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The Evolution of Tobias Harris

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Tobias Harris’ career year may or may not earn him an All-Star berth, but he has drawn admiration from around the league and is elevating his stature as he enters unrestricted free agency.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

When the Pistons came to Los Angeles to play the Clippers on Jan. 12, it wasn’t just notable as Blake Griffin’s return against his former team. It also was the culmination of a scheduling oddity for Tobias Harris — three straight home games against teams that had traded Harris at some point in his career.

The Charlotte Hornets moved Harris on draft night in 2011 to Milwaukee. The Orlando Magic traded Harris midseason in 2016, hoping to clear up cap space for the free agency bonanza that summer. And Detroit, of course, parted ways with Harris in order to land Griffin.

Harris is only 26 years old, on his second NBA contract, and he has already been around the league more than most. It would be hard for anyone with his path through the league to feel at ease, especially at this point during the season. The Clippers haven’t exactly made that any easier on Harris. They promote him heavily and announce him last in the starting lineup, but the team’s free agency ambitions by definition exclude Harris from the team’s future.

With the trade deadline approaching, Harris says he isn’t nervous. But when I asked him if he feels settled, Harris says, “Never. No, not going to happen.”

It doesn’t really matter if Harris feels fully comfortable, because he is too busy getting better.

Eight years into his career, Harris continues to improve through each game and each season, and he is thriving. He has put himself in position for an All-Star invitation and helped his team push for a playoff berth.

The first season Harris played regular minutes was his third in the league, in 2013-14 with the Magic. He averaged 14.6 points that year while shooting 25.4 percent from beyond the arc and notching as many assists as turnovers (1.3 per game). Those who were in Orlando with him say that the habits that led to him becoming a reliable starter in Los Angeles were there all along — it was just a matter of time.

Hornets head coach James Borrego, an assistant for the Magic from 2012-15, saw what Harris could be early on.

“I had him at a time when I’m not sure a lot of people believed in him,” Borrego said before the Clippers’ 128-109 win over the Hornets on Jan. 8. “And I’d say there were a lot of questions on Tobias when we had him: could he make it? Was he athletic enough? What was his position: is he a 3, is he a 4? And to Tobias’s credit, he just worked. I believed he would make it someday and thrive in this league because of his work ethic.”

Borrego also drew comparisons to another All-Star who played on multiple teams before finally starting to unlock his full potential.

“[Victor] Oladipo was a very similar player,” Borrego said. “Both guys [are] extremely great workers, so he’s just worked himself into this. I think a lot of people didn’t see him shooting the ball like this someday, and he just worked. He’s just a great example for all young people, not just in the NBA, but in college and high school, if you put the work in, you can grow your game and change people’s perception of you. He’s just become a complete player. he can get to the rim, he can score, he can shoot the 3. He’s a more sound defensive player than he’s ever been, so I’m proud of him. One of my favorite players in the NBA.”

Harris’ former teammate Nikola Vucevic also noted that the Clipper has become more mature in his decision-making since the two played together in Orlando. The two still work out together occasionally in the offseason, and Vucevic said he can see the improvement Harris has made from year to year, adding to his game each summer.

Harris came into this season with an opportunity to imprint himself as one of the Clippers’ leaders. Doc Rivers and the staff gave Harris a list during the offseason of things to improve upon to help him become a multi-dimensional player instead of just a scorer, and he immediately took advantage, earning Western Conference player of the month honors in October/November.

The team’s list for Harris included rebounding, getting to the line, and making plays off the dribble, in addition to growing as a leader. Harris has hit every item. He is averaging more rebounds (8.0 per game) than in any other season and cleaning the defensive glass at a career-best rate. He is making more free throws (3.5 per game). His assist percentage (12.4 percent) is also the highest of his career.

It’s the passing that has particularly garnered attention.

