NBA

NBA AM: A Big Year For Maurice Harkless

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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”.

“Multiple league sources have repeatedly said that Rondo wants to start the season in Boston and see where things go from there. A similar sentiment has trickled out of Celtics camp, as well.”

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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About Steve Kyler

Steve Kyler

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.