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The peculiar case of Tobias Harris’s two-handed dunks

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Because we all know you want to read more about him right now.

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Something seemed off to me. Watching Tobias Harris meander into undesirable 13-foot fadeaways and continue his struggles in the Sixers’ season opener inspired me to take a look at some of his play in years’ past to see what, if anything, had changed in his play style since coming to Philadelphia in February of 2019.

While there were certainly some differences between 2018 Pistons’ Tobi (yes, in 2018, Tobias Harris still played for the Detroit Pistons if that statement shocked you) and the 2020 rendition, one thing stuck out to me so glaringly that I just had to write about it.

Tobias Harris almost always dunks with two hands.

It’s a very on brand nitpick coming from the same guy who waxed a 1,300-word episodic about how the 6’8” forward is nearly incapable of using his left hand, but I just couldn’t get over all the jarring plays where a very tall basketball player did not do what so many others at his size accomplish on the regular — the blessed one-handed dunk.

According to Stathead, Tobias Harris has dunked the ball in an NBA regular season game 160 times across the interval spanning the 2018 to 2020 seasons. I went back and watched all 160 to track just how often Harris used one paw to punch home a dunk in said games, and the results were about what I expected.

Tobi had 16 one-handed dunks, which easily converts to a 10 percent one-handed dunk rate for the Tennessee alum. In a sport filled with creators of like-size who soar above crowds and pack the ball through the rim with it cocked back in their dominant hand, Harris either cannot or refuses to conform to the norm.

Watch these next few plays where Harris creates or receives more than enough space to flush home an automatic two points (great!), but insists that he must keep both on palms on the orange ball, as he lacks either the confidence or burst to tomahawk the dang thing.

I understand that this is weird. I understand that I am criticizing him on plays in which he converts a highly efficient shot and does not lose points by trying to look cooler. But like, how does a guy this tall need both hands to dunk this? Why is he not cuffing this in his wrist and ramming it on the Orlando’s heads?

This tendency goes in tune with who Tobias has always been. He’s the consummate just-above-average NBA wing. He can shoot at or above 36 or 37 percent from three, but he’s not too big of a threat. He can hit off the dribble jumpers, but you don’t want to run your offense through him in the biggest moments of a tight game. He can hit some passes out of pick-and-rolls, but a major creation engine he is not. He’s not a target that opponents seek out when the Sixers are on defense, but he also got dusted on predictable lefty drives by Julius Randle just the other night. He doesn’t suck at anything, but he also doesn’t thrive at anything, and that’s frustrating to watch before you even take into consideration the contract.

If you want to make sure I didn’t cheat, here are each of the 16 one-handed dunks I found in Harris’s profile. Notice how even on some of these, you can see some hesitation in his motion, going up slowly with two before deciding he wants to get kind of frisky on that drive. Save for the posters on JaVale McGee and Paul George of course (those two belong in the Louvre).

The pop is just not there when he clears for takeoff. He gathers and can sometime extend with that right paw of his. It doesn’t make him a bad player, but it’s more evidence toward the sad reality that the Sixers committed ungodly sums of money to a normal and un-flashy player for the length of half of a decade. It feels worse every time you think about it.

There’s something to be said for Harris being a strength-dependent player. As I wrote all those months ago, it’s the key to him finishing at the rim without his left, relying on other dudes bouncing off his powerful chest as he crashes into them. He can do the same thing on dunks, sometimes even posterizing dudes with his two-handed jams. But it’s hard to watch when he goes up with no other plan than, “Let me power through that guy,” while clutching the ball in his double-fisted death grip and squaring up to the rim protector.

Yeesh. Harris is often not a positive when it comes to the aesthetics of watching basketball, and he’s not aesthetically appealing when he charges the rim.

“Maybe a lot of guys dunk with two hands more than they dunk with one?” you think to yourself in trying to justify the Tobias deal. Well, according to StatHead, Harris finished 59th in total dunks in the NBA last season, sandwiched in behind Daniel Gafford and just in front of Maxi Kleber. I couldn’t watch every player’s season’s worth of dunk attempts (surprising as it may be, I kind of have a life outside of basketball), but I did peak at each of Kleber’s 51 dunks in 2019-20 play.

And guess what, Kleber had a lower one-hand dunk percentage than Harris! Only 4 of his 51 jams came with a singular hand, settling at a cool 7.8 percent. However, there is a very, very large caveat. Kleber finished only 3 of those dunks without an assist. The other 48, a staggering 94.1 percent, came from a leading pass, quite often a lob courtesy of superstar and savant-level passer Luka Doncic out of the pick-and-roll. By comparison, 80.8 percent of Tobias Harris’s dunks were assisted, and the two bigs who finished in front of him in total dunks (Gafford and Serge Ibaka) had assisted dunk percentages of 72.2 and 89.1 percent, respectively.

This is relevant because the players Harris is supposed to more closely mirror — scoring and ball handling wings — that had similar numbers for total dunks were assisted on much smaller percentages of their portions. Jimmy Butler was 58.2 percent of his 55 finishes, Brandon Ingram got 66.2 percent on 56 total, and the accursed Jayson Tatum was assisted on 64.3 percent of his dunks in the past season. Assisted dunks are more likely to be two-handed finishes due to them often being lobs to bigs, however Harris only catches a couple alley-oops per season, most of them being in transition rather than on rolls following ball screens. His lack of burst limits him to the dunk profile of some limited offensive bigs, rather than to large-contract scoring threats.

I even went back through all of Tatum’s dunks in 2019-20, and found that 31 of his 56 dunks (55.4 percent) were one-handed jams, greatly outpacing the three-year sample size of Philly’s starting forward.

In a way, this is all just a weird quirk and me spewing some kind-of-interesting numbers at you, but I think it speaks to the larger picture about Harris. You can just feel that something is a little bit off every time he takes the court for Philadelphia, and that weird, unpleasant vibe manifests itself in his inability to do one of the coolest things in the sport that many players of his size and play style can do.

He even tried a one-handed putback against the Wizards in the season-opener, only to see it rim out in disappointing but predictable fashion.

It’s not the end of the world (that’s when Tyrese Maxey develops his step-back three-point game and we all bow down to him as emperor), but it’s another mark in the anti-Tobias camp amongst Sixers fans, which seemingly grows larger every day. Though, as Liberty Ballers’ own Dave Early pointed out to me the other day, perhaps Harris’s one-handed hesitancy all stemmed from this fateful loss in which his surprising boost in confidence to attempt this rim-wrecker went horribly, horribly wrong.

Oh well. Harris might not be the player all of us want him to be, but we’re likely stuck with the affable forward for the foreseeable future, so we might as well try to enjoy the roughly 200 two-handed dunks he still has to give us here in the City of Brotherly Love.