This offseason, Maurice Harkless re-signed with the Portland Trail Blazers on a four-year, $40 million contract. Many questioned why the two parties took so long to agree to a new deal, and some questioned if the 23-year-old forward would live up to the increased expectations.
After being traded from the Orlando Magic to the Blazers for a mere second-round draft pick in the summer of 2015, Harkless progressed into an athletic, reliable rotational player for Portland. And now that he’s locked up on a four-year deal, he knows that he has security since he’s part of the team’s long-term plan.
“Just knowing night in and night out that you’re going to play and you can make mistakes and not be taken right out of the game for it, that’s big and that helps any player,” Harkless told Basketball Insiders. “Knowing that Coach [Terry Stotts] has confidence in me as well, it just allows me to go out there and do what I do and just play freely.”
Harkless is averaging 31.6 minutes per game and has scored in double-digits in 10 straight games, matching a career-high. He’s been the clear third option on offense and continued to improve throughout the season. Although he wasn’t always viewed as an excellent outside shooter, he’s certainly become one. Shooting almost 40 percent from behind-the-arc, Harkless is having a career-year in almost every major statistical category and emerging as a valuable 3-and-D contributor.
“I’ve been working on it for years,” Harkless said in regards to his shot. “I spent a lot of extra time this summer just focusing on my shot. It’s helped a lot and it’s helped open up my game. Because now guys are closing out hard and it’s opened up driving lanes and stuff like that. It hasn’t been something that I’ve always been doing. I’ve never been a three-point shooter until now.”
Looking back, Harkless was on an upward trajectory after being drafted 15th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. He averaged 8.2 points and 4.4 rebounds in 26 minutes per game as a rookie with the Magic. But from 2013 to 2015 (up to when he was traded), his minutes were sporadic and he saw decreased time on the floor. This wasn’t solely due to his performance, but also because the Magic were trying to play their other young players like Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon. The Magic also wanted Harkless to camp out at the three-point line, which didn’t line up with his strengths at the time. Playing less and being used incorrectly would obviously irritate any player who had previously performed well.
Also, Harkless wasn’t able to get into a rhythm with his new role. On any given night, he didn’t how many minutes he’d play, when he’d enter the game or how he’d be used. Some nights, he wouldn’t play at all and wouldn’t get an explanation. This diminished his confidence and made it hard for him to play to his full potential. Sometimes, this treatment isn’t due to a player’s actions, but rather they’re forced out due to a coaching philosophy, change in direction, positional logjam or other circumstances.
“It was [hard],” Harkless said of his Magic tenure. “That’s part of the reason why I was so frustrated there. I really didn’t know when I was going to play, how much I was going to play or why I wouldn’t play. Luckily, I’m out of that situation and here it’s a lot different.”
Fortunately for Harkless, he landed in the spot that was just right for him. Now, his teammates really seem to respect him and, unlike before, he knows his role and how much he’ll play.
“[The trade] helped,” Harkless said. “I needed the change in scenery. I wasn’t happy there at all. It was huge coming here and just having a new opportunity and fresh start. It was big. It was what I needed for my career.”
The Trail Blazers saw something special in Harkless and that’s why they pursued him. They’ve comprised a group of players who are out to prove people wrong and compete at a high level. Harkless is a player who’s been through ups and downs, but has never quit working and trying to improve. His outside shooting and defense are improving, while his versatility has given the Blazers an added dimension.
While Harkless dreamed of playing in the NBA, you can tell that he’s not happy with just being in the league. He wants to be productive and make a difference for his respective team. But most of all, he wants to win, which is another reason why his tenure with the struggling Magic was so difficult for him.
“Obviously [I want to] win as many games as possible,” Harkless said. “One of our goals is to try and get further than we did last year in the playoffs, so we have to continue to work at that every day. For me, it’s just continuing to get better. Every day doing what I can to help the team win and just continue to get better every day.”
The Blazers are 12-10 and starting to find an identity, with Harkless contributing on both ends of the court. When you consider how much he has improved from last year to this season, re-signing Harkless may have been the most important offseason move for the Blazers.
It seems he’s finally tapping into his potential and nearing his prime, which is why he’s experiencing so much success.
“I’m just working and sticking with it,” Harkless said. “Keeping the faith and trusting in the process.”
Harkless is one of the bright spots on this young, improving Blazers team. He’s certainly found a niche in Coach Stotts’ system. Whether it’s rebounding, assisting, scoring or defending, Harkless is willing to do whatever it takes as long as Portland is winning games. This season, Harkless has emerged as an all-around player who does a little bit of everything.
He’s providing the Blazers with incredible value and silencing the doubters who felt he wasn’t worth the new contract. And, considering he’s just 23 years old, the sky remains the limit for Harkless.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.