When we start talking about what we expect from the Magic this year, there is a very nebulous response.
At this point, it seems the expectation is not necessarily the Playoffs. Those would be nice and not a detriment to the plan, at least as how we perceive it. The expectation is to start winning and learning how to win. It is to continue seeing growth from young players and a general sense of moving forward.
The Magic, as a franchise, do not appear to be thinking about being in the Lottery much longer.
Looking at the roster now, it is not impossible to see this team make the Playoffs. More than likely though, this is a team that is going to have its struggles and go through its growing pains. And that is fine. The roster is devoid of a superstar player or really anyone who has proven himself consistently at the NBA level.
As the Magic move out of the bottom of the rebuilding phase, they now have to figure out exactly what they have. That means putting some of these young players into positions to show exactly what they can do. And where they might fit in with the future of the franchise.
Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris are hitting restricted free agency next summer unless they sign an extension. That is a whole different matter. Other players on this roster have a lot to prove and can shape the rest of their careers with this upcoming season.
None may have more mystery or more riding on what the answer to these questions might be than Maurice Harkless.
Harkless is only 21 years old. He will be 21 throughout the 2015 season. It is hard to call this a make-or-break season for the young player. He still has a lot of growth and development to go.
But, Harkless has also played the majority of two seasons. He has not quite defined what kind of player he will be yet. He averaged 7.4 points per game, down from 8.2 his rookie season, but shot an improved 52.5 percent effective field goal percentage. After the All-Star Break, his averages were 9.1 points per game on 54.8 percent effective field goal percentage, including 40.0 percent from beyond the arc.
If Harkless had plans of being a 3-and-D player, the last 30 or so games of the season seemed to show that he could do that. Andt his came after he struggled to finish on drives to the basket and show an expanded offensive game (although it was clear he was more confident and comfortable with the ball in his hands and initiating offense than he was as a rookie).
Still, as Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders writes, it is hard to tell what Harkless’ future in the NBA is. He has to do this for a full season:
Harkless has shown flashes of brilliance, both as a defender and as an offensive player. This will be a big season for Harkless, especially considering the crowded roster at his position. Harkless has to separate himself this season in order for him to land that long-term deal. The good news for Mo is if Orlando doesn’t want him, several other teams would gladly take him off their hands. Harkless needs a strong season to cement his value, but his play to date likely locks him into another deal in the NBA.
That analysis is certainly clear. Harkless has a NBA future. What that future is might very be determined through the course of this upcoming season.
Can Harkless become a consistent 3-point shooter throughout the course of an 82-game season? Can Harkless continue to improve as a finisher and provide more offensively? Can he be more than a 3-and-D guy? Can he even be a true 3-and-D guy?
You are not going to answer all these questions at 21 years old. Harkless though has to show what kind of direction he is headed in.
It should not be lost that there is more competition at Harkless’ small forward spot than ever before. Harkless was almost starter by default his rookie year after Hedo Turkoglu and then DeQuan Jones suffered early season injuries. He was a starter again last year with no one really at the small forward position to challenge him.
This year, Tobias Harris, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier all could push for playing time at small forward. So too could Devyn Marble. There is a lot more competition. And Harkless is right in the thick of it for sure.
Just what can he be though? That is the big question that has to be answered this year with Harkless.
He has been somewhat forgotten with the additions of several new players to the Magic. He is not the flashiest player in the bunch. He does not have to be. Not by a long shot. That is not necessarily his role. But Harkless has to show what he can do and how he fits into the future plans.