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Maurice Harkless Brings Loads Of Potential

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The Trail Blazers quietly traded a future second-round pick to the Magic Sunday aftternoon in exhange for talented 22-year-old small forward Maurice Harkless, whose impact in Orlando bottomed-out this past season.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Trail Blazers front office managed to stay busy this weekend, even as Oklahoma City dragged its feet in announcing that the team would match Portland's four-year, $70 million offer sheet made to restricted free agent center Enes Kanter on Thursday afternoon.

About two hours before the Thunder officially notified the Blazers of their intentions to re-sign Kanter -- they had until the end of the day Sunday to do so -- Adrian Wojnarowski (who else?) of Yahoo Sports broke the news that Portland GM Neil Olshey had orchestrated a trade with the Orlando Magic to acquire 22-year-old small forward Maurice Harkless in exchange for a future second-round pick.

In a team press conference Thursday morning, Olshey informed Blazers fans that since unrestricted free agent LaMarcus Aldridge had opted to join Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and the rest of the Spurs in San Antonio last weekend, the organization's goals had shifted to bringing in young, promising players whose ages and experience levels aligned more with the soon-to-be 25-year-old Damian Lillard's career-arc.

Wesley Matthews, 28, and Robin Lopez, 27, were allowed to walk in free agency after Nicolas Batum, 26, was sent to the Hornets on draft night in June. Prior to that, 29-year-old guard Arron Afflalo had opted out of his last season in Portland to test the free agent market.

The youth movement was effectively initiated in late-June, as Olshey netted veteran guard Gerald Henderson and 19-year-old big man Noah Vonleh in the Batum trade. He followed that up by trading Steve Blake to the Nets, along with the rights to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the No. 23 pick, for center Mason Plumlee, 25, and athletic rookie wing Pat Connaughton.

As free agency negotiations opened on July 1, the team immediately announced its intentions to sign 25-year-old forward Al-Farouq Aminu to a four-year, $30 million deal and unrestricted free agent big man Ed Davis, 26, signed on for three years and $20.1 million.

With three open roster spots remaining and roughly $43 million wrapped up in salary after the Harkless acquisition, the Blazers have no shortage of flexibility with which to shape the makeup of their team heading into training camp. Though Portland is still $20 million under the NBA-mandated $63 million salary cap floor for next season, the addition of Harkless is likely indicative of the types of affordable, low-risk, and potentially high-reward pieces Olshey will be looking for to round out his roster.

Even though Harkless will make under $3 million next season and won't help the Blazers get much closer to the salary floor -- the team would split the difference between its payroll and the salary floor evenly among its player, according to NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement rules -- Portland has until the end of the regular season to get its payroll up to $63 million and could do so not only in free agency this summer, but also via a lopsided trade before February.

With the Blazers' logjam in the frontcourt -- Plumlee, Davis, Vonleh and Meyers Leonard all figure to be in the mix for playing time next season, not to mention 33-year-old veteran Chris Kaman -- and Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Tim Frazier expected to split point guard duties, the team looked thin on the perimeter.

Henderson, Aminu, McCollum, Connaughton and Allen Crabbe were the only wings under contract with Portland for next year, and with McCollum likely running the offense for spells, Olshey knew he needed more depth at small forward behind Aminu.

Enter Maurice Harkless, the 6-foot-7 third-year forward with the 7-foot wingspan.

A cursory glance at Harkless' career stats in Orlando are puzzling; After starting 59 games, logging 26 minutes a night and averaging 8.2 points on 46.1 percent shooting from the field and 27.4 percent from deep his rookie season, the St. John's product improved his field goal shooting to 46.4 percent and his three-point shooting to 38.3 percent in his second year, even as his minutes plateaued.

The 2014-15 season, however, was a clear regression for Harkless, whose minutes, games played, field goal percentages and overall production plummeted as he barely got into half his team's games:

The Magic brought in Channing Frye last offseason, bumping 6-foot-9 rookie Aaron Gordon to backup small forward duties behind Tobias Harris, the unequivocal starter. In a season the organization had committed to developing its youth, Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn often opted to not only give time on the wings to young players like Evan Fournier and Devyn Marble, but curiously kept Ben Gordon, 31, and Willie Green, 33, ahead of Harkless in the wing rotation, effectively relegating him to spot minutes and mop-up duty.

In a sense, you can understand why Harkless had reason to struggle on the court last year; Once the No. 15 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and considered a valuable chip thrown into the deal that sent disgruntled star center Dwight Howard to the Lakers three summers ago, Harkless was given ample time to grow alongside his young teammates in Orlando during his first two seasons. For whatever reason, though, Vaughn firmly had the third-year forward in his doghouse last season. On a team that had 11 players aged 25 or younger under contract and no real shot of making the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference, the Magic coach stuck with his veterans in lieu of gifting Harkless minutes.

Reports vary as to why Vaughn kept his promising 21-year-old forward glued to the bench.

"Defensively, that is the premium for me and for our team," Vaughn said back in January when asked about Harkless' decline in playing time. "It is to be able to guard and take pride in guarding and have that as a priority when you step on the floor."

He expounded by implying that Harkless, perhaps, wasn't behaving like a team-first player:

"Not everyone can score the basketball. Not everyone will have equal shots on this team. That’s just a part of it," Vaughn continued. "We need guys who are dedicated to be able to do the little things that help us win, whether that is running the floor unselfishly and (saying) I might not receive the basketball, whether that is boxing out because I am big and I can help us rebound the basketball or whether that is taking pride in having defense as a premium in my life."

