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NBA Sunday: Tyler Harris, the Unorthodox Path and Following the Process

In the long run, Tyler Harris will be known for more than being the younger brother of Tobias Harris.

Moke Hamilton

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Another city.

Another hotel room.

Another workout.

According to his father and his older brother, it’s all just a part of the journey.

So in many ways, then, it was fitting for Tyler Harris to wake up on Father’s Day in 2016 in a foreign country, nowhere near his father Terrell.

Only about 500 miles from his home of Long Island, New York, geographically, the neophyte isn’t very far from home.

From where it all began, though, still, somehow, he is worlds away.

“Everybody has a different path,” Harris said. “But I’ve been waiting for this and I know that my time will come.”

Trying to find his way, the younger brother of Tobias Harris—a featured player on the improving Detroit Pistons—wakes up in the Le Germain hotel. In the shadows of the Air Canada Center, this morning’s date is with Masai Ujiri’s staff of the Toronto Raptors.

Armed with a mature, candid demeanor, the benefit of experience and a pair of sneakers, Harris continues out into the sunlight of the early morning Canadian sun.

He continues out on his determined journey to prove that he is more than just the younger brother of one of the NBA’s rising young forwards.

* * * * * *

“Of course I’m in his shadow,” Harris says of his older brother.

Fueled by the want to prove himself on his own merit, Harris admits that he has benefitted from the success of his older brother—but not in the ways that one would typically think.

Drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the 19th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Tobias Harris would be traded to the Milwaukee Bucks on draft night and would spend the first two seasons of his career buried at the end of the bench of Scott Skiles. Eventually, a trade to the Orlando Magic gave the older Harris brother an opportunity to play meaningful minutes and, since then, he has excelled.

The entire way, his younger brother, who has long had NBA aspirations of his own, took notes.

“When Tobias first got drafted, he was showing what he could do but wasn’t getting the big opportunity that he really wanted,” Tyler says. “But throughout that entire time, he kept telling me ‘This is all just a process,’ and that everyone has to go through the process.”

“Now, I feel that’s exactly what I’m going through. [Tobias] went through the process, was patient, and continued to work on his game. He took advantage of the opportunities that he had, and as long as you focus on the process and realize that everyone has to go through the process, then the good will come to you. He taught me that and I’ve taken it to heart.”

Apparently, learning is something that has come quite easy.

Having spent his collegiate career at three different institutions, one who isn’t familiar with Harris’ development may assume the worst. From NC State to Purdue to Auburn, the immediate assumption would be that Harris—a young black man—had eligibility issues or otherwise couldn’t keep out of trouble.

“I usually get questioned about that when I go into meet with teams,” Harris says.

“People might think it’s a red flag, but once they realize the reasons I went to these three schools, they realize it was for good reasons.”

Shortly after Sidney Lowe had received a commitment from Harris to play at NC State, Lowe was removed. Harris, wanting to honor the commitment and being willing to earn his keep in incoming coach Mark Gottfried’s rotation, decided that he would keep his word.

Gottfried opted to give the bulk of his meaningful rotation minutes to his incumbent players and, to his credit, the team found success. Harris was along for the team’s ride to the Sweet Sixteen and saw, firsthand, what success at the collegiate level requires. Wanting to have an opportunity to get his own repetitions, though, Harris decided it would be best to seek his experience elsewhere.

After deciding to transfer to Providence to play for Ed Cooley, Harris sat out his sophomore year. His junior year, he played about 32 minutes per game and helped Providence win the Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament by averaging 11.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. The following season, as a senior, Harris put up similar numbers and helped his team to a second consecutive NCAA tournament berth. It was the first time Providence made tournament appearances in consecutive years since they did so in 1989 and 1990.

Having one year of eligibility remaining after sitting out his sophomore year, Harris decided to pursue his Masters Degree and eventually found himself being offered an opportunity to play for Tobias’ former coach, Bruce Pearl. Without hesitation, Harris took the opportunity to play the 2015-16 season with the Auburn Tigers.

