It’s a Big Year For Moe Harkless: They say the third season is when you define your future as a NBA player. You get put into a starter’s role or a bench role, and few guys can break out of those roles after three years in the NBA, so for Orlando swingman Maurice Harkless this has been a busy summer of working on his game and improving as a player and a teammate.
Harkless has spent a lot of time training, working with the elite trainers at IMG Academy in Bradenton, refining the mechanical parts of his game. He also spent some time with world renowned trainer Idan Ravin, who has worked with the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant.
The magnitude of the impending season is not lost on Harkless.
“It’s huge,” Harkless said to Basketball Insiders. “I mean, this is the year were I got to make a mark. This year pretty much determines what I am going to be in this league, I think. I think this is a huge year for me.”
Harkless was acquired by the Magic in the Dwight Howard trade in 2012. Harkless was the 15th overall selection in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, who shipped him and Nikola Vucevic to Orlando. Harkless was one of the youngest players drafted that year and oozed potential on both ends of the floor.
The last two seasons have been tough, mainly because the Magic were focused more on rebuilding and filtering down the roster, making minutes and roles for the entire roster challenging. Finding a groove and a role wasn’t easy for anyone.
This year the expectations are higher and winning games is more of a priority, and roles should be a little easier to lock down, but playing time will have to be earned.
“Just being a competitor, you always want to win,” Harkless said. “You always want to be able to be in the playoffs, and have a chance to compete in the playoffs. That highest level of basketball, so that’s our goal to get there and hopefully we will this year.”
The Magic were better last year in a number of areas, namely playing their best basketball at home. The road was a different story, where Orlando was routinely blown out.
“If you look at us last year we competed with pretty much all the best teams in the league, we even beat a few of them,” Harkless said. “I feel like this year, with that much more experience and guys being that much better after another summer of work, we’ll have a chance to make the playoffs.”
Harkless expects the team to be better on the road this season.
“I think that comes with experience,” Harkless said. “You know, just being able to learn how to close those games out. You look at our road games, we’d be in it for the first forty minutes, and it’s those last eight, last six, even those last four minutes. We just let it get away from us. I think a part of that is being young and learning how to win on the road. It’s a lot different than being at home.”
Harkless understands nothing is going to be given to him and it’s one of the reasons he spent so much of the offseason in the gym. The benefits from his hard work is noticeable. There is more control in his game, more awareness of what’s coming next.
“I guess a part of it is just growing up,” Harkless said. “I definitely feel a lot more comfortable out there. Playing pickup I definitely feel like can do a lot more things. I am more decisive … tight with everything I do.”
Now that he is going into his third year, being more vocal is something Harkless needs to embrace. He is often quiet in the corner, cracking a few jokes with his teammates and leading just by example.
“We acquired a few veteran guys this summer, but I definitely feel like I should be a leader on this team this year, and be more assertive and vocal in the locker room, “ Harkless said understanding that is a little out of character for him.
“I guess it’s a little uncomfortable. I have always been a guy who’s been a ‘lead by example’ guy. I think it’s important to be vocal as well, especially with a guy like Aaron Gordon who is coming in; he pretty much is like the way I was when I was 18, coming in and not really knowing much about it. For me to be able to be there for him, to help him out; we’re close in age. He is going to play some wing as well; I think me helping him out can only get him better.”
The Magic have become a very tight nit group, with Harkless spending most of his summer with second year guard Victor Oladipo and the core of the team spending a lot of time together on and off the court.
“Our bond off the court will translate on the court,” Harkless said. “I pretty much spent my whole summer with Vic. He’s grown to be one of my best friends. It will do nothing but help our chemistry. When you see guys like Tobias [Harris] and Vic, they did Team USA together. Kyle… me and Kyle have always been close. I think our group; everyone is really close with each other and I think that’s only going to help us on the court.”
That chemistry has become a big part of the growth process for all the guys and has also developed a sense of accountability to each other.
“I can’t count how many times we got into it last year; either on the court, in the locker room or wherever,” Harkless said. “I think being able to be close off the court allows us to hold each other accountable on the court. Nobody takes it personal. They know we can scream, fight and yell at each other all day at practice or in the games, and then after the game we can all go to lunch together. It’s really only a positive for us to be to do that and hold each accountable.”
Over the last few seasons a number of young teams have come together fairly quickly, most recently the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team built around a young core that found their groove and have been one of the power teams in the West since. The Toronto Raptors did something similar last season; Orlando’s hope is to be one of those kinds of teams.
“We hear those comparisons a lot,” Harkless said. “Teams like that who were young and they pretty much bonded together.
“We’re the Orlando Magic. We’re a different team, but I think we can do similar things that they did and find our way and be able to make the playoffs and make a mark and surprise a lot of people.”
The Orlando Magic players will start arriving for informal workouts well in advance of the start of training camp, with the bulk of the roster committed to being in town and working the week of September 8. The Magic will open training camp on September 29, with the first preseason game set for October 7 in Miami versus the new look HEAT.
Rondo Holding The Line?: Despite reports last week that painted Boston point guard Rajon Rondo was “demanding” a trade, a new report from Celtic’s insider A. Sherrod Blakely indicates that maybe there wasn’t really a “demand”.
The Celtics’ stance on Rondo has been really consistent, not only publicly, but with teams that have called and tried to pry him away from Boston. They want this roster in camp to see what works and what does not.
Part of that is seeing if Rondo fits in with the young guys and can return to his former All-Star self.
Another part of that is getting Rondo to buy into and believe in what the Celtics are building and getting him to at least verbally commit to the idea of a new deal in July.
The Celtics know that it is in Rondo’s best interest financially to hit free agency and sign a new deal next summer rather than extend his existing one, and they also know Rondo is not staying in Boston on the cheap.
Trading Rondo is not off the table, but the Celtics know that trading him now would be selling him on the low end, which makes the idea of a trade demand a little strange, especially with training camps in the NBA opening in less than three weeks.
There are lots of questions about what Rondo is really going to be and until some of those answers are little clearer for everyone, Rondo is far more likely to be in training camp than traded. Unfortunately for the Celtics, the reports of a “demand of a trade” are going to dominate their training camp and that is going to be a distraction everyone else has to carry.
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NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.