Even before Maurice Harkless dropped a career-high 25 points against the Thunder on Friday, he was receiving praise from the highest source.
The NBA's leading scorer, Kevin Durant, was surprised to learn that the rookie was 19 years old and remarked that Harkless had grown up immeasurably in his defensively ability against him from that first matchup. In that 117-103 Thunder win, Durant scored 26 points on 8-for-15 shooting.
A lot of that came in the first half as the Thunder buitl a 27-point lead they would eventually lose. That comeback impressed the entire Oklahoma City team as Orlando continues to fight without much to play for in terms of wins and losses.
Durant had nothing but good things to say about the rookie from St. John's as he told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel before Friday's loss to Oklahoma City:
That guy, he plays like he’s been in the league for years the way he defends and how long and athletic he is and how hard he plays. To be honest, I didn’t know he was that young, but he played me tough. The whole team, they did such a great job of making me see bodies, so I know it’s going to be a tough one tonight. I’m looking forward to going out there and playing my game and having fun and putting pressure on those guys. Hopefully, I get it done tonight.
Durant got it done Friday particularly down the stretch in scoring 25 points on 7-for-14 shooting. He did not find things that easy however with both Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless doing a good job. The veteran though had the last laugh.
What is very noticeable is just the confidence exuding from Harkless right now.
Harkless scored 25 points on 11-for-18 shooting in Friday's game and has scored in double figures now in each of the last six games and 16 of the past 18 games. That is a somewhat arbitrary measure, but it shows that he is involved in the offense and getting more comfortable.
Harkless has said it himself, he hardly recognizes the player from the beginning of the season with the way he was playing. Harkless is getting to the basket a lot more with 40 field goal attempts at the rim in the last five games. He has expanded hsi offensive game and is finding ways to get involved.
Defensively, the Magic have always seen his potential. That is one of the reasons why they
drafted acquired him from Philadelphia. He is long and athletic and capable of turning into a strong defensive player. Durant's comments seem to bolster that belief in him. He will be getting plenty of solid wing players to defend the rest of the way — including two more meetings with LeBron James.
His growth has been the biggest story of the latter half of the season. It should continue with Arron Afflalo set to miss the remainder of the season.