This is a weekly series where we’ll look back at one player’s performance to see who stood out and why. Whether it’s the best player on the team, someone at the bottom of the bench who stepped up, or anyone in between.
Last week’s results: 97-92 W vs. Denver, 115-109 W @ Boston, 116-109 W vs. New Orleans, 89-109 L @ Brooklyn.
Tobias Harris received frequent criticism from Philadelphia 76ers fans early in the season. And to be fair, some of it was totally understandable. He was ice-cold from three and missed 23 straight attempts at one point.
Besides those early struggles, though, Harris has quietly been putting together an excellent season. Since his three-point drought ended 17 games ago, he’s averaged 21.8 points, 6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1 block, shooting 50.5 percent from the floor and 39.4 percent from three. His recent surge continued last week, with averages of 22.8 points (shooting 50 percent from the floor and 30.8 percent from three), 6.5 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.5 blocks.
The Sixers are 13-3 over their last 16 games and have recorded several wins over tough opponents, including the Nuggets and their Eastern Conference rival Celtics last week. Harris has played a key role in this, and tallied 20 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks to open the week against Denver.
He’s looked noticeably more aggressive recently, and his ability to shoot off the dribble has been valuable when the Sixers’ offense has faltered. Harris hit some difficult shots against the Nuggets, and also looked to attack inside when he received favorable switches.
Harris has increased his assertiveness and physicality as a driver this season, and showed it again in Boston. On his way to 23 points on 10-of-20 shooting (plus 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks) after a cool first half, he looked to attack the rim in a variety of ways. He was cutting, sealing off his man under the basket for short post-ups, and driving down the lane against Boston’s bigs to find good looks:
Harris is shooting 52.7 percent on 8.3 drives per game this season. Shots within 3 feet of the basket are accounting for 24.9 percent of his overall field goal attempts, and he's shooting a career-high 72.2 percent at the rim. His interior success has been impressive. The only real fault for Harris in this regard is how often he’s getting to the free throw line. The next step for him is upping his attempts from his current average of 3.4 per game.
There were some more rock-solid plays from Harris on defense against the Celtics, too, including a pair of blocks on Gordon Hayward:
Harris worked hard on his lateral quickness/defense this summer and it's paid off. He’s fared better against smaller players and has looked a little quicker on the ball. When he’s locked in and using his size, it’s unfair for opponents at times that he’s the Sixers’ worst defensive starter.
Harris had the same offensive approach in the Sixers' next game against the Pelicans, producing his second-highest scoring output of the season with 31 points on 12-of-20 shooting. Every weapon in his scoring arsenal was working.
His pick-and-roll frequency has increased in recent weeks, and he’s now running 3.8 per game — up slightly from the 3.4 he averaged with Philly last season. Of course, Harris’s handle, vision and ability as a playmaker is limited and he shouldn’t be a high volume pick-and-roll player. However, it can be a good way to get him driving against recovering bigs, pull up in space, or make simple reads to teammates when they present themselves.
On this play, Joel Embiid’s high screen takes Kenrich Williams out of the play and gives Harris space to attack. As Josh Hart helps over from the weak-side to cut off Harris’s driving lane, James Ennis is left open on the wing for three:
Harris getting these opportunities can also utilize Al Horford's ability to pop outside and get Embiid attacking downhill to score on dives or establish good positioning, rather than having to work straight from the post quite as much. Pick-and-rolls can force opponents to defend the Sixers a little differently. Harris has been fairly effective in this area recently, and Brett Brown should give him enough possessions to let it continue.
After a strong spell of the play, the Sixers ended their week with a disappointing performance against the Nets. Philly looked like a team playing their third game in four days, Embiid was out, and Horford didn’t look right at all after returning from left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness — he shot 5-of-15 and wasn’t moving anything like his usual self defensively, giving up frequent buckets at the rim.
As for Harris, his defense wasn't quite as good as it has been against Brooklyn's guards, he couldn’t connect on any of his 3 triples, and he committed a couple of bad turnovers. Apart from that, Harris was solid in what was his worst game of an otherwise excellent week. He did a bit of everything else as a scorer:
The Sixers would have looked even worse without his mix of drives, post-ups, pull-ups out of dribble hand-offs and pick-and-rolls, and breakaways in transition to put up 17 points (8-of-17 shooting). All week, Harris was scoring effectively in a variety of ways.
One key critique of Harris this season, that he should take more threes, is still justified. His 6 three-point attempts per 100 possessions is his lowest mark since 2015-16. He needs to be more trigger happy from distance and keep defenders rushing to the three-point line as much as possible, ensuring he’s adding maximum space for others. If he can do that, his well-rounded offensive performance will look even better.
While Harris will probably never look like a $180 million player or shake the “overpaid” label, it doesn’t mean he isn’t a quality player. He’s been playing really well this season, and as he benefits from positive regression from three and noticeably improved defense, he could put together the best overall season of his career.