Harkless, by his own account, spent all summer in the gym last offseason working on his game to improve and build upon a promising first two years in the NBA.

But even though he's considered a likeable personality and hard worker, Harkless apparently plays with a touch of passivity that makes him appear disinterested and disengaged at times.

"The problem is Moe does not play with "motor" – he never has," Basketball Insiders reporter Steve Kyler wrote last midseason. "He didn’t play that way in high school. He didn’t play that way in college or at any point in his NBA career. He is very patient and methodical. He is very low key and somewhat passive as a personality and a player."

We can likely piece together and conclude that due to a crowded stable of wings, a lack of aggression on the defensive end of the court and multiple clashes with the Orlando coaching staff, Harkless found himself on the outside looking in more often than not last season.

Vaughn was let go by the Magic front office in February, however, after steering the team to a 15-37 record through 52 games. Assistant James Borrego took over as the interim coach for the remaining 30 games, and with the health of Orlando's wings fairly unstable from game to game, Harkless had an opportunity to work himself back into the rotation.

Over the final 30 games of the season, however, the young wing prospect only played 15.6 minutes a night in 20 appearances, while shooting 37.8 percent from the floor and 21.4 percent from outside, hardly an improvement on the first 52 games of the season. Though Harkless had the occasional solid outing, his third year in the league, as a whole, will go down as a regression from his first two in which he established himself as a promising young player. His value had sunk so low to Orlando, apparently, that the team was willing to ship him to Portland yesterday while seeking only a future second-rounder in return, a paltry asking price for a guy who was once picked No. 15 overall and considered a valuable piece brought in when Howard forced his way out of town.

"Harkless is still really young and has potential to be a solid player," Blazer's Edge commenter and Magic fan Mattsd said yesterday in the thread announcing Portland's most recent acquisition. "If he ever finds his stroke he could be like a Trevor Ariza-type player."

The comparisons to Ariza aren't uncommon, and Harkless knows that his skillset is most conducive to him contributing as a hustling, "3-and-D" player.

"I just have to keep impacting games, whether it’s getting points, getting rebounds or steals or doing things that don’t even show up on the stat sheet," he told NBA.com in March. "I feel like I can impact the game in a lot of ways. I’ve just got to keep doing that and going hard every day.’’

With so much roster turnover, Blazers coach Terry Stotts will have to oversee a re-tooling of his game plan on both ends of the floor heading into next season. Gone is the defensive reliability of Matthews and Batum on the wings and the ability for Portland's perimeter players to trust that Lopez would be waiting in the back to protect the rim with Aldridge helping out on the weakside. Stotts must now take the assemblage of young, cheap talent around Lillard and come up with a scheme that suits his players on both sides of the court.

Considering Lillard and McCollum's defensive limitations along with the relatively inexperienced frontcourt rotation, the most obvious defensive strength of the Blazers' lies on the wings. Henderson, Aminu and Crabbe all have reputations as competent defenders who can disrupt passing lanes with their length. Harkless has the body and skillset to develop on that end, as well.

"Defense was always where Harkless should have made his money," Orlando Magic Daily's Philip Rossman-Reich said at the end of the 2014-15 season. "With how raw he was, his pure athleticism on the defensive end was likely his biggest asset for him to showcase and develop. He never really did that in his first three years."

The Blazers have an obvious need at backup small forward, and with Stotts likely looking to push the tempo a little harder next year to compensate for the loss of Aldridge, Matthews and Batum's scoring, Harkless could find himself in an ideal situation as a backup energizer off the bench behind Aminu, potentially able to concentrate his efforts in short bursts on either end.

Outside of Kaman, everyone on Portland's roster as currently constructed seems suited for more tempo offensively and more aggression and gambling defensively, forcing turnovers and scoring in transition. With Harkless' blend of size and athleticism, he should have ample opportunity from Stotts to earn a spot in the rotation. In his best season two years ago, Harkless hit a decent 56.5 percent of his attempts at the rim and a serviceable 38 percent of his total corner three-pointers. If he can be a defensive pest -- or at least operate effectively within the framework of a team defense -- and develop some consistency with the things he generally does well, Harkless should be able to play to his strengths and contribute positively to the Blazers' bench next season and beyond.

Fans in Portland are likely cautiously reserved about Harkless -- the mere discussion of a player's assertiveness, or lack thereof, likely induces flashbacks of Batum's time spent with the Blazers, when his engagement level and inconsistencies on both ends of the court often frustrated fans. And make no mistake, Harkless' on-court demeanor could be described as "passive" at times.

But his unclear reputation is certainly no death knell on his season, and Stotts can afford to get a firm look at all his pieces without having to worry about wins or losses this year. Harkless' up-and-down first three seasons in the NBA make him as much of an unknown quantity as just about any of the other Blazers at this point, but Olshey can afford to run the gamble of bringing him in. At just under $3 million for next season, Harkless brings considerable upside with minimal risk.

The opportunity cost here is a roster spot and spare change for Paul Allen, a fair exchange for a 22-year-old athletic talent with the skillset to possibly be a long-term fit in Portland.

-- Chris Lucia | blazersedgepodcast@gmail.com | Twitter