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On Tobias Harris: Transformation and the Power of Likability

The newest Sixer may have finally found the right situation.

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Power forward Tobias Harris has come into Philadelphia and exemplified the chameleonic qualities in his game and his personality that he’s demonstrated over his entire 8-year career, ever since the Sixers-Clippers trade that was consummated in the wee hours of the morning on February 6th. Harris’s low-maintenance playing style and his endlessly affable personality make him an excellent fit for a Sixers team that surely values both. Set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, it seems that Harris has finally found an NBA home, at long last. Let’s explore the intricacies of his game and the evidence of his flexible demeanor — the foremost two reasons that the Sixers and general manager Elton Brand should feel completely comfortable paying what it takes to keep Harris in Philly for years to come.

The forward’s game has evolved tremendously since entering the NBA in 2011 after one season at the University of Tennessee. Early on in the league, Harris was a tweener. Neither a good enough shooter to play the 3 (28% from three-point range in his first three seasons, with time split between Milwaukee and Orlando), nor big and physical enough to consistently guard power forwards. As a result, Tobias’ first two teams had to live with one of two things: leave him on the wing where he’ll be ignored from beyond, or plant him in the post, where you’ll have to send help on bigger guys and then scramble when the ball moves. The makings of a good NBA player were in there: Harris always had a savvy beyond his years, combined with a fragmented skill set: he could handle a little, shoot a little and he had the motor to guard a little. He just hadn’t put it together.

The NBA is no stranger to the archetype Tobias Harris seemed to be early in his career. From Marvin Williams to Michael Beasley to Derrick Williams, time and again a player demonstrates just enough scoring and athleticism to tantalize teams into spending high drafts pick on them, only to then flame out in the league because they exist in NBA player purgatory. They’re neither a shooter nor a slasher, a scorer nor a defender, a three nor a four. You think to yourself: man Derrick Williams is a beast, any day now he’s gonna put it together, and then you look up and he just had 7 points on 2-8 shooting for the Tianjin Gold Lions.

Tobias Harris wasn’t going to let that be his story.

Incrementally, Harris begun to transform his game and his body. Look at his year-over year improvement from 3:

per Pro Basketball Reference

From shooting 26% on .5 threes a game as a rookie to shooting 42% on 5 attempts this year, it’s no secret the key reason for Harris’s rosy standing among the NBA’s upper echelon players. Harris stared at the Williams/Beasley Abyss™ and instead of becoming them, he became the best-case-scenario of them.

Germane to the Sixers, the on-court improvements have positioned Tobias as an excellent fit in the starting lineup as the forward next to Joel Embiid. He’s a knockdown catch-and-shoot three-point shooter, a reliable rebounder and post defender, and a surprisingly adept ball handler out of the pick-and-roll. We’ve all seen in recent years how much Joel Embiid can thrive next to a dependable stretch four: the fit was great next to Ersan Ilyasova, and it was doo doo not great next to Trevor Booker. The Sixers-Clippers trade that netted the team Tobias and also Mike Scott ensured that for this stretch run Joel will consistently play next to one stretch-four or another. (Side note: I love Mike Scott. He’s got a thousand tattoos — most of them emojis — he’s a very good shooter, and he’s always down to fight somebody. I’ve petitioned the Sixers to sign him long term. Waiting on word back.)

In Harris, the Sixers have a great fit between the frantic transition game of Ben Simmons and the methodical half-court offense provided by Joel Embiid: a cerebral, consistent-shooting four who can guard in the post and make plays off the bounce.

NBA: Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As far as his personality goes, it’s hard to find anyone in NBA circles with a negative thing to say about Tobi. Not that I looked. I don’t have NBA connections, other than that one time I met Willie Green at a Verizon store in 2009. Willie didn’t say anything bad about Tobias, for what it’s worth.

Recently, Harris did an interview with Sixers guard and social media recluse JJ Redick on The JJ Redick Podcast. Redick recounted receiving upwards of five texts after the Sixers acquired Harris from people within the Clippers organization, telling him to take care of Tobias; that he’s one of the good guys. Later in the interview Redick asked Harris about his psyche, and how he has been able to cope with being traded as many times as he has over the course of his 8-year career. Think about it: Harris was drafted in 2011. He has since been traded in 2013, 2016, 2018 and 2019. It would be hard to blame him if he’d become hardened and untrustworthy after that much movement. He talked about going into each situation with a positive outlook and doing his level best to be a good teammate and player for his new organization. Just look at him:

Understandably, Harris told JJ how much he will be seeking loyalty this summer.

Tobias also recently sat down with Shams Charania of The Athletic to discuss his time in Philly thus far. He told Shams about the process of finding his voice on the new team:

I try to embrace everybody the same way. Players, coaches, the staff we have here. I let everybody know, ‘We’re in this thing together. We need each other. Let’s make it work.’ We need to all be pulling in the same direction, and I see that in this group.

In the interview, Harris dubbed himself “The Connector.”

It’s hard to understate how necessary a connector is with this Sixers team and the pieces that have been assembled. You have two young superstars in Ben and Joel, a 13-year vet who needs his touches in Redick, and a mercurial-at-best star with a sordid off-court past in Jimmy Butler. Each of those main pieces needs to work in concert in order for this experiment to work. I love Amir Johnson as much as the next guy (not that much), but his leadership can only hold so much weight as he racks up DNP-CDs. To have a near-All-Star who’s as good a player as Tobias who also exemplifies the demeanor and selflessness necessary to keep the team together and spirits high is an invaluable luxury for a contending team like the Sixers.

Over his eight-year career, Tobias Harris revamped his game to become one of the most amenable high-volume scorers in the NBA. Despite being traded four times in eight years, the forward has maintained his sunny disposition and indefatigable spirit.

Tobias Harris deserves an NBA home. The Sixers ought to give him one.

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