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Tobias Harris seems to be ramping up, could his best basketball still be ahead of him?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NBA season didn’t end where Tobias Harris and the Sixers wanted it to end. The Tennessee product finished that fateful game seven with 24 points, 14 boards, four dimes, but shot just 8 of 24 from the floor. As Marc Zumoff would say, Harris had a fair amount of unfinished business around the rim in that game. That (*coughs* among a few other things) really caught up with the Sixers last season.

Fast-forward and Harris has had a slow start to this year. It’s not all his fault, of course. First the 29-year-old dealt with a tough break-through Covid case, next he had a hip injury, then it was a non-Covid flu hampering him. All in all, he simply wasn’t playing up to his own standards. You could tell he was frustrated at times. With fans already entrenched in trade-machine fantasies, Harris’ name has been included in more than a few multi-team iterations.

But with his contract, ($36M this season, with two more fully guaranteed seasons nearing $80M to come) it seems more likely than not the journeyman, now on his fifth team, will avoid another upheaval, at least until summer of 2022. With a game against the Atlanta Hawks on the slate, one imagines the sting of those playoffs still burns Harris and a few other key Sixers.

So with some setbacks now hopefully in his rearview, could he return to the form he exploded out the gate with a year ago? Harris was a popular name to make an All-Star game last season. Utah’s Bojan Bogdanović certainly didn’t want any smoke:

Recently I tried to investigate some of the things that might be holding Harris back this go round. It seemed that a combination of illness, injury, the team missing Ben Simmons and the tempo the Aussie star plays with, Tyrese Maxey’s emergence, deferring to an MVP, and other factors have combined to limit Harris thus far.

But in the last outing, a monster road win over the rival Celtics, Tobias had one of his best games of the young season.

Joel Embiid stole the headlines, as the perennial MVP candidate registered 41 points, 10 boards, five dimes, four blocks, and two thefts. But Harris came up big himself with 25 points, seven boards, draining 3 of 3 from distance and 8 of 10 from the line. It’s that type of shooting profile, taking and making 3s and free throws that the Sixers would love to see from the Long Island native. So could he be ramping up?

Thursday’s game is going to be another example of what the NBA is right now. Per our Sean Kennedy:

“Danny Green, Georges Niang, Andre Drummond, and Shake Milton are all in the protocols for the Sixers, while Atlanta is even worse off with Trae Young, Danilo Gallinari, Clint Capela, Lou Williams, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot all on the list.”

So that might allow for Harris to step up. He wasn’t able to versus the shorthanded Nets, going 3 of 17 in that one. But he’s now another few days further removed from his recent health setbacks.

If this Sixers team is going to make noise come playoff time (whether we see a Ben Simmons blockbuster trade or not) they’ll need Harris to get back to the player he was at this time a season ago.

When he’s a reluctant three-point shooter, when he’s not getting many foul shots, then even a brief cold-spell from midrange can render Harris a moot point out on the floor.

Players Harris’ age don’t often make late-career leaps. But it’s not terribly uncommon for vets to continue to refine certain elements of their game. It’s possible that Harris’ best basketball is still in front of him, now in his 11th season. The key for him there would be becoming a consistently willing three-point shooter, combined with him finding new ways to get more free throws. He still has room to grow as a passer. Having spent much of his career bouncing around, (or dealing with roster turnover in Philadelphia) he hasn’t had the chance to build a ton of chemistry. Maybe that means there’s room for growth as a playmaker?

Harris is shooting 4.3 triples per 36, at a measly 32 percent. Contrast that with a player like Indiana’s Justin Holiday who jacks up 8.8 threes per 36 at 34.3 percent. Is that an obtainable level of trigger-happiness to ask from Tobi?

There’s no shortage of tricks of the trade to still be mastered. A player who can knock down a 20 foot jumper like Harris can, might implement a few old-guy-at-the-YMCA ways to get a shot off. Below, legendary bucket-getter Joe Johnson gets a defender on his hip, maintaining a live dribble, before firing a pull-up:

The good news it that it does seem like Harris is healthy. The bad news is that there may not be an immediate Simmons return or Simmons trade. That leaves this team craving some wing production and veteran savvy to take the pressure off Joel Embiid in the half court in the worst way. Hopefully Harris can start ramping up his play to 2020 levels.

If this team is going to win a championship, they’ll need Harris to make the type of veteran leap that is rarely seen but does still happen occasionally.