Kim Klement/USA TODAY
It has been an up-and-down season for Maurice Harkless just barely a month into his second year. Mostly, it has been down.
Harkless' averages — 8.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game — are similar to the numbers from his rookie year. His field goal shooting is down from 46.1 percent to 44.0 percent overall and down from 51.0 percent to 45.5 percent on 2-point field goals. His free throw shooting is at an abysmal 50.0 percent on the year to this point.
Something is clearly not right with Maurice Harkless.
Maybe it is the expansion of his offensive game that him trying new things and trying to score in different ways. He is no longer a stand-in-the-corner and wait-for-the-ball kind of player. He is attacking the basket more off the dribble and trying to score. According to Synergy Sports, Harkless has used a possession as the ball-handler in pick and rolls on 12.9 percent of his possessions (a total of 19 times) for 0.74 points per possession.
Most of his possessions still come in spot-up situations (35.6 percent). His possessions off of cuts have certainly decreased from last year — to 8.7 percent of possessions — when that is how he got the bulk of his two-point scoring.
"When I see an opening if I've got the ball, I'm going to drive it," Harkless said. "If I have an open shot, I'm going to shoot it. Sometimes the ball comes my way, and sometimes it doesn't. I don't have any plays drawn up for me, so I get it when I fit in. When I get the opportunity, I attack."
That is the attitude you want. Harkless went through a training camp for the first time in his young career and has changed his body to change his game some. Harkless has more confidence attacking the basket and putting the ball on the floor than he did last year.
Harkless' shot chart is a strange read for sure. He shoots well in several areas of the floor, but much of his struggle comes at the rim where he is shooting 29 of 62 (47.7 percent).
That is an area you would expect Harkless to be able to finish. Certainly after he spent an entire summer adding muscle to his frame to absorb the contact to be able to finish in this area. It appears he is still getting used to what actually goes into finishing at the rim at the NBA level.
"He's always ready to shoot the ball," Kyle O'Quinn said. "That's the first battle. That's one of the things he worked out with down at IMG, just being ready to shoot the ball at all times and being confident in his shot. He can shoot the ball. Just letting that thing go. I think enough people have talked to let him know that he can shoot the ball and I think he knows that now."
Last year, Harkless struggled everywhere on the floor except at the rim, where he made 58.0 percent of his 371 attempts, a number comparable to the league average. His shot everywhere else has certainly improved. It is now about him becoming better at finishing at the rim and taking advantage of those opportunities he has now created for himself.
Harkless should not become a spot-up shooter. That is not going to be his strength. But offensively, it is clear he has a lot of growing left to do as he explores new aspects to his game.
He still has his moments.
"He's young and he's growing," Arron Afflalo said following the Magic's win over the Pelicans at the beginning of the year. "At times he can be stubborn, but he is also very open. A very willing listener as well. It's fun to see him grow a little bit and have games like he did yesterday.
"That was impressive. I was very happy for him to not so early in the season become down about a single game. That was a tough game for us all. For him to bounce back the way he did was a joy to watch."
In that Nov. 1 game, Harkless scored 20 points and shot 6 for 10 after struggling some in the first two game. He had a big steal and putback dunk that helped spark the second-half comeback against the Bucks on Nov. 13. His 10 points and nine rebounds that game showed little impact in the box score, but that is not what you would find when you talk about momentum.
For Jacque Vaughn and the coaching staff, it appears the focus with Harkless is still on what he can contribute on the defensive end more than the offensive end.
"For him it's really more than the shots," Vaughn said. "I think you see the deflections. You saw the rebounds. It's those things that if you want to say quote/unquote let's the game come to you, then that's when your shots come about, that's when you get transition buckets, that's when you attack and get to the free throw line.
"It's the mental approach that gets you there. You can't start the game thinking my shots are going to dictate my performance that night. Him getting on the floor for a loose ball, the deflection even though we didn't get it from out of bounds, they had four seconds to get a shot off. Those things matter for his progression and for our team's progression."
After all, Harkless was a raw freshman at St. John's where he averaged 15.5 points per game and 8.6 rebounds per game on 45.2 percent shooting. He would just be a junior at St. John's right now if he had elected to stay in college. The future remains bright for Harkless.
The maturity from Harkless comes from how he defends in spite of his offensive struggles so far this year. Harkless learned in his rookie year that he needed to take games one at a time. He continues to do that. He said last year, he probably would have let bad performances fester in his mind and affect his play to small degrees. The veterans noticed that change too.
"The way I coach, I don't give the guys the answer all the time," Vaughn said. "Part of this process is guys figuring things out on their own. He needs to continue to figure out that he is really good for us when he attacks the basket, when he shoots open shots for us and he is confident on both ends of the floor. That's the most important thing for us is that he is confident on both ends of the floor."
That confidence still needs a little bit more time to grow obviously.
Harkless has been considered among the disappointments for the Magic this year. He has seen his minutes begin to shrink as he has averaged only 14.2 minutes per game the last four games as Victor Oladipo has moved into the starting lineup. Who knows if that is a sign that Jacque Vaughn is trying to see Oladipo play more or whether he is trying to let Harkless figure things out behind the scenes.
The hard work should pay off eventually for Harkless. There is still a lot of growth and growing up for this young player to go through.
"You put in the work, the confidence just comes naturally," Harkless said. "You put in all that hard work, you know it's going to pay off eventually."