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How Tobias Harris can get back to becoming a star

An unrestricted free agent this summer, Harris has improved every year of his career

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

After the All-Star teams were announced, Tobias Harris was the “snub” due to smooth operating ability, versatile scoring, and steady production. At 6-foot-9, 236 pounds, Harris embodied modern basketball. Despite sporting five different threads through his eight-year career, Harris rose to (near) stardom because he improved each year. The Tennessee product fixed his wonky form to become a dangerous spot-up sniper. He attacked the rim more often and drew fouls in doing so. Plus, Harris was finally “average” defensively. Squint a little and one could see the rough sketch of Carmelo Anthony had the former Syracuse star ever trusted analytics.

The aforementioned improvements rendered him a trade target for the Philadelphia 76ers. In star-hunting mode, Harris seemed the ideal acquisition. Ultimately, they ended up shipping away a few key pieces for him. However, Harris largely underwhelmed in his 38 total games with the Sixers.

It’s worth noting Harris suffered from a jarring role change. Once the fulcrum of an offense — complemented by a host of ball-sharing role players — Harris was instantly relegated to fourth option on a team whose building blocks were — at times — incompatible and whose third star was oft-disgruntled. Regular season-ending injuries to Butler and Embiid gave Harris little time to adjust. After an up-and-down series against Brooklyn, it showed in the Toronto series, where he failed to tally 20 points and had just one game of 50 percent shooting. And Philadelphia felt the impact: his minus-6.5 net rating was the lowest of any rotation player by an extremely wide margin, even though he spent most of his time alongside at least two of the other three stars.

In the event that the Sixers offer Harris a max contract, they are betting he regains his efficiency. More specifically, taking and making more shots at the rim and behind the 3-point line. Brett Brown, for one, was optimistic on the topic at exit interviews:

“He’s incredibly polished, he’s elegant, he’s all class. When you start talking about those things and a fit, maybe the most exciting thing that I feel is that at age 26, we can get him better. [The starting five] started 10 games, think about that, they played 10 games those starters when we played Brooklyn, and then they were able to knock out another 11, and so the days are early, for us and for him. So I really feel that his human skills, his character, his talent base at age 26, we can bring that to a higher level.”

Amongst the fanbase, however, pessimism festers: Will he ever welcome contact at the rim? Does he take too many floaters? Can he finish either shot anyway?

And that line of thinking has logic to it. He took the fewest percentage of layups and dunks of his career (after recording a career-high in the regular season). Harris struggled to wiggle to the rim against longer-limbed and quicker defenders, and as a result, took the second-most floaters of his career. Still, his efficiency in the floater range decreased, overwhelmed by big bodies. These changes mirror those which drove Melo out of the league.

Given Harris was mostly tethered to Simmons, a rim protector awaited on “help-side” near the “dunker’s spot.” In said situations, Harris could only fire a fadeaway and hope for a prayer:

Or take contested floaters:

While playoff basketball required Simmons and Harris be paired, staggering them in spurts next season makes sense. The best lineup against Toronto involved Harris alongside three shooters (Butler, Ennis III, and Redick) and Embiid. Without Simmons, Harris backed down deep into the paint, whirled, and hit fadeaways:

The aforementioned lineup set screens, forcing Gasol to switch onto the perimeter. Using non-shooters as screeners provides a solution. “Aggressive drop” coverage allows Harris to flow into a smooth pull-up jumper:

But once Harris began missing open 3-point shots, Toronto’s defense sagged off him. As a result, they didn’t have to “recover” much to contest his pull-up shot:

Weaponizing his 3-point shot in the below clips, however, Harris usually doesn’t need a sliver of daylight to hit a pull-up jumper:

Implementing an array of skill moves is the most viable step for Harris to score near the rim. For example, a euro-step, hop-step, or gather-step would suffice here:

After all, Harris has the hesitation and straight-line speed to burst by unsuspecting defenders:

For all we know, Harris might be onto his sixth team this coming offseason. Perhaps Elton Brand thinks Harris wasn’t the seamless fit some made him out to be. After all, the two core pieces are Simmons and Embiid; how the puzzle pieces fit around them is the main priority.

Or maybe Brand runs it back, hoping Toronto loses Kawhi and key role players demand more money than Milwaukee has available. The past doesn’t predict the future, though: Embiid and Butler have an offseason to heal and Simmons has time to fill in some (glaring or not) holes.

If so, Harris can be the “glue guy.” But to play that role, he has to accept he won’t be playing a primary role, but a tertiary one. That means he needs to iron out a few minute details, which — in turn — will elevate Philadelphia’s starting core to even higher levels. Don’t forget it’s only been a year since Harris was an All-Star snub in the loaded West. He’s improved enough to where it’s realistic to expect more. Sixers or not, Tobias Harris’ career trajectory will be determined by which version of Carmelo Anthony he chooses to be.

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