The Orlando Magic are trying to do their best to mix veterans and young players.
They know players like Cole Anthony, Chuma Okeke and Wendell Carter are the most important players on their roster. They are trying to put them in positions to succeed and improve as individuals as well as the team context. These are the players the Magic will be hoping to build with beyond this year — with Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz and their upcoming draft picks joining that group.
That already feels like a full rotation. And those players on the roster today are not exactly guys who will move the needle. They are also all very young and limited on NBA experience. The Magic do not want to throw them out there without some direction or organization.
The team clearly trusts Fultz when he is ready to organize and manage the team. But they will certainly need something more. That is still a young group prone to mistakes and needing someone to guide them a bit.
That is what the Magic were hoping to get from Gary Harris.
Gary Harris’ salary was needed to match salaries so the Denver Nuggets could acquire Aaron Gordon. The real prize at the end of the day might have been the potential in R.J. Hampton. But it was also clear how much of an impact Harris could make.
Gary Harris is still getting into rhythm. But his impact and his influence on the Orlando Magic can already be felt as both try to take their next steps.
Nuggets fans lamented letting the six-year veteran go. He was a popular player both with them and in the locker room as someone who enjoyed playing defense and supporting the team as they grew into eventual contenders.
Harris had a lot to prove coming off an injury that had kept him out for most of the season. Injuries have been the story of his career. But so too has this positive influence.
The Magic are feeling a truly positive effect when Harris is on the floor.
Orlando has a 100.1 offensive rating with Gary Harris on the floor (the second-worst among regular rotation players ahead of only Michael Carter-Williams). It’s not like the Magic are much better with him off the floor, posting a 103.8 points per 100 possessions (a number that includes games Harris has missed).
But the team’s defense takes a huge leap with him on the floor. They have a 111.6 defensive rating with Harris on the floor, nearly four points per 100 possessions better than the team’s average since the deadline. Orlando posts a 115.4 defensive rating with Harris off the floor.
On a raw number basis, Harris is averaging 11.3 points per game since joining the Magic. The biggest issue for him has been regaining his shooting stroke after missing so much time with various lower body and leg injuries the last few years.
Harris is posting a lowly 39.6-percent effective field goal percentage and 35.1-percent from beyond the arc. That part of his game has not quite rounded back into form.
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But his impact on winning is still clear. In wins with the Magic this year, Harris is averaging 13.0 points per game and shooting 44.4-percent from beyond the arc. In losses with the Magic, he is averaging 10.7 points per game on 32.1-percent shooting from deep (29.3-percent overall).
Granted there have been only three wins, but the team has played very well in the games Harris has shot the ball well.
These impacts are still subtle and much of the success still depends on how Harris fills his role. But these are hints of the impact the veteran can make.
“We’re excited to have him here,” acting coach Tyrone Corbin said before Friday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. “The young guys, he is talking to them all the time and trying to help them out. He can defend multiple positions and takes pride in not letting his guy get around him and keeping them in front of him. He is trying to help the young guys understand how they have to play different guys in the league, into the body at times, off the body at times and taking angles and cut guys off. We can play through him at times. He can really score the ball too.”
It is those latter points that will prove most valuable and the biggest reason the Magic want to keep Harris within the team. This is his ultimate role for the team the rest of this season and moving into next season.
For the most part, Harris has spent this season guarding the opponent’s best creators or shooters. He averages 3.3 deflections per 75 possessions and 1.1 steals per 75 possessions this year according to data from Basketball-Index, ranking in the top quarter of the league.
He is also good at recovering those loose balls he seems to create. That all suggests he can be a disruptive defensive player moving forward and has a lot he can teach young players on this team.
For a player on a team with a poor defensive rating since he arrived, Harris has at least seemingly broken even on that plane — his +1.7 defensive real plus-minus ranks him near the top-10 percentile in the league.
Harris spoke when he arrived in Orlando about how he wanted to help mentor and grow the team. He was part of the beginning stages for the Nuggets and saw that team grow into the juggernaut it has become.
For such a young team, Harris has taken the pedestal as the veteran who can teach young players the basics of playing and competing in the NBA. All the while trying to make a name for himself. With Harris entering a contract year next year, both seemingly can help each other hit the next phases of their development.
“It’s been fun,” Harris said after Wednesday’s win over the Cavaliers. “Being around the guys, getting to know everybody and building the chemistry, we’re building something here. We’ve had some ups and downs. But we’re coming to work each and every day. Guys are fun to be around. We’re getting better and trying to finish the season strong.”
Harris has not had a perfect run with the Magic to this point by any means. The Magic hoped he could regain some of the shooting touch he has lost since his breakout 2018 season. Injuries have kept him from hitting the 35-percent mark from beyond the arc since that season. That has continued as his shot has been inconsistent at best.
Really, the biggest thing the Magic needed in the short-term was a veteran who could set the right tone defensively for this young group. The team is seeing that he is a better driver than anticipated and can see what he can do offensively.
Harris has had a positive effect on the Magic, at least in comparison to anything else as the team still has struggled mightily as expected since the deadline. What the Magic hope to see is this net benefit carry over into next season when there will be certainly much more to play for.