As the losses began to pile up this year, Tobias Harris was easy to find after games as the locker room opened up to the media (or shortly after). He would usually be sitting in his locker, feet dunked in ice, with a serious look still plastered on his face. The game that was just completed was still washing over him.
The media would inevitably gather around Harris looking for a few scraps and Harris would provide measured words about how he needs to get better, about how the team needs to continue working to improve and how the team is learning its lessons. The usual talking points for the Magic after games.
Really the scene does not change a ton after wins. Harris has the same determined, composed look. That same measured response. Even very similar answers about his desire to get better and help the team reach its goals.
Harris has that fire within him. It is pretty clear when you hear him talk and follow him on Twitter. He wants to be great. It is something that you can tell burns deep inside of him. It feels like he knows what the team is going through is part of the growing pains of a young team. But you can also feel his desire to do so much more.
“I’m just taking what the defense gives me and I’m just trying to be aggressive,” Harris said. “All I want to do is win. I’m tired of losing. Whatever I can do to help our team win, that’s what I’m going to do. And going into the next game that my approach and that’s going to be my goal to get all of the guys on this team to do whatever we can do to get a win. That has to be our attitude.”
Harris had several similar responses throughout the year. But you can see that will to win and desire play out on the floor when the moment comes.
Take the iconic play of the Magic’s 2014 season — the game-winning dunk from Harris to defeat the Thunder at Amway Center. That play was borne out of Victor Oladipo’s h;ard work in chasing down a long rebound for sure. But it was also Harris’ hustle to follow that play and be in the right spot as Maurice Harkless quickly whipped the ball back to Harris for the jam.
“Really the mindset was from seeing Victor get the steal was just to get down the floor for maybe a tip in, but just be down there,” Harris said. “I pride myself on working hard and trying to outwork people. That play and running the court as hard as I can, hoping something would happen. It’s just the overall effort.”
Harris was often just as complimentary of a teammate’s effort and putting his improvements and what he needed to do within the context of the team as he was talking about his own individual skills and efforts.
As a young player, it is sometimes difficult to direct that focus and energy in the right direction the whole time. Namely in a direction that always helps the team. Harris can put the ball in the basket, but he still needs to find a way to be effective for his team when he is not scoring and to improve upon his defense. That is not saying Harris is some kind of negative for the team, he is just a young player trying to find his way.
His season this year got off to a false start thanks to the high ankle sprain suffered in training camp that knocked him out for the first 12 games of the season and 21 of the first 22 games trying to make that difficult injury feel right. It put him behind the 8-ball and forced him to get his conditioning as the season went on. That was tough for a third year player to do and the ankle did not feel right, he said, for several months into the season.
Harris probably was not at full strength until late January.
He did not duplicate last season’s post-trade deadline run of games that had Magic fans thinking they might have a potential star and scorer on their hands. He might very well still become that — he is only 21 after all.
After the All-Star break, Harris averaged 15.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 50.8 percent field goal shooting and a 23.9 percent usage rate. This seemed to be more what Harris was in his first quarter season with the Magic.
That has not been his lasting impact on his teammates and his coaches. That comes from within and behind closed doors.
“He’s a guy that I rarely wonder how prepared [he is], his intensity level, how competitive he is going to be from game to game,” Jacque Vaughn said. “So when he makes plays that way, I don’t attribute it to him being more comfortable. I just think he’s trying to do whatever is necessary for his team to win. And that’s a compliment to him.”
“Tobias works really hard,” Victor Oladipo said. “From sitting here watching him going to the gym, working on it, trying to get back. From now, the game starting, he’s starting to get use dto everything. He is getting into the flow of the game. When he plays well, we play well. We just got to continue to keep going, keep working hard and keep building on it.”
Harris has been active part of that process. He not only leads through his example of coming in and working hard but also through his voice on the floor. Time and again, players praised Harris for his vocal leadership on the floor and in the locker room. That is a pretty impressive thing to hear about a 21-year-old potential star player.
“I think overall, Tobias’ nature is that he’s a very vocal individual and what I do think you see is at different points in the game, he’s trying to encourage his teammates, and he’s trying to lift them up whether we are winning or losing,” Harris said. “I think that shows a lot about his character and who he is. He is a guy who’s tried to lift up his teammates from day one.”
That is certainly hard to quantify.
It is clear that this is in line with the kind of player Harris wants to become. It is a natural part of his game that comes from deep inside of him. He is hungry to win and it drives him to become a better individual player and teammate.
His desire to win and do whatever it takes to win is a constant refrain from him.
“He puts in the work,” Vaughn said. “And I’ve said it before, I give him a lot of credit that going into every game I never have a second thought if he is going to be ready to play, if he’s organized, if he’s prepared, and he gives you that and I think his teammates appreciate that. I know the coaching staff does.”
All of this has made him a player the coaching staff can count on. Now that almost everyone agrees the strategic losing has toe nd and the Magic have to have some expectation of competing for a Playoff spot this next year, Harris’ ability to lead and improve within the team concept will be put to the test.
Knowing Harris, he is hungry to pass.
“I’m going to do whatever I can for my team, just keep playing the right way night in and night out, keep being focused, approach the game the same way every night and be consistent with my effort every night,” Harris said.