The sharks are circling for the starting shooting guard spot.
Everyone with the Orlando Magic senses that it is a weak spot in the team’s lineup. If, like the Dwight Howard era or Shaquille O’Neal era, the team feels comfortable with four spots in the starting lineup — Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner of course with Wendell Carter and Markelle Fultz — but have questions at the other spot.
The going bet is that one day Jalen Suggs will rise to the occasion and step into the starting guard role. The promise of being the fifth pick in the draft is part of that story. There is at least a sense that his disruption on defense and his offensive potential make him the better long-term option.
If not him, it could be rookie Anthony Black rising to that spot. Or it could be wandering eyes looking at the trade market — like with the recent news about Buddy Hield — looking for an upgrade.
Time is always ticking. The sharks are always circling it seems. Nobody is every truly satisfied with what they have. And this Magic team will have to make some decisions soon.
That is all to say, nothing feels settled at all at shooting guard. The team does not have its future set.
And in the meantime, Gary Harris just seems to work in the background.
Everyone seems focused on the 2-guard spot for the Orlando Magic and its future. Meanwhile, Gary Harris continues to produce and grow in the background.
It is hard to construct lineups without him because his shooting is such a vital skill for this team. If anything, the Magic need to find a way to bring Harris more out of the background and get him more shots.
Not that Harris seeks that. What makes Harris at least partially valuable is that he is a pure floor spacer. He is not seeking the ball to attack off the dribble. He knows his role is to be a spot-up shooter. And that matters for a young Magic team to have that safety valve — let alone a veteran who can give some guidance and then stay out of the way.
Harris works in the background. And that works for this team in so many ways.
The question for the 2024 season with Harris is not about how many points he will score or anything like that. The question is whether the Magic will value the background clutter Harris clears up with his shooting and whether that is something the team either values enough to keep — he is a free agent at the end of the season — or can find elsewhere either on the roster or outside of it.
Harris had a solid season for the Magic last year, appearing in 48 games (starting 42) and averaging 8.3 points per game. He made 43.1 percent of his 4.5 3-point attempts per game. His 60.3 percent effective field goal percentage was a career high as was his 62.0 percent true shooting percentage.
When the ball did find its way to Harris, he made shots. And it felt like Harris getting a healthy amount of shots was typically a good sign the ball was moving and the offense was working.
Harris shot 42.8 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last year and 45.7 percent on corner 3-pointers. There was not a shot type or area where Harris was missing from deep last year. He was just quietly excellent if the ball could find its way to him since he was not a high-usage player — he had a career-low 12.6 percent usage rate.
Harris was an excellent spot-up shooter and that was something that proved to be valuable for the team throughout the year.
He was also an overall solid individual defender.
He had a +0.97 on-ball perimeter defense rating according to Basketball Index, placing him in the 90th percentile. He averaged 1.4 steals per 75 possessions, putting him in the 87th percentile in the league.
Harris was not physically disruptive by any means. He was just solid. And he did this while defending primary ball-handlers 19.2 percent of the time and shot creators 17.4 percent of the time, according to Basketball Index. He defended players in the top two usage tiers 46.2 percent of the time.
Orlando trusted Harris to defend the best players on the other team in a lot of ways.
The issue was that these statistical impacts did not quite seem to translate.
Orlando had a 113.0 offensive rating with Harris on the floor, the second-best mark on the team behind only Mo Bamba. But the team had a 115.8 defensive rating with Harris on the floor, the worst mark among rotation players. After Dec. 7, that split went to 113.2/114.9.
The Magic were still a net negative with Harris on the floor. Still, when Harris was with the starting group, the Magic were a better team. The Magic’s starting group had a net rating of +1.4 points per 100 possessions (113.0/111.6 offensive/defensive rating split).
It paints a weird picture.
Harris almost certainly helps with his spacing. But he is not exactly making an impact beyond that. He enhances the players he is already with — making the Magic’s best players better but perhaps not helping lineups with players who cannot create or struggle to find their footing.
At this point, Harris knows exactly who he is as a player. He knows exactly what he is good at and exactly how he can help a team. And for the Magic, that is still extremely valuable. His shooting should help make everyone look better. And Orlando just needs to reward him with getting those shots.
For a team with so few shooters, having a player who seemingly will reliably shoot nearly 40.0 percent from three is still really valuable.
What does that mean for his future? The clock is unfortunately always ticking though.
Harris will become a free agent this offseason. The Magic have a very crowded guard room and young players they may want to develop. What they end up doing with Harris might depend on his health — Harris played in 48 games last year and has only cleared 60 games three times in his nine-season career — and how quickly the team feels it will hit contention.
It certainly feels like Harris is a placeholder for a young guard on the roster or for a big move in the near future.
That is what makes Harris ultimately work though. He can work in the background of any lineup. Harris can plug into any role the Magic can think of on the perimeter and count on him to deliver that one skill the team so desperately needs.
His shooting is still exceptionally valuable for this team. The question is just how much will the Magic work that into their offense and how far forward from the background will Harris step.