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Should the Trail Blazers Have Faith in Maurice Harkless?

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The small forward might be a tantalizing prospect, or he might be fool’s gold.

Nike Unveils New NBA Partnership Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Depending on who you ask, the Portland Trail Blazers either have a void to fill at small forward or are sitting on a tantalizing prospect in Maurice Harkless, a 25-year-old just waiting for the right situation and enough confidence to break out. What’s the answer to this riddle? Should the Blazers believe in Harkless? If so, why?

That’s the question I inevitably ask someone who suggests that THIS is the year to have faith in the six-year veteran. What about his campaign last year was so different that we should believe that this is the season he puts it all together?

Numbers

Last year Harkless put up 6.5 points, 2.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists on 49.5/41.5/71.2 shooting splits. The splits were not too shabby, but the actual production was awful. For reference, among the forwards that started 30+ games last year (of which there were 87) Harkless was 80th in points per game.

Before anyone snaps up and says “well but what about Harkless during the 13 game winning streak!?” That’s actually easy, he moved from 80th in scoring per game to… drum roll please….75th!

When the Trail Blazers went on that miraculous run late last season, Harkless was certainly a part of it. But it feels like he’s been almost canonized and you can’t do that, there’s already been a Saint Maurice.

The Streak

Yes, Harkless shot incredibly well from the field over a an 8-game stretch from March 9th-25th: 61 percent from the field and 58 percent from deep. It’s hard to shoot that well on NBA2K. But here’s the thing, it wasn’t an uptick in attempts, it wasn’t a rise in usage rating, he was simply hitting his shots that have been there all year. When given space, Harkless occasionally shoots the lights out. Inevitably he returns to the mean.

Context is necessary for relevance, so I wanted to see what kinds of players have had similar seasons to Harkless with a lot of parameters to narrow things down. Specifically I wanted to see if there were any players in recent memory who put it together late in their career that had a similar profile.

What I found in that group wasn’t entirely surprising, but it also wasn’t a terrible list; Andre Roberson, Tony Snell, Quincy Pondexter, Danny Green, Jared Dudley, Robert Horry, and the Red Mamba – Matt Bonner. All those players had roles in the NBA…off the bench. I imagine that if Harkless was the 6th-7th man for Portland, there wouldn’t be near the hope and hype nor the doom and gloom surrounding him now.

Harkless DID improve during that stretch. That should be applauded. He experienced one of the more visible funks we’ve seen in Portland for some time, wearing his emotions on his sleeve. Again, credit where it’s due – he found the courage and ability to own his frustrations and become a better teammate and more productive player. That’s no small feat.

Defense and Focus

We’ve made it this far and haven’t even discussed the concept of defense. Clearly Harkless has the tools and Portland has the need. Right now, Harkless is the only player on the roster qualified to take on premier wing threats without getting dusted nightly. That isn’t something to gloss over, but it also paints how precarious Portland’s position is. The Blazers may need Harkless more than Harkless needs the Blazers at this point.

Portland desperately needs what Harkless could give them, in theory. Harkless can tick a lot of boxes; defense, athleticism, floor spacing, hustle, willingness to move without the ball, etc. but the biggest problem for me and seemingly for Portland was been his willingness to be engaged regularly.

From Joe Freeman of The Oregonian, Head Coach Terry Stotts last year during Portland’s 13-game winning streak: “But when Moe’s engaged, he creates problems inside, he makes his threes, he’s versatile on defense. He brings a lot to the table for us.”

But. When. Moe’s. Engaged. That’s a pretty telling line from Stotts. The thought that pops in immediately for me is, the talent is there but Harkless doesn’t know how to put it all together. If Harkless were a player entering his 3rd or 4th season, I’d probably be more hopeful than I currently am.

That’s the problem. It’s not a lack of talent. It’s a lack of engagement and consistency. This isn’t the first time it’s happened for Harkless either. It’s not even the first time it’s happened in Portland. That worries me.

Are you similarly worried? Should the Blazers have faith in Harkless heading into this season? Comment below.