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Maurice Harkless is Primed for a Breakout Year

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The Blazers’ 25 year old small forward looked to finally be putting it all together last season when he injured his knee. Is this the year Harkless comes in to his own?

Portland Trail Blazers v Golden State Warriors - Game One Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the summer of 2016, Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey committed to spending big money in order to retain his talent. While the contracts handed out to Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard seemed like overpays from the time the deals were announced, the four year/$40 million deal given to Maurice Harkless that summer seemed somewhat reasonable, and even a potential bargain if Harkless turned his flashes of potential into consistent production.

Unfortunately for all parties involved, Harkless hasn’t quite put it all together to this point. But don’t be surprised if this is the season that Moe Harkless breaks out.

After a solid 2016-17 season where he averaged double figures for the first time in his career while simultaneously locating his missing 3-point shot, Harkless regressed significantly for much of the 2017-18 regular season. He couldn’t sniff the court, and when he did, he seemed to be simply going through the motions. Harkless has always been regarded as a player who needs a clearly defined role, and when things don’t shake out as he hoped, he can get frustrated.

But something happened in the middle of last season. Harkless seemed to recognize that his approach needed adjustment. After seeing video of himself sulking on the bench, he owned up to his attitude with his teammates and, perhaps not coincidentally, began to play some of the best basketball of his life. From early February on - when he began to see consistent minutes - Harkless averaged 10 points per game on 57 percent shooting; 51 percent from the 3-point line. During the eight game stretch preceding the knee surgery that ended his regular season? 12.3 points on 61 percent shooting and 58 percent from the 3-point line.

Clearly, Harkless was on the verge of showing he belonged as a starter when he had his knee surgery. During Portland’s 13 game winning streak, Damian Lillard was racking up the accolades with his stellar play, but Harkless was quietly making contributions of his own, especially in the last few games (and the three games following the streak, until he was shut down).

While Harkless won’t shoot 50 percent from the 3-point line for a full season, he’s left enough of a body of work to show that he has legitimately transformed his 3-point shot:

                                                
Season    Age  Tm  G   MP  FG%  3P 3PA  3P% eFG%
2014-15    21 ORL 45 15.0 .399 0.2 1.2 .179 .430
2015-16    22 POR 78 18.7 .474 0.5 1.8 .279 .522
2016-17    23 POR 77 28.9 .503 0.9 2.5 .351 .558
2017-18    24 POR 59 21.4 .495 0.8 2.0 .415 .577

The way I see it, there are only two things that could potentially hold Harkless back at this point - his attitude, and a potential minutes crunch at small forward. Make no mistake, the two have been interconnected over the last two years. Moe has been yanked in and out of the rotation during his Blazers tenure as coach Terry Stotts has tried to find a way to facilitate Evan Turner’s effectiveness on the floor.

Last season, Stotts seemed to find a groove using Turner as the secondary ball-handler with only one of Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum on the court with him. From February 5th - March 25th, when Harkless was seeing consistent minutes, Turner played 21 minutes per game off the bench; starting only the three games that Harkless missed due to a sprained patellar tendon. Portland’s record during that time? 16-4.

A ton of the credit during that stretch needs to go to Lillard, who was playing like a top-three MVP candidate during that stretch, but the managing of Turner’s vs. Harkless’ minutes also played a big factor in how the team flowed on offense. Harkless was more engaged, and Turner was better integrated. Barring a drastic and unexpected roster move before this summer, expect Stotts to return to the same approach to start this upcoming season.

And his attitude? There’s little reason to disbelieve Harkless when he says that he’s changed his tune. Coming to the realization that you’re not being the best teammate on your own takes a certain level of self-awareness that not every player possesses. When he’s locked in, it’s clear that Moe has the talent to be a difference-making energy guy. Never a first or second option, but a player that has the length and athleticism to be a difference maker on both ends of the court. Not to mention that drastically improved 3-point shooting.

The Blazers need a difference maker on the wing. a legit 3-and-D forward that can make plays and act as a release valve when teams pressure Lillard and McCollum. They weren’t able to get that (hypothetical) player in free agency. But in Harkless, the guy they’re looking for just might already be on the roster. He has the physical tools, the 3-point shot, and the familiarity of having played with Lillard and McCollum, the team’s two stars, for three seasons now. Going forward, it’s just a matter of opportunity and attitude.

“Positivity brings positivity”, Harkless told Joe Freeman of the Oregonian during his breakout last season. A Maurice Harkless breakout year would certainly be a jolt of positivity for the Blazers this upcoming season.