“When I graduated [from undergrad], I had an opportunity to go play another year and to go get my Master’s degree. At the same time, Coach Pearl was looking for a player and he also coached my brother,” Harris said. “I felt like it was a win-win situation, where I could play for Coach Pearl in the SEC and figured he could put me in the position he put Tobias—at the point forward position.”

As a result, Harris, just one year his junior, will begin his professional career five years after his older brother.

“Even though I did go to three schools, they were all specific moves to help me and they all were great moves,” Harris said. “I went to NC State and got a Sweet 16 experience, went to Providence and won a Big East championship and went to Auburn and got the opportunity to go get my Master’s degree and learn from Bruce Pearl—the coach who helped my brother develop.”

In a day and age where the gross majority of NBA prospects enter the league without having come close to earning a Bachelors Degree, Harris will enter the league with a Master’s.

A student in the classroom, after having had the opportunity to develop relationships with four head coaches and play for three of them, Harris has also been able to continue his development as a student of the game.

Now, as he looks toward the next level, some scouts feel that his ability to contribute on the NBA level may be overlooked.

“Draymond Green was selected with the 35th pick and it was mainly due to concerns over his size and how he would translate at the NBA level,” one scout told Basketball Insiders.

“Tyler Harris is in a similar predicament. But with his size, vision and ball handling ability, it’s difficult to imagine him not being able to help an NBA team almost immediately.”

In recent years, we have seen the “one and done” freshman dominate the headlines and the early picks of the draft. However, the list of more experienced players who have become difference makers includes Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard and Draymond Green, the latter three having played four years of college basketball.

Harris hopes to join that list. And he has worked hard to ensure that he has the opportunity to fulfill his potential.

* * * * * *

“I bring versatility that every NBA team needs,” Harris says. “I can handle the ball like a guard. I can pass and shoot outside from off the dribble. I’m a great scorer, defender and rebounder and I’m a lefty, so I’m really crafty. I can get to the rim and score for myself or create scoring opportunities for others.”

And although his recent workouts have brought positive feedback from scouts and two front office sources who spoke with Basketball Insiders, Harris realizes that his adjustment to the NBA is going to require some additional studying.

“I need to continue to work on my right hand and going right,” Harris admits. “I also need to focus on the speed of the league. It’s going to be a lot different from college and I will need to continue to work on my shot and get used to the NBA three-point line. I want my shot to be consistent where I’m knocking it down consistently and on a regular basis. There’s so many great shooters in the league right now, I just want to be one of those guys.”

A simple conversation with Tyler Harris reveals a young man who is mature beyond his years and thoughtful about the decisions he makes. He has a rare combination of humble candor and outspoken confidence.

With a quick first step, a nice reach, appreciable size and the ability to start or finish a fast break, what will help Harris get to where he hopes to go will be just as much about what’s between his ears as it will be about his brawn.

Each step he takes, though, whether in person or in spirit, he carries the lessons taught to him by his older brother and his father.

“I represent the definition of work ethic and that’s really what I live by,” Harris says. I’m a person who’s in love with the game and wants to improve as a player and as a person, each and everyday. I think that’s just really what separates me from everybody else; I’m never satisfied.”

And best believe, Tyler Harris is also not done.

* * * * * *

As he laced up his sneakers and began his workout with the Toronto Raptors, Harris continues along in his journey. On this day, separated from his father—the person who first put a basketball in his hands—Harris continues to work hard to achieve the goals that he has set for himself.

More than 500 miles away from where it all began, separated from his father, Harris carries his legacy with him.

“My dad wants me to be the best I can be in life, both in basketball and as a person,” he says. “Teaching [my brothers and me] drives him each and every morning. He’s one of the hardest working and devoted people I know and I’m gonna make him proud.”

And on this morning in particular, in spirit, Terrell Harris is with his son. Yes, the journey continues and the process persists.

Where it ends, at this point, we can’t be too sure. But what we do know is that here and now, Tyler Harris has traveled the road less trodden. And in the long run, it may end up having made all the difference.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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