom.