Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY
It is no secret that this year has been a frustrating one for Maurice Harkless.
He showed steady growth throughout all of last season, played fantastic during Summer League and seemed set to take a step forward with his play and his ability to get to the basket and finish this year. His jump shooting was supposed to have improved to, giving Orlando a lot of reason to believe in the 20-year-old, second-year player.
Those predictions seemed to be going a bit too fast. Harkless struggled, shooting 45.8 percent from the floor and an abysmal 17 for 46 from 3-9 feet and an average 56.9 percent at the rim.
Those numbers, however, are certainly not as bad as they once were. As R.J. Infantino of Presto in the Paint noted earlier this week, Harkless quietly put together a strong offensive month in January that saw his field goal and free throw percentages shoot up. That has helped him get back into the playing rotation and make a difference on the floor.
Throughout January Harkless shot 50% from the field and 36% from three-point range. While the raw numbers may not seem all that impressive, it’s their improvement over previous months that should have Magic fans excited. His FG% in November was 44.1%, and in December, only improved to 44.3%. Equally encouraging are his January free throw numbers. He hit 66.7% in January, a steady improvement from November (51.2%) and December (58.3%).
Where is this improvement coming from? Harkless is being more patient on the offensive end. He’s only attempting 4.6 shots per game, markedly lower than his 2012-2013 splits (7.4 attempts per contest). He started 2013 gunning, with 6.6 attempts through November, but has settled into his role as a slasher and occasional three-point threat. If he can become a reliable 3-and-D player, he could be a valuable contributor on a playoff team. Impressive for a second year player who is still only 20 years old.
Harkless did indeed show marked improvement in January. His field goal percentage shot up to 50.0 percent after he struggled to crack better than 45 percent from the floor in the months prior. Harkless shot 9 for 25 from beyond the arc in January and 66.7 percent from the foul line (which is much better than he was previously when he hovered around 50 percent).
Harkless was even better at getting to the rim and converting at the rim in January, despite some visual evidence to the contrary. According to Basketball-Reference, Harkless shot 60 percent at the rim (within three feet) in January. He took 40 of his 74 field goal attempts from this range.
That is a very good sign for Harkless, he is feeling more comfortable attacking the basket and is starting to finish there. Harkless admitted after a game recently that he was disappointed with the way he was finishing around the rim. His shot distribution for the entire season certainly suggests that he has both had his struggles but that he is also getting the kinds of shots the team will want him to take — namely shots at the rim and corner 3-pointers.
The important thing for Harkless, it seems is that he is getting to the rim much more now.
In his rookie season, Harkless took 371 of his 564 shots at the rim (about 65.8 percent), shooting 58.0 percent from around the basket. This year, Harkless has expanded his game some and has taken 158 of his 264 shots at the rim, making 51.3 percent. That is 59.8 percent of his shots. He has scaled back on the amount of shots coming at the rim and decreased his efficiency.
This though suggests an attempt to expand his game.
According to NBA.com's SportVU statistics, Harkless is shooting a paltry 29.8 percent on his 84 drives this year and scoring 1.0 points per game on his 1.7 drives per game. These are tiny stats as Harkless is still largely trying to figure out who he is overall as an NBA player.
No data is available publicly with last year's stats, but I would imagine his drives are up this year.
The good news for Harkless is he is shooting a 54.2 percent effective field goal percentge on catch-and-shoot situations (despite a 36.6 percent field goal percentage on catch-and-shoots overall). He is looking and thinking about attacking the basket rather than settling for jumpers as he continues to work on improving that area of his game.
On pull-up jumpers, Harkless is shooting 0.4 pull-up shots per game and making 34.6 percent of those shots. This is something that is clearly not a part of Harkless' game yet. He is perfectly happy right now trying to drive to the basket or taking 3-pointers when the opportunities present themselves.
It has been a struggle for Harkless this season, no doubt. His performance throughout January, not to mention a great 15-point effort against Detroit on Wednesday, show that he is getting better and more comfortable in his role.