“[Playmaking] is not natural, it’s never been natural for him,” Rivers said after the team’s win over Sacramento Sunday. “We really worked with him this summer, we work with him every day in practice, and he actually is starting to see it. It’s becoming natural for him, and that’s unusual. That part of his game I’m probably the most proud of, because we’ve been told he couldn’t do that, and now he’s proven, yeah I can.”

Harris set a career high with nine assists in a win in San Antonio on Jan. 20 when the Clippers were without both Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams, and he is continuously getting a better feel for how to find his teammates when he attacks the paint.

Considering his strengths as a scorer, helping his teammates generate better looks is the logical next step in Harris’ evolution.

Even though Harris has expanded his game, the bulk of his success still comes from his ability to score the basketball. He is ninth in the league in scoring among forwards at 21.1 points per game, and every player above him is a surefire All-Star. His true shooting percentage is 61.1, ninth among forwards who also have a usage rate of at least 20 percent.

Harris isn’t just benefiting from the playmaking of other Clippers — he creates the bulk of his own offense. Nearly 60 percent of his field goals are unassisted. He drives to the basket 8.8 times per game, creating for himself and others in the paint. He has also made 48.1 percent of his pull-up jumpers and 50.8 percent of his pull-up threes.

This level of production has been especially notable considering Harris’s rep as a non-shooter earlier in his career. Harris has increased his effective field goal percentage every year of his career since 2014, and now he is one of the best in the league, particularly from midrange. It’s showing up on the scouting report, as Jrue Holiday noted when the Pelicans came to Los Angeles.

“Honestly, he can shoot 3s, he can post you up, he can make 2s as well, but just try to make him shoot tough 2s,” Holiday said. “He’s been playing really well. He should probably be an All-Star this year. Again, the way he’s been playing has been really good.”

When it comes to Tobias Harris’ All-Star candidacy, his team believes the numbers speak for themselves. Rivers called him an All-Star preseason and has stuck to that tune throughout the year. Clippers coaches and players are all adamant that the way Harris has played in conjunction with LA’s winning record make Harris’s case for him. He has led the team in scoring throughout the season and played and started in every game, the only Clipper to do so.

Harris has been passed over a number of times in his career, quite literally sent away by four teams. Becoming the player he is today has been a consistent struggle. Earning an All-Star spot isn’t the end game for Harris, but it would definitely provide some validation.

“It would mean a great deal, especially to get selected by the coaches, that would be a big respect thing,” Harris said. “Just a lot of hard work that’s put into this game, from a player who came into the league trying to find his rhythm and his position and status, and then to be where I am now, that would be a huge testament. I think it would just be inspirational to a lot of other players and people anywhere in life, just to work hard and keep yourself focused, and it will go a long way.”

Even if he gets the accolades Rivers believes Harris should receive, there will still be questions surrounding the 26-year-old. Should he have signed the extension the Clippers offered during the offseason, or is he deserving of a max contract? Can he carry an offense down the stretch of a close game? Will he even be in Los Angeles next season?

What should be a certainty, though, is that Harris is far from a finished product, and he can continue to evolve. The Tobias Harris of 2019 bears little resemblance to that of 2015, and he should continue to improve as he enters his athletic prime.

Then again, certainty isn’t something Harris really trades in. Like every player, he wants to find a situation where he can be stable and productive, but he is enough of a veteran to know that his current team may not provide that for him beyond this year. That doesn’t mean he won’t continue to push forward to be the best possible version of himself while he is still in Los Angeles. It’s part of being comfortable with being uncomfortable – and trusting the path he’s on – and it’s what has built Harris into the player he is today.

“I don’t know what the future holds, different things happen in the game. I’ve been traded four times, and I think I’d be doing myself a discredit to be naive and think that I’m going to be in one place for the rest of my life,” Harris said. “One thing I always stick to is just trust in God’s plan for my life and following through in every single situation that I’m present in.”

We’ll find out soon enough if that plan includes a trip to Charlotte for All-Star Weekend. If it doesn’t, one thing’s for certain: Harris will still be working, and never settling.