Tobias Harris is a different player when he’s decisive. Unfortunately for the Philadelphia 76ers, that hasn’t always been the case. Dribbling too much, making slower decisions, and not having a quicker trigger as a three-point shooter are problems that have limited Harris’s value in the Sixers’ offense before.
At the start of training before this season, new head coach Doc Rivers said that he wanted to improve Harris’s decision-making.
“Tobias and I have obviously talked a ton since me taking the job,” Rivers said. “First thing we’ve got to get him back to being is a quick-decision player. I told him I saw him dribbling way too much [last season]. Tobias is so darn skilled going downhill left and right. We need to get back to taking advantage of that.”
With such a short offseason to work with his new teammates and coaching staff, it was unfair to expect Harris to be a changed player right away. And through the first two games of the season (primarily his rough season opener against Washington), similar issues were on display. Over the last five games, though, he’s turned things around.
In this five-game stretch, Harris has averaged 21.6 points (shooting 55.6 percent from three on 5.4 attempts with a 69.2 True Shooting Percentage), 8.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks a night. But beyond the impressive numbers, it’s Harris’s mindset that’s most important.
For starters, he’s often firing from three without hesitating, being ready to shoot as a trailer in transition or when the ball gets swung to him in half-court sets. Besides this helping him up his three-point volume (which has been something he’s needed to increase with the Sixers), his faster trigger ensures he capitalizes when he’s open, doesn’t give the defense time to recover and reset, and cuts down on possessions where he dribbles too much and settles for mid-range jumpers.
As nice as the red-hot shooting is (47.2 percent from three for the season so far), it’s Harris’s elevated aggressiveness and the type of shots he’s taking — like the quick-fire threes shown below — that’s valuable. It’s also the change that should be sustainable, as long as he keeps the right mindset.
Harris’s decisive play has helped his scoring inside the arc as well. He’s finding driving lanes without hesitating, and he’s been consistently ready to attack immediately off the catch and beat closeouts with assertive drives:
Of course, stats from a seven-game sample size to start the season can’t be taken too seriously. But the early trends in Harris’s shot profile are encouraging and reflect his new approach. After mid-range jumpers from 10-16 feet and 16 feet to the three-point line accounted for 25.2 percent of all his field goal attempts in 2019-20, such shots are only making up 13.8 percent of his field goal attempts this season. Meanwhile, his three-point rate has climbed from 30.4 percent of his field goal attempts to 35.3.
After the Sixers’ 118-101 win against the Hornets on Monday, Harris was asked about what’s changed for him and whether Rivers has been putting him in better positions to succeed. Harris emphasized the importance of how the team is playing together as something that’s helped him.
“I think it’s just the way we’ve been playing as a team, the system that’s been implemented and what Doc has come in with, and really just the attitude from all of us out there,” Harris said. “I mean, it’s not necessarily what positions he’s putting myself in, but more what positions he’s putting the whole group in. And the mentality and attitude of, you know, playing together, playing as one, doing what we can for the next guy, making the right pass — going from good to great. And just that mentality for myself, personally, for my game, helps myself be in a flow, play better. And just going off that, feeding off other guys.”
You can also see how Harris is growing comfortable working with his teammates with plays like those below. These are simple yet effective passes that he’s making with more consistency. First, after Joel Embiid passes out of a double team and Orlando’s defense is forced to rotate, Harris waits until the defender (Markelle Fultz) arrives late, pump fakes, and then drives straight down the lane to kick the ball to an open Seth Curry. In the second play, the Sixers again swing the ball around the perimeter well, Harris immediately beats the late closeout of OG Anunoby, forces Matt Thomas to help off the strong-side corner, and sets up Danny Green for an open three:
Hesitating gives defenses more time to recover and takes away what could have been good shots, forcing the Sixers to work harder to create something with less time on the shot clock. Harris isn’t holding on to the ball for too long now, or dribbling into unwise mid-range jumpers when teammates are open.
“From the first game [of the season], when I went back and watched it, it was just missed shots that didn’t fall for me. And then going on, I think it was more of a change of pace of how we were playing,” Harris added on Monday when explaining what’s changed for him. “We understood from game one that we have to use each other out there and we have to play with one another, and I think, from that, now we’re starting to flow into the group we know we can be...
“If the team is rolling and playing and we’re playing for one another and we’re making the extra pass, guys just seem to play better and that’s me too, finding those spots and being in rhythm. I think as a group, and I can speak for myself, we have a really good rhythm right now.”
It’s still early, but getting Harris to make quicker decisions has been a point of emphasis for Doc Rivers since he took over in Philly. When asked about Harris’s sharpened decision-making before the Sixers’ first game against the Hornets on Saturday, Rivers pointed out a possession where Harris took too long to attack. The coach made it clear that he and the team will be calling Harris out on that kind of hesitation.
“We got him on one of the ATO’s [against Orlando] where he should have gone quick and he kind of waited and allowed them to ICE him [force him towards the sideline],” Rivers said. “And that’s one of the things with his size and quickness, he should never be iced from the elbows at least and he was on one. So he heard from us. But other than that he’s been really good at it.”
Overall, Rivers is happy with Harris’s progress.
“It just helps him,” Rivers said when discussing how Harris making quicker decisions helps the offense. “And if it helps him, then eventually it helps our offense, if you know what I’m saying. So clearly it’s good for him, you can see it, it’s visual when he does a quick [read].”
“I think he’s gaining confidence again at [making quick decisions] and I think it helps us.”
Harris is proving how much better he can be simply by having the right mentality. Rather than a hot shooting streak or stylistic changes under Rivers, it’s that mentality — in an offense with more space and improving ball movement — that’s helping Harris most. Obviously it’s early in the season. The Sixers, and Harris, still need to be tested against more challenging opponents, too. But with the guidance of a new coaching staff that seems to be having a positive affect on him, it should be possible for Harris to continue what he’s started.
Harris’s defense also deserves a mention. While he has limitations with his explosiveness and lateral quickness that won’t go away, he’s been better than ever at that end of the floor so far. He’s rebounding well (8 rebounds per game for the season), active off the ball, engaged when defending one-on-one, and he’s been providing some solid help around the rim with his size and strength, averaging 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game as well.
Ben Simmons had high praise for Harris’s defensive improvement after the Sixers’ 127-112 win against Charlotte on Saturday.
“When I see him doing that, that motivates everybody to continue doing their job,” Simmons said. “When Tobias came here, defensively he wasn’t where he is now and he stepped it up. Now he’s getting a lot of steals, he’s getting hands in the lanes, blocking shots. He’s made a huge leap from the past year to now, defensively.”
Harris won’t be worth his $180 million contract. He won’t solve the Sixers’ issue of lacking a new high-level perimeter creator either. But when he’s an aggressive shooter from beyond the arc and making swift decisions as a driver and passer, he’s a different player. With his recent approach, Harris becomes a guy that can give the Sixers more scoring punch and help keep the offense humming at a smooth pace. It benefits Harris individually, and the team overall.
Now all he has to do is keep it up, and prove that this recent development is sustainable. At the moment, Harris is giving the Sixers exactly what they need from him.